Kirk Douglas Billie, Miccosukee Indian whose
arrest set off a dispute over tribal sovereignty, was sentenced to
life in prison for the drowning of his two sons, who were in the
back seat of a SUV he purposely drove into a canal.
Billie, 36, was convicted earlier in February of
second-degree murder in the deaths of Kurt, 5, and Keith, 3. During a
1997 fight with his ex-girlfriend, Billie drove her SUV into a canal
near the Miccosukee reservation in Florida. Billie claimed he did not
know the two boys were in the back seat at the time.
A previous conviction for the murders was overturned
when a judge ruled that evidence of domestic violence against previous
girlfriends should not have been admitted.
The Miccosukee tribe fought to block the state
prosecution of Billie, calling the murder charges "white man's justice."
Tribal sovereignty hinders
Murder trial for 1997 drownings
set to begin in Dade Wednesday
By Jay Weaver
January 16, 2001
The criminal case seemed clear-cut.
Kirk Douglas Billie, a Miccosukee Indian, is accused of driving his ex-girlfriend's
car into an Everglades canal in 1997 -- and drowning their two young
sons, who were asleep in the back.
But the state's efforts to
prosecute Billie, 32, for first-degree murder have been muddied from the
The Miccosukee tribe, citing its
sovereign-nation status under federal law, has successfully blocked
almost every move by the Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office to
subpoena critical witnesses from the tribe to testify against him.
Frustrated prosecutors, while
not talking publicly about the case as it goes to trial Wednesday,
suggest that the Miccosukees are not only a separate nation -- but one
seemingly above the law.
In recent court papers fighting
the tribe's effort to quash subpoenas for Miccosukee police officers,
prosecutors seemed at wit's end over the extent of the tribe's sovereign
immunity as approved by Congress.
Tribal leaders ``posit that if a
Miccosukee Reserved Area resident shot and killed a citizen in front of
the MRA police station, and the officer were the only witness, the case
could not be prosecuted in state or federal court without the tribe's
written permission,'' Assistant State Attorney Reid Rubin wrote. ``This
cannot be true.''
Rubin may be exaggerating to
make his point -- after all, Circuit Judge Leon Firtel last week upheld
the state's right to subpoena officers to testify at Billie's trial.
But there is a good measure of
truth in his hypothetical example.
``They are, to some extent, a
separate nation within our own nation, but I wouldn't agree they are
above the law,'' said Fort Lauderdale attorney Bruce Rogow, who
represents the Seminole Indians in federal matters, including their
dispute over gambling rights with Florida.
NOT THE FIRST TIME
The state's murder case against
Billie is not the first time the sovereignty issue has come up in recent
In 1999, Miami-Dade Circuit
Judge Stanford Blake rejected the state prosecutors' request to revoke
the bond of Tammy Gwen Billie and send her back to jail. She was
arrested by Miccosukee Police on a driving-related offense after she had
been charged with DUI manslaughter on the Tamiami Trail and released the
In his decision, Blake noted
that Billie's second offense occurred on the reservation -- a sovereign
nation whose residents have special rights.
Early in the nation's history,
Congress established the sovereignty doctrine by giving reservation
Indians the right to make their own laws. Dating back to 1832, the U.S.
Supreme Court found that the laws of the states could have ``no force''
and the citizens of those states had ``no right to enter'' Indian
reservations -- without congressional action.
The Miccosukee tribal land is
within Everglades National Park. Until 1998, tribe members lived there
under a special permit from the National Park Service.
That year, Congress enacted the
Miccosukee Reserved Area Act, allowing the tribe to live permanently in
the park. Significantly, the act created the Miccosukee Reserved Area --
a federally recognized Indian reservation.
In effect, that designation has
provided Billie with his strongest defensive weapon. The tribal council
has refused to cooperate with state prosecutors, declaring the drownings,
which happened off the reservation, were an accident and that the matter
has been settled among the Miccosukee leaders with a handshake.
In a major setback to the
state's case, U.S. District Judge Paul Huck found that the tribe's
sovereign immunity blocked federal marshals from issuing witness
subpoenas to Miccosukee Indians who saw Billie the night of the
drownings -- including his ex-girlfriend, Sheila Tiger, mother of the
two young boys who died.
Prosecutors grew so frustrated
with the tribe that it asked Miami-Dade police to pick up Tiger as she
went off the reservation last month so she could give pretrial testimony.
