Patricia Nell Warren

Police "Stupidity" Over Unsolved 2004 Crime

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | July 14, 2009 6:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: gay-bashing, hate crimes against LGBT people, Morgan Lewis murder, police corruption

Remember the pregnant lady cop in the movie Fargo? Marge Gunderson? Who didn't seem too bright but was actually smart as a fox and patient as a crocodile, as she solved a series of brutal killings in her North Dakota town? Well, they need Marge down in Aberdeen, South Dakota. Because the Aberdeen cops can't find their way out of a wet paper bag when it comes to the 2004 shooting death of openly gay activist university professor Morgan Lewis.

Lewis was found dead just outside his office on the Northern State University campus, and the murder weapon was found buried in a dumpster 40 yards away. How the gun walked 40 yards after Lewis died in a pool of blood is anybody's guess. But for five years now, local police insist on identifying Lewis's death as a suicide.

In June, I wrote about gay-bashing as a form of terrorism, and flagged Lewis's death as a cold case for murders of LGBT activists. The other day, I heard from a former NSU student who is outraged at this display of seeming "stupidity" by the Aberdeen police. In reality, their position is probably an official and jut-jawed and deeply biased refusal to deal with a violent anti-gay crime in their district. The reader emailed me the link for an update in the local paper, the Argus Leader. Headlined Findings defy suicide ruling for professor, the piece by Jeff Martin says:

"New details are emerging this month in a federal lawsuit, which sheds more light on the mysterious shooting death of a Northern State University professor in 2004. Two key experts in the case now dispute the Aberdeen Police Department's conclusion that Morgan Lewis took his own life, the new documents show."

Among the new details that point to murder, rather than suicide: Gunpowder residue was found inside the victim's wallet. Lewis's skull was fractured in such a way that he must have been beaten -- whacked in the head by an assailant before being shot in the neck. Lewis was a southpaw, yet the gunshot wound was in the northpaw side of his neck.

The new details are coming out of a federal lawsuit filed by Lewis' partner, James Buck, who inherited Lewis' estate. He is claiming a $150,000 insurance policy, which the insurer, Prudential, is sturbornly refusing to award because police have stubbornly termed the death a suicide. It makes you wonder if Prudential made it worth the police department's while to stand pat on such a friendly finding, despite all the evidence for murder that is piling up.

Aberdeen city attorney Adam Altman is backing up this "police work" done by the city's gumshoes. He says, "The city of Aberdeen is convinced that this was a suicide and we don't have any reason to believe otherwise."

But local commenters on the Argus Leader story aren't supportive of the city's position. One commenter said: "I am not sure who Mr. Altman is speaking for but it is definitely not for all the citizens of Aberdeen. There are a great many of us that have never believed in the 'suicide' story and continued to be embarrassed and appalled by the findings in this case. .... Not hard to get away with murder in Aberdeen, South Dakota."

Indeed. Aberdeen law enforcement sends the message that it's okay to kill gay people in South Dakota. If they're finally compelled to admit that Lewis was murdered, I hope that every city official who had input in the "suicide" ruling is prosecuted and disgraced.

You have to read the whole Argus Leader story to see the long list of grim details in the new findings. Officer Gunderson could have figured it out between breakfast and her mid-morning snack (she was eating for two through the whole movie). Where is Marge when we need her?

Hat tip to Keith Hanson.

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From the details you provide and from those in the Argus Leader, it appears that there may well be a case to be made that this was not a suicide. But does the fact that he was gay automatically mean that he was killed for *being* gay? In other words, is this necessarily a "gay bashing," to use your term? This does not negate the brutality of the killing, if it were indeed such, but calling it a gay bashing does mean specific consequences, in a legal sense.

You write that "In reality, their position is probably an official and jut-jawed and deeply biased refusal to deal with a violent anti-gay crime in their district." What evidence of this being anti-gay do we have in this case? Were there prior threats? Any notes left behind? It's possible, is it not, that a gay person can be killed without being killed *for* being gay?

and "Indeed. Aberdeen law enforcement sends the message that it's okay to kill gay people in South Dakota." Well, it may - operative word MAY - be sending the message that it's okay to kill people, period, if the theory of suicide proves to be a badly constructed one. And the commenters, the small handful, as far as I can tell, seem to be implying that there is something systemic about the crime rate in Aberdeen - and police negligence - that needs looking into.

