ARAPAHOE -- The body of Marcella Hope Yellowbear
rests in a small family cemetery on the Wind River Indian
Reservation. The plot crests a hill southwest of Riverton, the city
where she died on July 2, 2004, at the age of 22 months.
Investigators say she was severely abused and
beaten in the days before her death. The back of her skull was
fractured. Bruises, cuts and burns marked other parts of her body.
Several family members said "nobody will hurt you
again" at the girl's funeral, according to Ruby Blackburn, her great-grandmother.
Yet the funeral itself was a source of some conflict.
"We had to bury her without clothes," Blackburn
The girl's body had been sent to Colorado for an
autopsy. Andrew John Yellowbear Jr., her father, and her mother's
family then fought for control of her remains. A court order
eventually settled the debate, sending the girl to the Blackburn
At that point, Ruby Blackburn said, a week had
passed. A funeral director advised against dressing the girl in a
special outfit chosen for the occasion, and the casket was left
Criminal proceedings and allocations of blame
resulting from her death, however, are still open: Macalia Blackburn,
her mother, remains in Fremont County's jail awaiting sentencing.
The 24-year-old pleaded guilty in March to a charge of being an
accessory to second-degree murder and is expected to testify against
the man who fathered four of her children.
Andrew Yellowbear's trial on charges of first-degree
felony murder is scheduled to begin Monday in Thermopolis. Fremont
County prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for the 31-year-old.
The families of each parent remain bitterly
divided about who is responsible for Marcella Yellowbear's death.
Each side blames the other.
Both sides say the Northern Arapaho social
services department that moved Marcella Yellowbear to different
homes during her short life did too little too protect her when she
was in danger.
The roots of that danger are difficult to unravel,
as are the Blackburn and Yellowbear families. Andrew Yellowbear's
mother is buried near her granddaughter in the Blackburn cemetery.
Her name was Emily Rose Blackburn, and she apparently was adopted
into the family at some point.
Half-sisters born a generation or two earlier
also link the families.
Ruby Blackburn said she considers Andrew and
Macalia to be cousins. That's one reason she and others discouraged
"When they got together, we kept trying to stop
it," Blackburn said. "We kept trying to split them up."
In spite of these efforts, Andrew Yellowbear and
Macalia Blackburn had four children together. Marcella was born Aug.
15, 2002. Twins Consualo and Calista were born Sept. 20, 2003, and
Tyrus was born Sept. 1, 2004, about two months after Macalia's
arrest in connection with her daughter's death.
A rocky relationship
Police records and family members tell the story
of a tumultuous relationship between and during those pregnancies.
On March 17, 2002, Blackburn and Yellowbear were
arrested in Casper after police responded to the reported burglary
of a television and stereo. The investigation revealed a fight, and
Yellowbear was arrested on suspicion of felony assault. He told
police that he became mad when Blackburn, who was then four months
pregnant, wanted him to pawn the stereo she had taken, according to
the arrest report.
Yellowbear later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor
charge of battery in connection with the fight. Blackburn pleaded
guilty to a misdemeanor charge of criminal entry.
Marcella was born several months later and was
quickly placed under the supervision of the Shoshone and Arapaho
Another domestic fight was reported May 8, 2003.
Blackburn was three months pregnant at the time. She told police
that Yellowbear did not believe he was the father of the twins she
was carrying and had punched her in the face, arms and stomach "numerous
times" since the previous day, according to the investigating
Although Yellowbear was first charged with
aggravated assault, which is a felony, he later pleaded guilty to a
lesser charge of battery against a household member. He served 113
days in jail and then was ordered to a year of supervised probation
in April 2004.
The probation sentence was suspended a couple of
months later following Yellowbear's arrest on suspicion of first-degree
At that point, Marcella Yellowbear had been
living with her parents in Riverton.
It is not clear precisely whose hands she passed
through before returning to her parents. She stayed at times with
Ruby Blackburn and at times with other relatives.
Velma Rhodes, administrator of Northern Arapaho
Child Protective Services, said Marcella's case was closed before
she was returned to her parents. As a result, she said, department
social workers would not intervene in the case without further
allegations of abuse or neglect.
"If we followed all the cases after they are
closed, why, we'd be going bananas over here," Rhodes said. "I feel
that we did what we are supposed to do."
Rhodes declined to talk in detail about the
Yellowbear case, citing the upcoming murder trial and other
unresolved issues. She did, however, confirm the authenticity of a
document recording a report from an employee of another tribal
service agency. The document, dated June 2, 2004, says Macalia
Blackburn called to say she was taking care of Marcella in spite of
her placement in another home.
According to the document, Marcella started
living with her mother on May 21.
Ruby Blackburn put the date somewhat later,
allowing only about a week between the time Marcella returned to her
parents and the girl's death.
