Family left with questions after man dies in custody of rural sheriff’s office
Missing persons posters for Robert “Berta” Enoch, who died shortly after being arrested on April 3, 2023. (Submitted photos)
State investigators are reviewing the death of a man shortly after his arrest on April 3 by Charles Mix County sheriff’s deputies.
Friends of 35-year-old Robert Dennis “Berta” Enoch have a host of questions about how someone who’d expressed a desire to get well and had secured a place at a treatment center just days before his arrest died shortly afterward.
Charles Mix County Sheriff Randy Thaler told South Dakota Searchlight that Enoch was found in the street “screaming and yelling” and “being disorderly” on the day of his death. Deputies soon learned that Enoch was a parole absconder and detained him.
Thaler deferred further questions on the incident to the state Division of Criminal Investigation. The sheriff declined to say how long Enoch was in custody at the jail in Lakes Andes before being transferred 17 miles southeast to Wagner Community Memorial Hospital, where he was pronounced dead, according to his preliminary South Dakota death certificate.
As of April 11, Enoch’s state death record did not list a cause of death.
Those closest to Enoch believe he died at the jail.
DCI spokesman Tony Mangan confirmed that the state agency was asked to investigate the situation on April 3, but did not have any other information.
“The case remains under investigation and no further details are available at this time,” Mangan wrote in an email.
Tracii Barse met Enoch at powwows when both men were about 12 years old. Barse described Enoch, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, as a deeply traditional person who frequently joined Barse to sing prayers around the drum. Enoch took part in tribal ceremonies even as he drifted in and out of active drug addiction.
“He lost his way for a while there, and he never got a chance to find his way again,” said Barse, a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe.
Those who knew Enoch called him “Berta,” a nickname he picked up while staying with a grandmother named “Roberta.”
Enoch was his mother’s only biological child, but he grew up with an adopted brother eight years his senior, Sonny LeBlanc. LeBlanc was never legally adopted, but was taken in and raised as a brother “in the Native American way,” he said.
“In those times growing up in our community, it wasn’t the best financially, but we had family,” said LeBlanc, who now works as a disaster assistance agent for the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe.
Enoch was a happy, energetic kid, LeBlanc said, and he was also compassionate, like his mother. The boys were steeped in tribal heritage and taught to value respect, compassion, bravery, humility and the importance of community.
“He was a reflection of his mom. She would give the clothes off her back, and he carried that on,” LeBlanc said. “You can get lost in today’s society, where it’s about trying to conquer your neighbor. But in our culture, it’s about being a good relative. Those are core teachings.”
Amber Adams-Boyd also knew Enoch, but most of her memories are of him as a young man. He was close with her nephews when they were teens. The boys thought they knew it all, she recalls, but she also remembers Enoch as a person with a strong tribal heritage.
“Growing up the way he did, his family was really traditional. So he would know a lot of the teachings,” she said.
He struggled with drugs, but in traditional beliefs when people get lost, “that doesn’t mean they’re any less of a person,” Adams-Boyd said.
Berta goes dark
Regardless of how bad things got, Barse said, Enoch would call his mother and his children on a near-daily basis.
The two sang together at a funeral last fall. “I think he was trying” to keep up his traditions, Barse said.
The two knew one another growing up, but each had “lost their way,” Barse said. For a time, they were both in prison for drugs at the South Dakota State Penitentiary.
The two once took apart an eagle for use in Native American ceremonies behind the walls. Enoch gave Barse three of the feathers, which are now affixed to a carved diamond willow walking stick.
I’ve had many periods of sobriety but in the end haven’t been able to maintain recovery long-term, and my addictions always seem to win.
– Robert 'Berta' Enoch, in a letter to a judge
Barse got sober in prison and has stayed that way for seven years. His friend continued to struggle, chalking up months of sobriety before falling off the wagon, often picking up new charges quickly as a result.
Enoch’s criminal record is largely filled with drug and drunken driving offenses. The most serious crimes were aggravated eluding in 2022, when he led officers in Davison County on a chase that ended when spike strips popped the wheels of the vehicle he’d been driving, and aggravated assault, a charge that came after he’d allegedly stabbed a man in the stomach during a fistfight. The victim and a woman had been kicking Enoch out of their residence, according to court records.
The felony assault charge was pleaded down to a misdemeanor; the eluding charge was dismissed after Enoch pleaded guilty to drug possession.
Court records also show that Enoch had taken part in treatment programs in the past.
In a letter to a Roberts County judge in 2019, Enoch tried to explain his battle with addiction.
“I’ve been struggling with alcohol and drugs since I was 13 yrs old and I’m still fighting with substance abuse,” he wrote. “I’ve had many periods of sobriety but in the end haven’t been able to maintain recovery long-term, and my addictions always seem to win.”
Enoch’s brother remembers more good times than bad, but the bad times came with consequences.
“When he did lose his way, it was just a short amount of time before he was back in the system,” LeBlanc said.
As last winter dragged on, Enoch found himself stumbling again. His mother and two sons stopped hearing from him early in February. More than a month passed before Barse heard from Enoch’s mother, who asked him for help. Barse was concerned, but he was also busy with other issues, including helping others struggling with addiction.