If it does turn out to be the case that this was definitely no suicide, the killing of West is a horrible and brutal murder and should be investigated as such. I just don't know, based on the details, how this translates into a case of "gay-bashing."


betcha just about anything that if this were a black man you would be all over it.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | July 15, 2009 6:15 AM

Sir, injecting race in a comment is a certain violation of terms of service. Shame on you, and know that any further comments you leave will be valued less.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | July 15, 2009 6:20 AM

Yasmin, have you ever lived in a really small town? I ask this because beneath a veneer of charming buildings they usually house calcified attitudes. You need to start with: "What things OTHER than his being Gay could have led to his death?" He was a professor in a college. Pretty low risk group. I expect the murderer will never be found and resides in a local church.

Keith Hanson | July 16, 2009 6:43 PM

Prof. Lewis was Native American. I'm the person who tipped off the author about the case re-opening. I attended Northern State University and lived in Aberdeen for a year. Speaking from personal experience, both anti-gay and anti-native sentiment runs high in this area. I was a member of the GSA group at NSU. The membership is very small, mostly because people are too scared to come out in such a small community (Aberdeen population: 25,000. NSU enrollment: 2,500) I'm not saying it was the direct cause of his death (it could be just a random tragedy for all anyone knows. that's why its being re-opened) but its definitely something that needs to be looked into.

I do call it an "unsolved crime," and use the word "probably," which leaves room for the possibility that the professor's death was a robbery gone wrong. But if it was, why would the police make such an effort to misidentify the crime? I will keep Bilerico readers informed on this one.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | July 15, 2009 12:19 AM

Aberdeen's population is under 25,000 people and that probably includes half the county around it. The police in a town this size are all locals and will all cover for one another.

In a college of just 2,500 students with an out Gay activist professor? he was a foreigner to the locals and they do not care how he died. Small town horse shit.

Rick Sours | July 15, 2009 4:53 PM


Your comments have added a very good point of
view to this situation/event.

for what it's worth, the link seems to have moved, and can now be found here.

Bill Perdue Bill Perdue | July 16, 2009 9:25 AM

LGBT bashing murders happen all the time. If anything, Patricia is erring on the side of caution in calling this murder a 'possible' bashing. It's one in a long string of murders caused by political and religious bigots.

There really is no question about it – we absolutely can’t afford to be 'agnostic' on the question of GLBT-bashing murders. If it looks like a gaybashing murder then it likely is. This has case has more than enough evidence to justify the demand for answers.

In this case that means doing exactly what Patricia is doing - scandalizing and exposing the Aberdeen PD as accomplices and accessories to murder.

In these cases national publicity and a demand that the FBI and the SD Division of Criminal Investigation examine the crimes of the murderer(s) and the cops are compulsory. We should all link Patricia’s post to other sites, comment about the case and even step back in time and write a letter to the editor. If you know someone who’s going to appear on the electronic media ask them to mention it on air. In a case like this we should ask local and federal office holders to demand an FBI intervention.

Thanks, Patricia, for helping to cover our collective back. Responding to things like this is just elementary self preservation.

Great article Patricia. As always it is spot on. Don't worry about Yasmin's narrow point of view...she is 'probably' a Rethug (Republican).

Philip Madruga | July 16, 2009 6:54 PM

The City Attorney, Adam Altman may be reached at or (605)626-7025. I suggest we let him know that there are many more people outside of Aberdeen who are watching him and know what he is doing...

(Minor cavil, Patricia: Prof. Lewis was righthanded and shot on the left, according to the Argus Leader.)

I lived next to Morgan for many many years before he moved to teach in South Dakota. He was the most loving and enjoyable individual that I have ever met. Both he and Jim became close family friends. Knowing him so well I have no doubt that this was a suicide. Now, if this murder was in direct relation to his sexual preference I can not speculate, but what I do know with every ounce of my soul is someone brutally took the life of a person that is severely missed! We love you and miss you Morgan. My god rest your soul.