Home News Stories 2012 June Journey Through Indian Country, Part 3

Journey Through Indian Country, Part 3

Third installment of our Indian Country series focuses on an all-too-typical crime.

Crime Scene Tape at Zuni House
Floyd Yuselew killed his friend in this house on the Zuni Reservation during a confrontation after a night of drinking in 2009. The victim’s body was found months later, still well-preserved by the winter freeze.

Journey Through Indian Country
Part 3: Murder on the Zuni Reservation


Special Agent John Fortunato walked behind the abandoned house on the Zuni Reservation in western New Mexico and pointed out where Floyd Yuselew dug a grave to bury the friend he had murdered with an ax to the head.

Special Agent Harrigan

Indian Country Jurisdiction

The FBI plays a unique role in Indian Country, said Special Agent Mike Harrigan. “In other jurisdictions, the Bureau doesn’t generally work violent crimes the way we do in Indian Country. In other places in the U.S. we investigate selected instances of violent crimes, maybe if there is an interstate aspect, for example. But here in Indian Country we have exclusive federal jurisdiction, which makes us the primary investigators for homicides and sexual assaults—almost like first responders. In most other places, we just don’t have that federal authority.”

Criminal jurisdiction on tribal lands also varies depending on the reservation and the state in which it is located, Harrigan added. “Sometimes it’s Bureau of Indian Affairs investigators who have jurisdiction on behalf of the tribes. Here in New Mexico,” he said, “generally the tribes have their own police departments. They get funding from the federal government for law enforcement. The FBI works with their criminal investigators who are trained to federal standards.”

Video: Special Agent Harrigan Describes FBI Jurisdiction

The two had been drinking, and investigators believe the murder was committed because Yuselew thought his buddy had been flirting with his girlfriend. When tribal police and the FBI learned of the crime in March 2009, they found the victim still sitting in the chair where he had been killed months earlier. Because the house was unheated throughout the cold winter, the body—and the crime scene—had been perfectly preserved.

Uncertain what to do with the body, and not wishing to live in his house with a corpse, Yuselew and his girlfriend moved in with friends. Periodically, he returned to dig in the frozen backyard to make a grave. Later, Yuselew was afraid his girlfriend would turn him in for the murder when their relationship ended badly, so he called the Zuni police, told them about the body, and tried to pin the crime on her.

As unusual as the case may seem, in many ways it is a common Indian Country crime: a tragic killing successfully investigated and prosecuted thanks to the strong relationships between tribal authorities, the FBI, and federal prosecutors. Criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country is a complicated web of tribal, state, and federal rules. The sovereign status of many tribes precludes most states from exercising jurisdiction. Instead, that authority resides with the tribes, but only for non-felony offenses. It is the FBI’s responsibility to investigate major crimes such as murder, and tribal authorities rely on the muscle of the federal judicial system to prosecute those crimes to the fullest.

“By law these major crimes are federally prosecuted, and the FBI is the vehicle for getting them to federal court,” said Special Agent Mike Harrigan, who supervises a squad of Indian Country investigators. “But the successful investigation of such crimes isn’t just a Bureau role,” he added, “it is a tribal and Bureau partnership.”

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“We have a close relationship with all the tribal police,” Fortunato said. “It would be difficult for us to do our jobs without that partnership, and they depend on us as well.” In the Yuselew case, for example, Fortunato called in the Bureau’s Evidence Response Team (ERT) to help work the crime scene.

Fortunato (Play Video)
Video: Special Agent Fortunato Describes FBI Experience

“When ERT processed the scene,” he explained, “there was a lot of blood and other evidence, like alcohol cans we were able to pull fingerprints from. The blood spatter and other evidence inside the house made it clear it was not the girlfriend who did the crime.”

In the end, Yuselew pled guilty to second-degree murder and is currently serving a 17-year sentence. The case is one of many senseless crimes Fortunato and his colleagues investigate in Indian Country. “We invariably see the bad side of things here,” he said. “We are constantly seeing tragedy, loss, and people who hurt family members. That is the hardest thing for me about working in Indian Country.”

Still, Fortunato is pleased that justice was served in the Yuselew case, and he believes in the goodness of the vast majority of Native Americans. “Anyone who has visited the Navajo and Zuni reservations and spent time here will tell you that most of the people are terrific, very friendly, and welcoming.”

Next: A team effort makes a difficult job easier.

- More information on the Yuselew case



Journey Through Indian Country

About This Series
Nationwide, the FBI is responsible for investigating the most serious crimes within Indian Country and has investigative responsibilities on about 200 reservations. FBI.gov recently visited New Mexico for a firsthand look at how the Bureau and our partners fight crime on tribal lands.

- Part 1: Fighting Crime on Tribal Lands 
- Part 2: Making an Impact on the Reservation
- Part 3: Murder on the Zuni Reservation 
- Part 4: Teamwork Makes a Difficult Job Easier
- Part 5: A Zero Tolerance Approach
- Part 6: Invaluable Experience on the Reservation


The FBI in Indian CountryBy law, the FBI is responsible for investigating the most serious crimes within Indian Country. Nationwide, there are 565 federally recognized Indian tribes. The FBI has investigative responsibilities on about 200 reservations. More than 100 agents in 19 of the Bureau’s 56 field offices work Indian Country matters full time, and we’ve represented federal law enforcement on tribal lands since the 1920s.
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New Mexico highway (play video)
“The work that’s being done out there, it’s truly front-line. It’s also relying on your own resources, your own wits, to get the job done, because you don’t have a lot of backup.” 
— Carol K.O. Lee, Special Agent in Charge, Albuquerque FBI

In Their Own Words
FBI officials and our law enforcement partners discuss the unique challenges of working and living in New Mexico’s Indian Country.
Lee videoGonzales videoHarrigan video
Special Agent in Charge, Albuquerque Division
  U.S. Attorney, District of New Mexico   Special Agent, Farmington Resident Agency
Fortunato video St. Germaine video McCaskill video
Special Agent, Gallup Resident Agency
Investigator, The Navajo Nation
  Special Agent, Albuquerque Division
Johns video Brusuelas video Roanhorse video
Special Agent, Santa Fe Resident Agency
  Assistant Prosecutor, Mescalero Apache Tribe   Senior Prosecutor, The Navajo Nation


Indian Country Crimes page

Indian Country Crimes
The FBI investigates the most serious offenses: murder, child sexual and physical abuse, violent assaults, drug trafficking, gaming violations, and public corruption matters.
Learn More