Three weeks later, Barse had a dream. In it, he and his drum group were singing outside and saw Enoch approach through the trees.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Bro, can I sing with you guys?’” Barse said. “And I tried to tell him, ‘Yes, you’re always welcome to sing with us.’ But I couldn’t. I couldn’t speak to him.”
When Barse awoke, he heard a sound similar to a knock at the door. He went out to investigate and saw that the diamond willow branch, which had been standing upright, had fallen on the floor.
“As soon as I picked it up and touched it, I felt something in my bones and my heart and my brain. It was like, ‘you’ve got to help find Berta now,’” he said.
Located in Lake Andes
Things moved quickly after that.
Enoch was officially reported missing to tribal authorities, which triggered a call to the Sioux Falls Police Department on March 28. Enoch had been staying in a sober living apartment at the Glory House in that city until shortly after Christmas.
“Missing” posters bearing Berta’s likeness and last known location were circulated online.
In short order, Barse heard that his friend was holed up in a Lake Andes drug house. Instead of calling police – Barse doubted that anyone would’ve opened the door for officers – he called a friend and offered him $80 to check on Enoch.
Enoch was inside.
“At the time, I was fired up, because his mom thought he was dead,” Barse said. “She was crying so hard every time I talked to her. So I said, ‘put me on speakerphone.’ And he did. And I said, ‘Berta, call your family. Now.’”
That’s what he did.
Jayde Adams, a niece to Adams-Boyd, works at the Sisseton nursing home where Enoch’s mother lives. She remembers Enoch’s call to his mother. He was upset, she recalled, and wanted the missing person posters taken down.
That was a Tuesday. The following day, March 29, according to Sioux Falls police spokesman Sam Clemens, an officer learned that Enoch had spoken to his family, and the department closed the case.
The Friday before he died, Barse said, Enoch called him. He needed help, he told Barse. He needed to get back to treatment. Enoch’s parole officer found a spot for him at a treatment center that day, Barse said – a lucky break in a state with high demand for in-patient treatment.
The path forward seemed clear to Barse: turn yourself in as a parole absconder, he told Enoch – he hadn’t picked up new charges, he’d only lost touch with his parole officer – then wait for the judge to turn you over to the Department of Corrections. From there, he’d go to treatment.
“I said, ‘Bro, all you’ve got to do is sit in jail for 24 hours. For guys like us, that’s nothing.’”
Enoch did not turn himself in, but he still wound up in jail.
News of death lands
Adams-Boyd didn’t know about those plans until Barse talked about the phone call at Enoch’s funeral on Monday.
The path from found and hopeful to dead at 35 remains unclear to those who listened to that story at the Sisseton service.
Barse heard from a friend on the morning of April 3 that Enoch was in jail. Less than an hour later, he said, he got another message saying that Enoch had died.
Adams-Boyd got a call that day, too, in her case from the woman at the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe who had processed the missing persons report the week before.
She and Adams-Boyd called the Roberts County Sheriff’s Office to ask them not to break the news of Enoch’s death to his mother. They wanted loved ones to tell her, she said. The deputies agreed, Adams-Boyd said, but it didn’t help.
Someone with the Sisseton Police Department notified Enoch’s mother before they got there.
“I didn’t even have my shoes on yet,” Adams-Boyd said. “It was literally not even a minute after I told my nieces we were coming.”
Enoch’s mother did not take the news well. She called out for Jayde Adams and her sister Daisy, who tried their best to comfort her.
“There was nothing I could do but cry with her and hug her,” Adams said.
Messages left with the Roberts County Sheriff’s Office and the Sisseton Police Department were not returned.
As law enforcement, people who are supposed to protect and serve, there has to be accountability.
– Sonny LeBlanc
Questions surround death
Enoch’s family and friends were frustrated by the way the news was delivered, but they have larger frustrations about the lack of clarity surrounding his death.
Adams spoke to Sheriff Thaler on behalf of Enoch’s mother, she said, and was told that deputies were sent after Enoch because he was a parole absconder. Enoch was found unresponsive either late in the morning or early in the afternoon, she was told, in a holding cell that was monitored by video. Deputies had checked on him periodically, she said.
The death certificate notes the location of his death as Wagner Community Memorial Hospital.
Not knowing the cause of death is concerning, Adams said.
“We don’t know about the autopsy, so we don’t know what happened,” she said.
LeBlanc is concerned about jail protocols for people who are under the influence when they’re booked. He wonders if something could’ve been done differently, or if medical help could’ve come sooner.
“Is there a log sheet that says they were checking on him and monitoring him? There are so many questions,” he said. “As law enforcement, people who are supposed to protect and serve, there has to be accountability.”
LeBlanc said he wants people to know that his brother was more than an inmate or parolee. There were two days of mourning and gathering for him over the weekend in the run-up to his funeral, and his obituary lists 18 pallbearers, 29 named honorary pallbearers and “all his Sundance bros.”
“He was a brother. He was family. People loved him,” LeBlanc said.
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