Travel

Revisiting the Strange, Tragic Murders of Two Children on a North Dakota Indian Reservation

The violent deaths of Travis DuBois Jr. and his sister, Destiny Shaw, in 2011 point to larger problems on the impoverished reservation.

by Justin Glawe
Mar 24 2015, 4:00am

The house where the murders happened. All photos by Matthew Leifheit

The home was a squat, gray prefab ranch. Its windows were covered with the plastic wrap that's supposed to lower your heating bills—a futile effort here in St. Michael, North Dakota, where, on a sunny, seven-degree day in early January everyone was remarking on how nice it was. The teenage boy who answered the door looked Sunday-afternoon tired and wary. He had reason to be: Here were two men on the doorstep, asking whether this was the house where it had happened.

"Yeah, this is the house," he told us.

The violent deaths of Travis DuBois Jr. and his sister, Destiny Shaw, might have made national headlines had they occurred somewhere else. But in St. Michael—one of four tiny towns on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation—news gets out slowly, if it does at all. When word of the children's deaths reached the outside world, it went as far as the local papers, and not much farther. But more deaths and problems with the child-welfare system in Spirit Lake prompted the faint promise of federal oversight, eventually getting the attention of national outlets.

Now, going on four years since the crime occurred, the brother and sister who died in that small house represent the beginning of something. The end—if there is to be one—remains to be seen.

Home to the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Sioux, Spirit Lake is a maze of poorly marked roads that curve over hills and through flat prairies. It's the kind of beautiful, unscarred country you would expect to find this far north and west. Calling St. Michael or any of the other three villages in Spirit Lake towns would be a stretch: For fast-food restaurants, gas stations, and grocery stores, you have to drive about 15 minutes across Mission Bay to nearby Devils Lake, population 7,256. Spirit Lake, which has a few modern amenities but for the most part is free of the landmarks of capitalism, is home to a little more than 6,000 people.

"It's a place where they don't like people poking around," a friend and longtime reporter in the area told me before I set out with VICE photo editor Matthew Leifheit.

We were there to poke, I guess.

Kids at the rec center in St. Michael pose in front of a display of mug shots of sex offenders who live on the Spirit Lake reservation

Destiny and her brother Travis, better known as "Baby Trav," were born to Mena Shaw and Travis DuBois, a fireman on the reservation. The couple had a rocky relationship and were separated at the time of the children's deaths. Destiny and Baby Trav spent time at both parents' homes, as did their other siblings. One of those children, Destiny and Baby Trav's little brother, Stephon, was in the home at the time of the murders. The child was spared by their then 18-year-old cousin Valentino "Tino" Bagola, who is now serving two life sentences for the crime. Tino stabbed nine-year-old Destiny and six-year-old Baby Trav more than a hundred times on either May 18, 19, or 20, 2011. The exact day the murders happened isn't known because Travis was trashed on case after case of Budweiser during that three-day span, and Mena was working or watching her other children.

When Travis realized his kids were dead, the father reacted somewhat strangely, Tino's lawyer, Christopher Lancaster, contended at trial. Travis "stood in the doorway silent," Lancaster told the jury during the opening statements of Tino's murder trial in September 2013. Travis could have "broken down in a fit of emotions," Lancaster said. "He could have become angry and wanted revenge for the deaths of his children, but he didn't. Instead, Travis DuBois Sr. turned, walked away, walked outside, and ran away."

The cops found Travis in a nearby cemetery, hiding among the tombstones.

For a little over a year the story remained the same. Travis, in what would later be deemed a coerced confession, told the FBI he had killed his children. "I did it. No one else did it," were Travis's words, repeated by Lancaster throughout Tino's two-week trial. Later, Travis said he'd confessed because he was in shock, and because the bender he was on left him with little memory of those drunken days and nights. As he would later tell FBI agents Brian Cima and Michael Smotrys, his memory picks up again the moment Mena walked out of the bedroom, Baby Trav's stiffened corpse in her arms.

But after more than a dozen hours in an interview room and several confessions, Travis came to in a different way.

"I'm not going to tell you what you want to hear anymore," he told the agents.

By July 2012, agents Cima and Smotrys had turned their attention to Tino. The results from an FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, had come back: Tino's DNA was found under Destiny's fingernail clippings. When Cima and Smotrys reached Spirit Lake on July 12, Tino was in jail on a theft charge. The trio spent the night of the 13th in an interview room at the Grand Forks County Correctional Center, where Tino was being held. By the 16th, the agents had a confession.

"I started to bone Destiny then I started to stab her and left her there," Tino wrote in a series of three handwritten confession notes, which, until my request over the summer, were not publicly available. "Then I slammed [Baby Trav] to the floor then I started to stab him. I'm sorry for everything that happened to those kids."