Tiger, 24, is the state's star
witness -- although she has given contradictory statements about whether
Billie knew their sons, Keith, 3, and Kurt, 5, were in the back of her
Chevrolet Tahoe when he drove it into the Tamiami Canal.
Billie's prosecution has been
riddled with roadblocks from the Miccosukees, who have closed ranks
In court papers, Rubin, the lead
prosecutor, has accused the tribe of using its sovereign status to
cripple the state's case by denying access to a half-dozen key Indian
witnesses and three tribal police officers.
``The tribe has made a conscious
decision to help the defendant and the defense while obstructing the
state prosecution,'' Rubin wrote.
In court papers filed with a
state appellate court, prosecutors revealed their frustration with the
tribe's use of sovereign immunity in its bid to block the testimony of
the three Miccosukee officers, including the original investigator,
In a footnote, Rubin claimed the
tribe's attorney, Dexter Lehtinen, implied that the tribe was above the
law when he disagreed with the prosecutor during a recent court hearing.
Lehtinen did not return phone
calls seeking comment.
Billie's attorneys, Edward
O'Donnell and Diane Ward, said they have not relied on the tribe's
sovereign immunity to defend their client. Rather, they are trying to
suppress his statement and other evidence on constitutional grounds that
it was illegally obtained by Miami-Dade Police on June 27, 1997, the day
after the drownings.
Judge Firtel will decide on
Billie's motion to suppress his police statement today, less than a day
before jury selection is scheduled to begin.
Florida Murder Investigation
Pits Prosecutors Against a Tribe
By Dana Canedy - The Associated
January 14, 2001
MIAMI, Jan. 13 — As they slept
in the back seat of their mother's Chevrolet Tahoe one evening in June
of 1997, 3-year-old Keith Tiger and his 5-year-old brother, Kurt, had no
warning that their tranquility would soon be interrupted and that within
hours they would be lying dead at the bottom of a canal that their
father drove them into before he jumped to safety.
No one disputes that Kirk Billie
drove his estranged girlfriend's truck into the canal in the Everglades
with their young sons inside that June night. And so the case might seem
to be a horrific but straightforward matter for a jury to decide. Either
Kirk Billie is a killer who drowned his sons to punish their mother, as
prosecutors argue, or he is the victim of a regrettable accident and had
no idea they were in the truck when it plunged into the water, as his
But there is nothing at all
straightforward about the Billie case, which goes to trial Jan. 22 in
Miami-Dade Circuit Court.
What sets Mr. Billie apart from
all other murder defendants awaiting trial in circuit court here is that
he is a Miccosukee Indian and nephew of a prominent member of the
tribe's governing council, which is fighting to keep him out of prison.
The Miccosukee tribe, which
consists of about 700 people, has asserted its rights as a sovereign
nation to try to prevent Mr. Billie from facing prosecution. Tribal
leaders say that they alone have jurisdiction in the case and that their
Tribal Court has decided to "forgive" Mr. Billie.
But the Miami-Dade County
prosecutor's office says that is not good enough. It is prosecuting Mr.
Billie on two counts of first-degree murder and is seeking the death
The boys drowned in a canal on
state property near the reservation, which is located in the Everglades.
The fight over the tribe's
rights and the state's authority in the Billie case is unique because it
involves murder charges. But the case is just the latest example of how
some tribes are more aggressively using their powers as sovereign
entities to prevent governmental intervention in what they consider
tribal affairs, say experts on Native American law and culture. It also
highlights the conflicts that often arise when civil and criminal
penalties imposed by tribal courts are out of step with federal and
state court standards.
The Miccosukees' settling of the
case involved a handshake and a vow to put the matter to rest. "The
tribe clans met three weeks after the incident and in accordance with
the tribe's customary and traditional dispute resolution, shook hands
and determined that forgiveness was appropriate," the tribe's chairman,
Billie Cypress, wrote in a letter in August to State Attorney Katherine
Fernandez Rundle. "The tribe members believe they have handled the
issues, Indian to Indian."
Prosecutors say that because the
drowning occurred outside the Miccosukee reservation, the state has the
authority and obligation to pursue the case. "This is for a jury to
decide," said Reid Rubin, the lead prosecutor on the case.
Piecing together the case,
though, has been a challenge because of the tribe's aggressive tactics
to try to thwart prosecutors' investigation.
