Patrick Springer, Published September 04 2013
Spirit Lake murder trial opens with chilling 911 call reporting children's deaths
The 17-year-old half-sister of the slain siblings shrieked hysterically and sobbed as she struggled to tell the dispatcher of the discovery of the bloody bodies of Destiny Shaw-DuBois, 9, and her 6-year-old brother, Travis DuBois, Jr.
“They’re dead – dead, dead,” Carina Chavoles finally told the dispatcher once she had calmed down enough to say the words. She wept and screamed in anguish on the recording as 12 jurors and two alternates listened in somber silence in U.S. District Court.
The bodies were found the afternoon of May 21, 2011, in a bedroom in the DuBois family home in St. Michael, N.D., on the Spirit Lake reservation.
The children were last seen the night of May 18, a Thursday, when they went to bed, excited about school field trips the next day, activities to conclude the school year. But Destiny, in third grade, and Travis, a first-grader, never arrived at school the next day. Their parents, who were separated, each thought the other had the children until they were discovered missing on Saturday.
The eight-minute 911 call on Sunday afternoon launched the investigation that led 14 months later to the indictment of Valentino “Tino” Bagola, now 20, who faces murder charges for allegedly killing and assaulting the two children, his cousins.
Before testimony began, in their opening statements, lawyers for the prosecution and defense sparred over two conflicting confessions the FBI obtained in the course of the investigation.
Initially, official suspicion fell on the children’s father, Travis DuBois, Sr., who was in the living room, passed out on a mattress after binging on beer for several days.
When confronted with the deaths several days later in an FBI interview spanning 7 hours and 15 minutes, DuBois confessed to being responsible, a statement he later recanted, jurors were told.
“I can’t blame anyone else,” the father said, according to the opening statement of Chris Myers, the lead prosecutor. DuBois later said, before breaking off the interview, “I feel I’m telling you what you want to hear,” according to Myers’ summary.
Soon after, DuBois pleaded guilty in tribal court to reckless endangerment and public intoxication, and served a two-year sentence.
But the unsolved killings cast a cloud over the Spirit Lake Nation, and the case was highlighted as evidence of serious lapses in child protection services on the reservation, leading to congressional criticism and a federal takeover of social services on the reservation.
The investigation took an unexpected twist a year after the bloody killings, jurors were told. DNA samples from underneath Destiny’s fingernails matched Bagola, according to an FBI lab analysis.
Soon after the lab report on the DNA samples came back, two FBI agents interrogated Bagola, in July 2012, in the Grand Forks County Correctional Center, where he was held on a theft charge.
Bagola also confessed to the FBI after a lengthy interview, in a statement much more detailed than the father’s, Myers told jurors.
“You will hear his words,” Myers told jurors. “He cuts little Travis’ throat – his words – so he would bleed out.”
In the opening statement for the defense, however, Bagola’s lawyer sought to discredit his client’s supposed confession and accused the father of being the murderer.
On the day the bodies were discovered, instead of showing emotion or anger when he learned of his children’s violent deaths, DuBois went outside the home and disappeared, later found “hiding” in a cemetery, public defender Christopher Lancaster told jurors.
Bagola’s videotaped statement to the FBI was coerced and is not supported by the evidence, Lancaster said. Instead, the defense lawyer said, the evidence will point to their father.
“I did it,” Lancaster said, echoing to the jury DuBois’ statement to the FBI soon after the children’s deaths. “That’s a confession. That’s a confession of being the killer of Destiny Shaw and Travis DuBois, Jr.”
After the opening statements concluded, FBI Agent Michael Smotrys took the stand to identify crime scene photographs and introduce the videotape of Bagola’s interrogation in the Grand Forks jail.
A sketch of Bagola’s troubled life emerged from the FBI interview. He was homeless, drifting back and forth between his home in Sisseton, S.D., on the Lake Traverse Reservation and Spirit Lake.
Bagola said he left Sisseton because his family abused him. He said his father once taunted him to beat his brother to prove himself, then called the police on him.
Arriving at Spirit Lake at the age of 17, he stayed for a time at the home of DuBois and his cousin Mena Shaw, the two children’s mother.
At the time of the killings, Bagola had babysat the DuBois children several times. Their older sisters were not available because Shaw had moved out.
But Bagola said he lived in a home across the street, and went back and forth between the two homes, including the night of May 18, when the children were last seen alive.
Bagola told investigators he had been watching an NBA basketball game on television that night with Travis DuBois, Sr. DuBois had been drinking beer and became angry, possibly because of the outcome of the game or because he suspected Bagola of stealing some of his beer.
Early the next morning, knowing that DuBois would be passed out, Bagola told the FBI that he crawled into a basement window of the DuBois home, grabbed a large kitchen knife, and entered a bedroom where Destiny and Travis, Jr., were sleeping.
As the interview progressed, Smotrys, the FBI agent, was at first sympathetic, stressing the “rough life” Bagola experienced and suggesting that the DuBois family took advantage of him, paying him only a token sum for babysitting their children.
Gradually, Smotrys bore down with greater intensity, repeatedly confronting Bagola, asking him to explain how and why the children died.
Asked to explain his DNA under Destiny’s fingernails, Bagola eventually admitted he had scratches on his chest and forearms, as well as bite marks.
The defendant also admitted that he had previously entered the Bagola home through a basement window, saying he’d locked the door of the DuBois home when he left on May 18 after Travis DuBois, Sr., became angry.
“Let’s get to the truth,” Smotrys said, pleading with DuBois to unburden himself by going beyond his claims that he blacked out and could not remember what happened.
“What happened?” Smotrys asked, suggesting he was sexually attracted to the girl. “We just want the truth.”
“I was just drinking,” Bagola said, in one of many back-and-forth exchanges in the long interview.
Jurors will continue to hear Bagola’s videotaped statement when the trial resumes today.
Readers can reach Forum reporter
Patrick Springer at (701) 241-5522