Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Missing persons investigations require close ties all around

Lake County Leader | April 1, 2021 12:55 AM

Editor’s note: This is a second installment of a two-part series on Flathead Tribal Police stemming from interviews with Capt. Louis Fiddler and Det. Will Mesteth.

Whenever the Flathead Tribal Police get a call for help or a tip on a case, they take it very seriously. No matter how obscure the tip, how difficult the case, they will follow it up.

“We want to hear those calls. We want to assure the public that every single emergency call is taken to heart and followed up with,” Capt. Louis Fiddler said.

One example is the disturbing missing person case of Mission Valley’s own Jermain Charlo. Rumor after rumor circulates as to what may have happened to Jermain, and calls and tips still come in.

The Tribal Police is not the lead agency on that case, since Jermain disappeared while she was in Missoula County, but she is from here, and all the agencies work together on these cases. The public may not know how much work is being done, but behind the scenes, they never give up.

“The thing about those rumors is, we’ve followed up on all of them,” Det. Will Mesteth said.

“We have worked a lot with Guy Baker,” the lead investigator from Missoula County, Fiddler said. “And we’ve done countless searches and interviews.”

They have hiked the mountains with search dogs, followed up the most obscure phone calls, spent 14 hours disassembling a house and sorting through the garage full of garbage, collected DNA samples, seized a dumpster out of a creek, and even followed up a claim from someone considered a clairvoyant. Each lead can take many hours or days to track down and document.

Missing persons is one of Mesteth’s main focuses, but it grew out of his work on narcotics investigations, as many times the two areas are related. His eyes were opened a few years ago when he was continually asking a young woman where she was getting the meth she was carrying. She finally asked him: “Why aren’t you trying to figure out who’s stealing all these girls and doing all this sex trafficking?”

Mesteth has learned that meth suppliers often depend heavily on younger females who are forced into addiction, debt and sex.

“They use them to carry and hide the drugs. They use females on the train or on the bus,” making them carry the drugs, pick up the money and return it to the source. Many of Mesteth’s drug interviews now include the question: “What else do you know?”

One investigation that had gone on for two years came to a successful conclusion when a young woman who was tired of the treatment was able to help them track down those forcing her into service. All those connected have been federally indicted, Mesteth said. Over 140 pounds of meth that had been brought to the Flathead Indian Reservation was tracked to that group.

Community to the core

Mesteth and Fiddler said that with every traffic stop or emergency call for help, there’s a good chance the person involved is someone they know, or at least from a family they know. After all, every member of the 21-person force is a CSKT tribal member who grew up on the Flathead Reservation. They attended area schools, worked, played and shared in the triumphs and troubles of their communities.They can relate to the people they interact with in every call they answer.

“We’re kind of a family here,” Mesteth said. Besides the personal connections, he said, many of the officers have grown up in difficult circumstances that help them relate to many of the folks who end up on the wrong side of the law.

“This gives us the chance to know them from a different viewpoint than just that night we might be dealing with them,” Fiddler said. “We might have known them as a kid, or maybe we have a relative married into their family.”

“There’s a lot of good in that,” Mesteth said, “but sometimes it’s a lot tougher, too, when you know the family and something terrible has happened.” He said officers care deeply about the people they deal with.

Officers often find themselves talking with someone they have stopped.

“You learn from some of these older officers, talking to somebody might be just as influential as writing a ticket, sometimes more,” Fiddler said. He gave an example of a young, new driver, caught speeding. “We make it clear to the kid that we could write a ticket, and we explain what could happen,” including higher insurance rates, points on their license, or they might get grounded.

“It’s also the physics that come into play,” Mesteth said. “Stop times become slower, distance travelled becomes longer. Having these kinds of educational talks, rather than just ‘here’s your ticket,’ is more effective. Sometimes it's good for them to have that idea about law enforcement that we’re not just so harsh all the time. And that can turn a person around sometimes without ruining their life,” he said.

Even on a different level, Fiddler said, such as an assault, or drugs, “They may even be going to jail. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have that conversation with them, on the way to jail. We all know each other, so those conversation doors are always open with us.”

“You try to lay that out there for them,” Mesteth said. “If this becomes a problem, or a habit, you’re going to get in trouble eventually, and your life’s going to be ruined. This could be your life, constantly.”

He dives in deeper and asks, “What are your future goals? What do you want to do in your life? Do you want to live on the streets and have nothing? Just chase the high everywhere? Or do you want a family, a house, a job? At some point as a child, you dreamed to be something. What is that?

“And you find out they do have goals. I don’t know anybody who aspired or dreamed to be in that position.

“My goal is not putting someone in prison. My goal is to show them there are opportunities.”

Mesteth said he always gives them his contact information, and will do what he can to connect them with a warm place to stay, or resources or “whatever it may be.”

“Maybe that will help get them on their feet, or maybe find their own treatment or whatever they need.”

Fiddler agreed. “I have people call me that I have put in prison that are my friends today, after prison. They work here, they come in and lift weights with me. Those are people that you actually can say you made a difference for, or at least helped them where you could.”

He acknowledged how hard people have to work, when they come out of prison or are working through addiction, and have to start at the “bottom.” Like a good teacher, they often have “students” coming back and telling them their efforts were appreciated.

A difficult job

“There’s a lot of public expectation on a law enforcement officer about the full range of duties that they have,” Mesteth said. “Going from mental health to physical health of people, assaults and domestics and drugs and alcohol and DUIs — this whole range of things that officers are expected to handle. And the expectation is to be top notch in everything, when they don’t have a degree in any of those things.”

Having other community resources to call on with the Tribes and in the broader community, such as family services and community outreach programs, is a big help, he said.

In one night, a domestic assault call may lead to a juvenile running away and becoming a missing person, or a homicide call might also turn up an abused juvenile. And the stress can build up, personally, on the officers.

Mesteth said there are times when he gets home and just sits quietly in his car in his driveway for an hour or so, decompressing and thinking through the things he’s experienced that day, before he goes in to greet his happy family.

“For our guys here, because we’re all so tight-knit, we all keep an eye on each other,” Fiddler said .“We try to take care of ourselves here with our work stuff, so we can go home to our families and be OK at home. I think it would be pretty tough if we worked in a department where we didn’t know and care about each other like we do here.”

“I think it’s important for people to know that we’re just people,” Mesteth said. “We have this difficult job that sometimes [creates] different perceptions of the type of people we are, but at the end of the day, we’re just people. We have feelings and we care.”

Flathead Tribal Police Department has received funding to increase the size of the force and is recruiting for new members. New recruits start out in Communications and/or Detention, and work up through the ranks. Enrolled CSKT Tribal members interested in a law enforcement career can contact Capt. Louis Fiddler at 406-675-4700.