Tribe lawyers obtained a court
order blocking prosecutors from entering tribal land to serve witness
subpoenas. The tribe also unsuccessfully sought to prevent prosecutors
from using Miccosukee Police Department reports in the case, claiming
the department and its records were protected by the sovereignty status.
It has forbidden officers from cooperating with the state's
investigation and has fired employees who did so, prosecutors say.
Lawyers for Mr. Billie, who has
been in jail in Miami since tribe police turned him over to county
authorities the day of the drowning, did not return phone calls seeking
comment. Tribe officials and their lead attorney, Dexter Lehtinen, also
did not return calls. Another tribe lawyer reached briefly, Juan Vargas,
said, "The tribe's position is to decline any interviews at this time."
The dead boys' mother, Sheila
Tiger, has told prosecutors that she does not want to testify against Mr.
Billie. She could not be reached for comment. Prosecutors, who say they
believe Ms. Tiger is afraid to act against the tribe's wishes, detained
her when she drove off the reservation last month and held her in a
hotel for three days until she gave a videotaped deposition about the
night her sons died.
In 1997, Ms. Tiger told tribe
police that Mr. Billie had previously threatened to harm the boys, but
she later retracted her statement. According to court records and police
reports, Mr. Billie has a history of arrests for violence on the
reservation, including violence against Ms. Tiger's mother, who has also
declined to talk to prosecutors.
They say they have all but given
up on interviewing some tribe members who could tell them what happened
that June night. "It is unlikely that we will have everyone at our
fingertips that we would like to testify," Mr. Reid said.
Court records from several
criminal cases involving members of the Miccosukee tribe show a pattern
of efforts to keep criminal cases out of state courts. And the records
and interviews suggest a failure by the tribal police and court to
prosecute some of its members for violent and alcohol- or drug-related
offenses, or to sentence them to jail.
In a 1998 case, Tammy Gwen
Billie, a cousin of Max Billie, the tribal council member, drove off the
reservation and smashed head-on into another car, instantly killing a
woman. Ms. Billie was released from police custody and is awaiting trial
on manslaughter charges. She has testified in court that the crash was
an accident. She was later arrested on another driving-related offense.
Lawyers for the tribe, again
raising the sovereignty issue, argued that tribe police documents should
not be used as evidence in the manslaughter case.
In another case, a former
lieutenant with the Miccosukee Police Department said he was fired after
suggesting that another member of the tribe be turned over to federal
authorities to be charged with assaulting his girlfriend with a knife.
"I was subsequently fired the next day," former Lt. Tom Fucci said in a
He also testified that many
cases "ended up in tribal court and nothing happened," and argued that
many such cases should probably be handled by state or federal
But, said one of the prosecutors
in the Kirk Billie case, tribal members' rights often collide with
society's quest for justices. "I'm not sure that a lot of times
prosecutors don't get frustrated and just don't push it," said Christine
Zahralban, an assistant state attorney.
That, she insisted, will not
happen in the Kirk Billie case, "because two babies are dead."
Tribe Seeks Murder Case
By Catherine Wilson, Associated
October 24, 2000
MIAMI (AP) - Florida's
Miccosukee Indians are trying to thwart prosecutors in their attempt to
build a case against an Indian accused of murdering his sleeping sons by
driving into a canal.
Tribal elders have said they
have forgiven 31-year-old Kirk Douglas Billie and have decided to help
State prosecutors have charged
Billie with murder in the deaths of his two boys, ages 3 and 5, who
drowned in 1997 when Billie drove his estranged girlfriend's vehicle
into a canal off the Miccosukee reservation.
But prosecutors have been barred
from setting foot on reservation land to serve subpoenas on seven to 10
Miccosukees they want to question for the murder trial, set for Jan. 22.
``It's fair to say that the case
would be complicated and jeopardized without the witnesses,'' prosecutor
Reid Rubin said.
Billie has been held without
bail since 1997. On Tuesday, Circuit Judge Leon Firtel again refused to
allow Billie's release on bail, saying he wants assurances from the
Miccosukees that any attempts by the court to make sure Billie shows up
for trial are enforced on tribal lands.
Inside the courtroom, Billie sat
alone in a jury box. At one point he looked around as if to see if he
knew any spectators. No other Indians came to court. Anyone from the
reservation involved in the case risked being served with a subpoena if
In arguing for Billie's release
on bail, Billie's attorney Diane Ward suggested her client is suffering
because of the tribe's position.