The motive was simple, the prosecution argued. Tino had been babysitting for Travis while Mena was away. In addition to a contentious, drunken, and sometimes brawling relationship with Travis, Tino learned that he was being paid less than what Travis was paying Mena's daughters to babysit. This sent Tino into a rage, and instead of taking it out on Travis, Tino found the next available victims.

"I just started stabbing [Baby Trav] constantly one after another. Then I cut his throat and leave him there to bleed out," he wrote in the confession. "I should've waited till Travis came home."

Tino Bagola in prison. Photo by Justin Glawe

By the time I visited Tino in Fargo's Cass County Jail in January 2014, he was waiting to be transferred to a federal prison in Tucson, Arizona. He had been put on psych meds, and his pupils were so dilated it looked like he was tripping on mushrooms. Tino seemed docile, compliant, and weak. His childish mannerisms possessed none of the rage he'd apparently carried inside him the night he murdered his cousins.

"They said I did it, so I guess I did it," Tino told me.

We talked for about two hours that night. Tino told me a somewhat implausible story about walking in on someone raping Destiny. He said he froze, unable to do anything as his cousin was brutalized.

Tino's DNA was under the little girl's fingernails because he was "trying to help her," he said. This explanation was never passed on to his attorneys, Tino told me.

Despite his heavily medicated state, Tino was able to convey the details of what sounded like a very dysfunctional life. After being raped by a cousin at the age of 12, Tino started on a life of delinquency—weed, coke, meth, heroin. Whatever he could get his hands on to escape the demons in his own mind. Tino said he remembered little of his childhood in Sisseton, South Dakota. He and his brother, Justin, would pretend to be in the army, shoot hoops, and play baseball and fantasized of someday becoming cops, soldiers, or firemen.

"We had big dreams, big plans," Tino said through the protective glass of a jail visiting booth. "But they just got crushed."

St. Michael's rec center

With no direction in his life, Tino bounced around to different homes of his family members. Sometimes he would walk from Sisseton to Spirit Lake, a 260-mile trek that would take days. There, he would stay with his aunt, Meda Cavanaugh, Mena's sister. Shortly before the murders, Tino's mom, Mary, had asked Mena to come to Sisseton to pick up Tino. Mary was afraid Tino was going to hurt himself. Mena obliged, bringing her children's killer back to Spirit Lake. That's where Tino stayed as Travis and Mena's relationship fell apart for the umpteenth time. Sometimes Tino crashed with Travis and the kids; other times across the street at Meda's house. Tino called Spirit Lake home after the murders, too, when everyone on the reservation thought Travis was the killer. Near the end of our conversation at the jail, Tino turned the questions on me.

"You know what it feels like to be a pallbearer?" he said. "It's sad."

Tino helped carry the caskets of Destiny and Baby Trav at their shared funeral (he hadn't been accused yet, and their father was in jail at the time).

"You couldn't see them," Tino told me.

The caskets were closed.

Travis was held partly accountable for the children's deaths and spent a little less than two years in jail for child neglect. Destiny and Baby Trav aren't the only children on the reservation who have been murdered in recent years. In May 2013, a woman tossed two of her grandchildren down an embankment. Even though one of them wasn't breathing, she took one of the kids—a two-year-old—home. The grandmother bathed her body and put her to bed. The next morning the child was "cold and blue," the authorities said. The grandmother is now serving a 30-year sentence for the crime. In April 2014, another child was found dead in Spirit Lake, according to the FBI, and most recently, in August, a one-year-old was killed after being struck by a car.

One of the many warning signs inside of St. Michael's rec center

These incidents, as well as previous accusations of incompetence by employees of tribal social services, prompted a takeover by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Thomas Sullivan of the Administration for Children and Families, a federal agency, has acted as a whistle-blower. He has accused tribal authorities of placing children in homes with unfit foster parents and, in some cases, sex offenders. Sullivan prefers to let his reports do the talking and did not respond to several emails requesting comment for this story. As many as 71 children remain "unaccounted for" within tribal social services, according to Sullivan's findings. A congressional hearing in June accomplished little in the way of securing the well-trained social workers needed to oversee the tribe's child-welfare system. Meanwhile, Tino's conviction is on appeal, and Lancaster will present his argument to a federal judge in March.

With the sun setting that day in early January, Matthew and I went to the recreation center in St. Michael. Inside, kids were sprinting up and down a basketball court, enjoying their last bit of freedom before they had to head home and prepare for school the next day. We came across four glass cases containing mug shots of 36 men, all of them sex offenders. Pasted on every wall in the gym, bathrooms, and kitchen were signs: attention parents: please watch your kids.

I can't help thinking of one of the last things Tino said to me in the jail in Fargo: "No one watches their kids."

Follow Justin Glawe and Matthew Leifheit on Twitter.