By Amy Dalrymple and Stephen J. Lee
NEW TOWN, N.D. – The 911 call came at 3:17 p.m. Sunday from a young boy who told Mountrail County dispatchers that a man had come into his home and shot his family.
The boy hung up before dispatchers could get more information, but the call was traced to 301 6th St. N. in New Town. There authorities found four victims, a woman and three of her grandchildren, identified by the Mountrail County Sheriff’s Office as Martha Johnson, 64, Ben Schuster, 13, Julia Schuster, 10 and Luke Schuster, 6.
Neighbors said the 12-year-old boy who called 911, also Johnson’s grandchild, survived by playing dead, which New Town Police Chief Arthur Walgren confirmed.
About 7 p.m. Sunday, law enforcement learned a man had made statements about the crime. While investigators were questioning him in Parshall, about 17 miles east of New Town, he killed himself with a knife, said Sheriff Ken Halvorson.
Johnson was caring for five grandchildren, according to friends and neighbors. The fifth grandchild was not home at the time, Walgren said. Her husband, Harley, also was not home at the time.
The FBI, aided by the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, is leading the investigation with Mountrail County Sheriff Ken Halvorson, FBI spokesman Kyle Loven, said.
The FBI has taken the lead largely because New Town and Parshall are on an Indian reservation, Loven said.
“Right now we are the lead agency, working in concert with the BCI and the BIA,” Loven said. “It really is a joint investigation.”
Any serious crime on an Indian reservation typically can involve the FBI’s jurisdiction, he said.
The suspect was an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, that live on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
Authorities did not release the name of the suspect, but several sources including law enforcement and tribal members confirmed he’s the son of a former tribal council member.
Tex Hall, chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes, expressed condolences Monday night for the family of former tribal council member Scott Eagle during a prayer service and call to action.
Walgren said he doesn’t believe there is any connection between the suspect and Johnson, other than he may have been a casual acquaintance.
The shooting left residents of both towns shaken.
Some New Town residents left town after reports of the shootings and many offices were closed Monday, Walgren said. A woman who lives across the street from the Johnsons was loading clothes into her car Monday and declined to comment.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of people uneasy about it,” Walgren said.
New Town Superintendent Marc Bluestone said he made the decision to call off classes about 9 p.m. Sunday because he hadn’t received confirmation from police that there was no longer a safety risk.
Classes will resume today and counselors, social workers and clergy will be available to assist students and staff. Today is the last day of class before Thanksgiving break.
All five of Johnson’s grandchildren were enrolled in the district, ranging in age from first through eighth grades, Bluestone said. They began attending school in New Town in late September, Bluestone said. They previously attended school in Minto.
Bluestone, who has worked for the district since 1989, said the district has dealt with deaths due to accidents and illnesses before, but never homicide deaths.
“The thought that is troublesome to me is that you don’t hear about things like this is small town North Dakota,” Bluestone said. “It’s really a shock to everyone when it’s your safe little town. It’s very scary for all of us.”
Middle School Principal Andrew DeCoteau said he’s taken phone calls from students, including one girl who was crying, about the death of their classmate, whom police identified as Ben.
“They were pretty shaken on the phone,” DeCoteau said. “A lot of kids were just getting to know him. All of the teachers got along with him real well.”
The suspect also is a longtime community member and has family members who attend school and work for the district, Bluestone said.
In Parshall, residents also were concerned for their safety because they didn’t know what was going on, said resident Marilyn Hudson.
“There was a great deal of fear,” Hudson said.
Parshall Mayor Richard Bolkan said 30 to 40 law enforcement vehicles had blocked off about three blocks of downtown Sunday night when he drove by to check out what was going on. When he came to work at 5 a.m. Monday, the police vehicles were gone, he said.
“I myself am trying to figure out what happened,” Bolkan said.
Hudson, who knew Johnson well, said the values of safety and community closeness are now gone.
“The innocence of the small town life is gone or it’s being tested right now,” Hudson said. “That’s really tragic for us. We won’t be the same again.”
New Town, site of the tribal headquarters, is about 60 miles southwest of Minot near the heart of North Dakota’s Bakken oil boom.
Kenneth Hall, a tribal representative, called for a “Prayer Service & Call to Action” on Monday evening in the New Town community center. Many residents, tribal officials and law enforcement attended.
Chairman Hall said he was glad to see a large turnout for the event.
“It’s wonderful to see the community of New Town come together like this,” Hall said.