Man in photo Noem used as alleged proof of cartels says it’s hindered his right to a fair trial

Charles Merrival, front, pictured during a 2019 march in Rapid City. (courtesy Charles Merrival family)
Charles Merrival, front, pictured during a 2019 march in Rapid City. (courtesy Charles Merrival family)
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Charles Merrival, front, pictured during a 2019 march in Rapid City. (courtesy Charles Merrival family)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is the third in a series exploring the influence of drug cartels in South Dakota, on and off the state’s reservations. The first story can be found at this link; The second can be found at this link.

A Native American man said Gov. Kristi Noem hindered his ability to receive a fair trial when she displayed a photo of him recently as alleged proof of cartel activity on reservations.

Noem flashed three photos during a May 17 press conference while talking about the Mexican drug cartel activity she said is happening in tribal communities. She did not provide any names with the photos at that press conference, but Noem’s office had previously shared the photo with South Dakota Searchlight. 

The images were sent to Searchlight in late April when the outlet asked for proof of the governor’s repeated allegations of cartel activity on reservations, and for proof of Noem’s claim that tribal leaders are personally benefiting from a cartel presence on their lands. Tribal leaders have denied those allegations.

Searchlight has independently determined and verified that the most identifiable image — a close-up of a man’s face — is a picture of Charles Cain Merrival, 32, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

South Dakota Searchlight is not publishing the photo used by Gov. Noem. The photos in the story were offered by Merrival’s family members.

Merrival has been in custody at the Pennington County Jail in Rapid City since January 2022 and for all but a few months since 2020. He wore an ankle monitor during his release and was restricted from traveling more than 25 miles from Rapid City.

He is currently being held on federal charges for methamphetamine distribution stemming from separate incidents in July 2021 and January 2022. He’s also being held on state charges for a robbery alleged to have taken place in 2020.

“Kristi Noem herself falsely labeled me a gang member that is affiliated with Mexican drug cartels and the commission of murders,” Merrival said in a phone interview. “Because of Kristi Noem’s decision to personally intervene, any presumption of innocence that I had is gone forever.”

Merrival said he’s never been the target of a murder investigation, cartel-related or otherwise. An internet search for Merrival’s name does turn up a 2021 homicide case, but that involved a different Charles Merrival. That man, whose middle name is Joe, was released from federal prison last summer after serving time for involuntary manslaughter. 

Charles Cain Merrival’s mother, Darla Merrival, said she feels that her son was targeted because he’s Native American. She’s taking care of one of Merrival’s children at the moment and said she’s been able to shield the girl from anything about her father, his charges or the press conference that used him to make a point about drug cartels.

But she was “shocked and appalled” by Noem’s actions.

“I don’t think she even knows what’s going on herself, you know what I mean?” Darla Merrival said. “It just fit her narrative.”

Noem’s office did not respond to an email asking about the use of Merrival’s photo.

‘Ghost Dance’ club connection

Noem has repeatedly asserted since a Jan. 31 speech that President Joe Biden’s border policies have made tribal communities vulnerable to infiltration by Mexican drug cartels.  

“Murders are being committed by cartel members on the Pine Ridge Reservation and in Rapid City, and a gang called the Ghost Dancers are affiliated with these cartels,” Noem said.

Tensions between Noem and tribal leaders flared after that speech, with some expressing concern about her use of the phrase “ghost dancers.” It was originally applied to participants in a Native American spiritual ceremony that grew in popularity prior to the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. At a press conference the day after her January speech, Noem responded that “I didn’t name” the gang.

Merrival said the Ghost Dancers “ceased to exist as a club” in July 2021. 

“There’s no way it’s possible that a motorcycle club that no longer exists is currently responsible for anything, let alone associations with cartels,” Merrival said. 

When asked if the Ghost Dancers club is still active in the state, a spokesman for Attorney General Marty Jackley said the office cannot comment on pending criminal cases.

All three of the biker pictures displayed by Noem show men in leather biker jackets bearing the words “Ghost Dance” and “support your local Bandidos.” 

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration linked members of Bandidos motorcycle gangs in New York and Texas to cartel drug trafficking in its 2018 National Threat Assessment. The 2024 assessment does not mention outlaw motorcycle clubs. 

 Charles Merrival (courtesy Charles Merrival family)
Charles Merrival (courtesy Charles Merrival family)

During her press conference, Noem not only flashed the biker photos but also shared some video clips, quotes from tribal leaders and anonymous tribal members, and referenced the Pine Ridge-area kidnapping of an FBI victim specialist by men from El Salvador and Guatemala. 

Ace Crawford, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office, told South Dakota Searchlight that the kidnapping had “no clear connection” to cartels.

Legal motion: Pending case impacted by press conference

Merrival had a jury trial for his federal drug charges in September, but it ended in a mistrial. His new trial is scheduled to begin on July 9, despite his recent efforts to delay it. 

Noem’s use of his photo has complicated the federal case, according to documents filed by Merrival’s lawyer, John Rusch of Rapid City. Rusch declined to comment on the case while it’s pending. 

The Monday after Noem’s Friday press conference, Rusch filed a motion for a continuance because “Governor Kristi Noem has publicly made statements that the Defendant and Ghost Dance which Defendant is a member of, are part of the cartel operating in South Dakota.”

“This information was published in a wide variety of news sources and included pictures of the Defendant,” Rusch wrote. “The Defendant is asking for time to address these new allegations and counteract the negative and untrue statements being made about him in the press. The Defendant has requested discovery from Law Enforcement provided to the Governor that these claims are based upon.”

Judge Karen Schreier denied the motion three days later, writing that the case has been pending for years.

“Defendant’s attorney was not appointed to respond to allegations in the press, only to represent defendant with regard to the criminal charges that have been brought against him in the indictment,” the judge wrote.

Darla Merrival, Charles’ mother, is concerned that Noem’s choice to connect him to cartels in such a public fashion taints not only potential jurors but feeds into an inaccurate public perception of anyone who chooses to be a part of a motorcycle gang. 

“I have friends that are members of motorcycle clubs, but that doesn’t mean that they’re all involved in illegal activities,” she said. “But their whole agenda is to fit him in with the Bandidos, so it looks like he was definitely doing what they think he’s doing.”

Steven Bell, special agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Omaha, did not comment on Merrival’s case and told South Dakota Searchlight it would be “way outside our lane” to comment on biker gangs and connections to drug cartels.

He did, however, say that membership in a biker gang or the presence of a Bandidos patch on a leather jacket alone doesn’t signal illegal activity. 

“You’d be talking about profiling,” Bell said. “And we don’t profile.”


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