Billie, a nephew of a tribal
council member, has insisted he did not know the boys were in the
Chevrolet Tahoe and said he accidentally veered into the canal.
One of his lawyers, Ed O'Donnell,
said the prosecutor's warnings about the tribal dispute hurting the case
``There are any number of
options open to the state, and they're aware of them,'' he said. For
example, subpoenas can be served when Indians leave the reservation to
shop for groceries or other personal business.
``There will be a trial. That's
certain,'' O'Donnell said.
The Miccosukees are a 600-member
tribe with a bingo hall and casino on the edge of Miami.
Tribe rejects subpoenas in
By Frances Robles - Miami Herald
Thursday, September 28, 2000
A first-degree murder case is in
danger of crumbling because the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians doesn't want
law enforcement authorities serving subpoenas on its reservation.
Saying the drownings of Kurt and
Keith Billie have been settled Indian to Indian, the tribe doesn't want
the young boys' father, Kirk Douglas Billie, to be prosecuted. Tribe
leaders say they shook hands, forgave and declared the drownings an
In a case that could have wide-sweeping
implications, the Miami-Dade state attorney, U.S. attorney's office and
the Miccosukee Tribe Business Council have taken the battle to federal
and tribal courts. The crux of their legal debate: whether state
subpoenas for people who live in a sovereign nation can be served by
The tribe wants Billie out of
jail and U.S. marshals trying to serve subpoenas off their land.
``The public should be outraged
by the government's attempt to bully the Miccosukee Tribe,'' tribe
Chairman Billy Cypress said in a statement. ``The government tried to
use the same tactic it used with Elián González, and it did not work.''
The legal dispute centers around
31-year-old Billie, a man with a documented history of violent run-ins
with women and children. According to police records, he hit a wife, a
girlfriend, a mother-in-law and a 9-year-old with his fists, a broom and
also a bat.
Sheila Tiger, mother of his
three children, decided to dump him. On June 26, 1997, prosecutors say
Billie left her a note that said, ``Don't think the kids will ever stop
As that night turned into
morning, Billie called to say he was coming over. Tiger left with her
three kids and started driving around the reservation in her Chevrolet
Tahoe to avoid him, court records say.
Tiger stopped at the house of
her friend Melody Osceola, leaving her car and kids there. Billie
spotted Osceola in the Tahoe and tailed it -- the lights on his car off.
Osceola parked and got out with
a baby in her arms, leaving the engine running and Keith, 3, and Kurt,
5, asleep in the back seat. Billie reportedly pushed her aside and took
off with the truck.
The boys remained strapped to
the back when Billie drove it into the 13-foot-deep Tamiami Canal, just
outside the reservation. Kurt and Keith drowned in the middle of the
The next morning, Billie led
police to the Tahoe, claiming he didn't know his sons were in the back.
He was charged with two counts of first-degree murder.
This summer, Cypress sent Miami-Dade
prosecutors a five-page letter asking that they drop the case. Saying
Indians settle matters ``in a different way,'' Cypress made it clear
that law enforcement authorities trying to serve subpoenas to the nearly
dozen Miccosukee witnesses were not welcome.
Because the U.S. attorney's
office has jurisdiction over the reservation, prosecutors tried getting
U.S. marshals to serve subpoenas. Miccosukee Police asked them to leave.
Tribe attorney Dexter Lehtinen
-- the former U.S. attorney here -- filed a motion in federal court
asking a judge to keep the feds from coming back. Lehtinen filed court
motions arguing that the state is trying to skirt Congress by getting
federal agents to illegally serve state subpoenas.
``They are making rather
sweeping assertions of sovereignty,'' Assistant U.S. Attorney Frank
Tamen said. ``All they need to do next is say they are seceding from the
U.S. and are setting up Customs and Border Patrol.
``Our position is that there is
sufficient federal interest in seeing this case prosecuted. We believe
marshals do have authority to serve state trial subpoenas.''
Indian reservations outside
Florida have rules to decide such matters. The Miccosukees do not.
U.S. District Judge Paul Huck
asked the two sides to take the matter to Tribal Court, as is done in
other reservations. The state plans to file papers there today.
``The tribal elders of the clan
are the ones who have to speak on the matter,'' Cypress wrote. ``And
they have spoken.''