Many issues unresolved
Blackburn spoke about her great-granddaughter for
a period of hours, expressing anger about what happened and regret
that the situation remains unresolved. She became tearful toward the
end of the conversation as she showed a photograph of Marcella taken
at Christmas 2003.
"This was her last Christmas," Blackburn said. "There
was nothing wrong with her."
Another time Blackburn described her as a "happy
Blackburn lives with her husband and several
other family members in a yellow and white house near reservation
town of Arapahoe. Andrew and Macalia's twins, now toddlers, live
there, along with relatives of various generations.
The family cemetery is a short distance east of
Lupe Blackburn joined her mother for portions of
the conversation, adding a third chair to a small room at the front
of the house on a chilly February evening. The room glowed from an
electric heater, and activity inside the house could be heard at
regular intervals as grandchildren and other family members passed
in and out the front door.
Macalia was doing well in the months before her
daughter's death, Ruby Blackburn said. She rented her own apartment.
She was working, taking parenting classes and attending counseling
"The reason Macalia did all these things is she
wanted Marcella back in her custody," Blackburn said.
A grandson and his girlfriend had helped raise
Marcella at various times in the past, Blackburn said. That
arrangement was not an option in May or June of 2004. Macalia asked
for her daughter, Ruby Blackburn said, and she let her have her
back. She said it was not apparent until later that Andrew
Yellowbear was still in the picture.
The picture the Blackburns offered of the
relationship between Andrew and Macalia in the days that followed
and during earlier periods is one of abuse and secrecy. Yellowbear
wouldn't let Blackburn speak with family and stopped her from
attending classes, Ruby Blackburn said.
Both she and Lupe Blackburn had unflattering
things to say about the Yellowbears in general, referring to
examples of violence in the family's past.
"They grew up like that," Lupe Blackburn said. "They
don't know anything about respect."
Yellowbear family's struggles
This opinion is mirrored somewhat in members of
Yellowbear's own family. Martha Kilcrease, Andrew's sister, spoke of
a series of killings in her family that claimed, among others, an
uncle, an aunt and her father.
"Everyone we lost, we lost to homicide,"
The violence has had an effect on how people view
the family, Kilcrease said, leading perhaps to misinterpretation.
"They see us as having a lot of anger," she said.
"We just want justice. Nobody ever gets punished for killing our
Justice in the case of Marcella Yellowbear
appears an elusive thing, with the outcome of Andrew Yellowbear's
trial uncertain and the custody of three children in dispute.
Yellowbear and members of his family have sought visits with the
twins, who are in Ruby Blackburn's care.
Neither family has access to the fourth child,
who has been placed outside both families. Yellowbear has fought
from jail to give the child his last name, and a court order last
month appears to grant his request. Still, he has never seen the 18-month-old
named Tyrus Anthony.
Kilcrease stridently defended her brother. He and
Macalia did well with their twins, she said, yet fights were a part
of their relationship, particularly when alcohol was involved.
Andrew finished a jail sentence in the spring before Marcella's
death. After the girl came to live with them, Kilcrease said, her
brother "tried to bond" with the child.
Macalia was jealous, Kilcrease said.
"She specifically told them she used a 2-by-4 to
beat Marcella in the head," Kilcrease said.
That statement and others are contained in the
report filed by the Riverton detective who investigated the case. On
July 3, according to the report, Macalia Blackburn told the
investigator she was responsible for Marcella's injuries. Yellowbear,
interviewed the same day, offered a similar version of events. Both
said Marcella died after she was suspended in a closet by a strap
through her bib overalls. They said Andrew Yellowbear was not home
at the time.
On July 6, Blackburn told police she had been
protecting Yellowbear and that he alone was responsible for the
The changed account has been cast in varying
light. The prosecution has argued that Blackburn suffered from the
effects of an abusive relationship. According to this theory, they
say, the altered story makes sense.
Yellowbear's attorneys have suggested that if
such a theory is correct, it could call into question Blackburn's
ability to testify in their client's trial. To the extent Blackburn
suffered from abuse and what is called "battered woman syndrome,"
they argue, she could be considered an unreliable witness.
Kilcrease argued simply that Macalia told the
truth when she was first interviewed. She questioned the fairness of
an arrangement that now has the twins living with the Blackburn
"We are victims of this crime, too," Kilcrease
The sense of unfairness is shared. Lupe and Ruby
Blackburn said they fear that some will see Macalia's plea to a
reduced charge as an admission that she alone was responsible.
"Everyone is so quick to judge my niece," Lupe
Blackburn said. "My niece did everything in her power to make sure
her babies had a secure environment."
Such an environment, if it existed, did not last.
The consequences continue to shake whole families.
"I'm sure glad this is going to be over with,"
Ruby Blackburn said. "This has been going on too long."
Marcella Hope Yellowbear,
victim of child abuse.