PINE RIDGE, S.D. – In July 1999, President Bill Clinton honored Geraldine Blue Bird for taking in anyone who needed a meal or a place to stay, despite her own poverty.
Twenty-eight adults and children lived in her four-room, dilapidated house and in a trailer out back when Clinton's presidential visit made her a symbol of conditions on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, one of the nation's poorest areas.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Karen Schreier in Rapid City sentenced Blue Bird, 51, to what might be a life prison sentence — 34 years — for being a leader in another dire reality of this place where unemployment hovers near 80 percent: drug dealing.
A jury convicted Blue Bird last fall of conspiracy to distribute cocaine, possession with intent to distribute cocaine, possession of a firearm in relation to drug trafficking and conspiracy to distribute marijuana.
In short, she was found to host a conspiracy that trafficked an estimated $2 million worth of cocaine from Denver to Nebraska and South Dakota over three years, according to prosecutors.
Twenty-eight people, including family members, have been indicted in the investigation. Most have pleaded guilty and several testified against the leaders, including Blue Bird.
In court Wednesday, Blue Bird minimized her role.
"I'm being held responsible for a lot of things I wasn't involved with," she said. "There are things that I've been accused of and convicted of that I really didn't do."
The evidence suggests otherwise, said U.S. Attorney Marty Jackley.
"She's pretty much the ringleader. It was based out of her home," he told The Associated Press.
Blue Bird's sentencing was delayed several times because she has been in the hospital.
Her 26-year-old son, Colin Spotted Elk, was sentenced in February to 29 years for his part.
At his sentencing, a 15-year-old boy who shot and killed another teenager at Blue Bird's home testified that he and other juveniles held money and distributed drugs for Blue Bird and Spotted Elk.
The boy testified that teenagers packaged drugs with their parents, users traded firearms and sexual favors for cocaine, and toddlers had access to handguns.
He said he helped break up marijuana that Spotted Elk sold and that he cut papers out of magazines that Blue Bird used to repackage cocaine for sale on the street.
Jackley said Blue Bird's 410-month sentence was the culmination of the work of federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement officers and Assistant U.S. Attorney Mara Kohn, who prosecuted Blue Bird.
After Clinton's visit, donations came in from around the country — and Blue Bird got a new doublewide trailer as a result of all the attention.
The light blue house in the Igloo housing area of Pine Ridge, seized by federal agents, now sits unoccupied and boarded up, next to the smaller place Blue Bird lived in when the president came.
"Clinton gave that [trailer] to her. She didn't use drug money," her granddaughter, Antonia Blue Bird, 26, said last week.
She said she remembers having popcorn, oatmeal and Kool-Aid for meals, and that her grandmother still invited people in if they had no other place to go.
"She gave everybody food. She had a really big heart. She was a really nice person," she said, describing the conditions as dire poverty.
"Maybe that's what triggered it — not having enough money."
Antonia Blue Bird said she lived in the older house as a child but moved back after her grandmother was arrested.
"I left and she started dealing drugs and became rich," she said.
Jackley, the prosecutor, said poverty is no excuse.
"A financial situation doesn't justify involving oneself and teenagers in a drug conspiracy," he said.