PRYOR — On most nights, it may be easier to find meth on the streets of this small, isolated, Crow Reservation town than a police car.
Patrols are irregular and residents can wait 45 minutes or longer for officers to respond, whether they report a petty theft or a homicide.
But one resident started making nightly armed patrols and a grassroots movement known as the Arrow Creek Community Watch has grown up around him.
The seed was planted in July 2015 when the murders of Jason and Tana Shane shook the community.
“The day of the murders, I got so mad that I couldn’t sit in my chair and not do something to make it go away,” said Cary Lance, who started the armed patrols.
Lance, known locally as White Buffalo, equipped his truck with an emergency band scanner and a two-meter radio so he can relay information when he’s in the many areas of the Crow Reservation without cell service.
He packs a Taurus PT1911 .45 ACP pistol on his hip and an M4 style semiautomatic rifle in the truck while he’s on watch. He totes a tactical vest carrying three spare 30-round magazines and a patch that reads “Sheep Dog,” symbolic of his mission to protect his community.
While just about everyone appreciates the volunteer patrols, not everyone is thrilled about Lance carrying guns. But, he says he wouldn't patrol unarmed. He holds a concealed carry permit, served in the United States Army and holds the second amendment to be a God-given right.
He said the firearms are for his own protection and he isn’t acting as a vigilante. He grabs the radio before the rifle.
“The last thing I want is a confrontation,” he said. “If I see something suspicious that doesn’t look right, I’ll leave the area. I’ll get a vehicle description and the plate or whatever and leave the area.”
On Tuesday, Lance received a tip that an unfamiliar man was walking along the Pryor St. Xavier Highway carrying a pack and sleeping bag. Lance looks for anything out of the ordinary and the traveler qualified that night.
Lance followed the highway to the eastern edge of his patrol area and pulled his pickup onto a dirt road leading to an area commonly targeted east of Pryor.
The rough path opens to prime pasture and mountain terrain where black angus and a small bison herd graze throughout the year. Just off the road, a modestly sized house sits abandoned.
Lance said the house was recently remodeled but has been empty since its owner died from hantavirus. The home held the homeowner's possessions long after his death but thieves ravaged the place despite the presence of the deadly disease.
Further up the trail, telephone poles are no longer connected after the lines were shot down with a high powered rifle. The scavenged cables held valuable metals and the scrap revenue likely supported a meth habit, Lance said.
The coulee is just one of the secluded places on his route seen as easy targets. He’ll drive for hours every night looking for suspicious activity or anything out of place. His Ford F-250 burns about $25 worth of diesel fuel during his patrol, and he pays most of it out of his own pocket.
Lance has received some donations to offset his expenses, and Arrow Creek Community Watch is in the process of establishing itself as a nonprofit to open up funding opportunities.
Bryce Hugs, Arrow Creek District’s tribal senator, has been pushing for more organization and setting up formal meetings. On June 30, the group elected a board of directors and started planning a march to demonstrate the community’s solidarity and honor Jason and Tana Shane following the first anniversary of their passing.
Arrow Creek Community Watch still has some disagreements within the group and with local law enforcement officials, including the use of firearms.
Big Horn County Sheriff Frank Simpson has expressed concerns about citizens carrying guns while patrolling the community. He told the people gathered at the first group meeting in May the presence of weapons could escalate situations beyond control.
Jay Harris, Big Horn County attorney, said he supports community watch members carrying firearms. Open carry is legal on the Crow Reservation and they could find themselves in situations where self-defense is necessary.
He pointed to the shooting that killed Jason and Tana Shane and injured their daughter Jorah Shane as an example. The family was assisting a stranded motorist when the homicides took place and that’s a likely scenario for a community watch member.
Despite the disagreement over the use of firearms, Simpson, Harris and Crow Agency Bureau of Indian Affairs Police Chief Jose Figueroa all support community watch programs as an aid in fighting drug-driven crime with limited resources.
Harris said he did a four-hour ride-along with Lance and he knows the Pryor area as well as anyone in the community. He knows owners and lease holders of the surrounding properties, and people know who he is. They’ve come to expect his patrols and Lance shines his flashlight at some houses to let the occupants know he’s passing.
Harris said he wants the Arrow Creek Community Watch to allow people to rest easy when they go on vacation because they know their homes will be secure. He wants it to be a model for other districts on the Crow Reservation to replicate, and that the community builds a stronger relationship with law enforcement.
“What that’s going to take ultimately is continued effort, not going weeks on end or months on end without participation,” he said.
So far Lance has made most of the patrols. But two other members started checking problem areas at times he wasn’t already covering and folks in town have increased communication utilizing social media.