Indian Takers

Page 7 of 9

But as early as October 2004, that caseworker had written to an associate of the Bessingers, "[Raven] will not be considered an 'Indian child' in relationship to the Cherokee Nation as defined in the federal Indian Child Welfare Act. Therefore, the Cherokee Nation is not empowered to intervene in this matter."

Flores also didn't buy the Bessingers' Indian ploy and ordered the evidentiary hearing to go forward.

Attorney Stephanie Stromfors, the court adviser to Flores in the case, best summed up the knotty situation toward the end of the emotionally charged hearing.

"While Mother has a history," she said, "Mother is trying her best to overcome that history . . . While I genuinely believe [the Bessingers] care for Raven, and I genuinely believe Raven cares for the Bessingers, their judgment is clouded and they are not [allowing] Mom to have the relationship that she should have with this child."

On November 14, Flores issued an eight-page ruling in favor of Shelly Walters.

"At some point after Raven's birth, Mother was released from incarceration and sought the return of Raven," the judge wrote. "A tug of war began, with Raven caught in the middle."

That was it in a nutshell.

Flores concluded that the Bessingers "are not credible. There are examples in both the CPS reports and in testimony to this court of [the couple] greatly exaggerating the truth to support their efforts to keep Raven."

The judge scoffed at the "last-minute" efforts by the Bessingers to try to preempt her with the Indian Child Welfare Act, "notwithstanding the fact that no Indian tribe had sought to intervene."

Flores' order gave Shelly Walters permission to take immediate custody of Raven from the Bessingers.

She also ordered Walters to participate in services offered by CPS, though she wouldn't allow Marty Laws to have contact with his daughter until further notice.

Despite ruling for Walters, the judge said the Bessingers were entitled by law to visitation rights for a few hours every other weekend in a public place.

That arrangement would last for all of two months.

New Times recently asked Brenda Byers what she was thinking when she and a accomplice took Raven Laws from her mother's home.

"As an officer of the court, I cannot comment," Byers replied in a phone interview.

She was asked, in what jurisdiction does that court sit?

"The Cherokee River Indian Community. I work with the juvenile court, and so I cannot comment. Please talk to Dr. Steve Bison in Alabama, and he can answer your questions."

The 55-year-old Bison was an important figure in the events that led to Raven's kidnapping on January 23, and its aftermath.

He says he used to live on Arizona's Gila River Indian Reservation, worked as a chaplain at the state's Adobe Mountain juvenile detention facility, and is a permanently disabled veteran of Operation Desert Storm.

Bison also says he earned a doctorate at Arizona State University "in criminal law, with a specialty in Indian law."

However, an admissions official at ASU could find no record of Bison's matriculation there.

Bison's name and correct e-mail address did pop up on a Web site dedicated to creating phony degrees from a phony institution called Gesellschaft University.

A note ostensibly written by Bison on the site says, "I did my best to bullshit everyone I have met and owe my special talent to Gesellschaft University. I am a master at everything decietful [sic], lowdown, dirty and shameful."

What is true is that Steve Bison serves in many capacities for the Cherokee River Indian Community.

Public records in Lawrence County, Alabama, show that Gene and Klieta Bagwell bought 40 acres in the Bankhead National Forest in 1979. The CRIC was founded in 1998, with Gene Bagwell as its chairman.

Over time, the Bagwells have sold parcels of their property to their own organization.

The community has established several non-profits, including a funeral and cemetery/cremation firm, the Silverwolf Horse Sanctuary, the Black Warrior Mountain American-Indian Church, and the Alabama Minority Consumer Council.

Through its Web site, the group also offers a prepaid Visa card with a tagline on it that says, "Building a future for our children."

The sales pitch says 3 percent of the loaded card value will be "donated" to the CRIC for "economic development and housing."

A March 2005 story in an Alabama newspaper described how Bucks County, Pennsylvania, firefighters had donated about $15,000 of equipment to "Chief Bison" and the CRIC's fledgling volunteer department.

However, a curious attempt in 2004 to get bulletproof vests through a U.S. Justice Department program fell short.

Steve Bison tells New Times that he first heard about Raven Laws last year.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin