Beyond a reasonable doubt

Jason Ferguson

Before he was an acting U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota, Dennis Holmes was a member of the litigation division of the S.D. Attorney General’s Office. Before that, he was a Custer High School student who raced motorcycles on the ice at Sylvan Lake.
“I would guess they don’t allow you to do that anymore,” he said.
Holmes, now in his third stint as acting U.S. attorney, was raised in Custer. He said he was born and raised in Custer before correcting himself, as he was actually born in Hot Springs. Custer didn’t have a hospital at the time.
Holmes was born to Paul and Delores Holmes, the former of which owned  Custer Feed Store, and the latter of which was a nurse. His father died when he was young and his mother went on to marry Walt Zuber, so many people may recall his mother as Delores Zuber instead of Delores Holmes.
Holmes received his undergrad degree from Chadron State College, where he majored in business and accounting. He then attended law school at the University of South Dakota, form which he received his Juris Doctorate.
After law school, Holmes moved to Pierre and worked in the litigation division of the S.D. Attorney General’s office. He spent his first nine years as an attorney traveling the state prosecuting cases of all types, including homicides and drug conspiracies. He also represented the state in civil litigation, including several jurisdictional challenges on Native American land issues, such as claims for the return of the Black hills. Later, he held supervisory positions in the attorney general’s office, first as deputy attorney general and later as chief deputy attorney general.
In 1988, he  joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office as an assistant U.S. attorney.  He worked out of the Pierre office until 1995 when he moved to the office in Sioux Falls.   
During his 33 years as a federal prosecutor, he prosecuted a wide array of federal criminal cases including large-scale drug conspiracies, violent crimes, tax fraud, federal program fraud and environmental crimes. He became the criminal chief for the district in 2002 and continues to handle those duties. He has been the first assistant three times.
On each occasion he has served as acting U.S. attorney, it is because the presidentially-appointed U.S. attorney resigned. When that happens, under the Vacancies Reform Act, the first assistant becomes the acting U.S. attorney and serves in that position until the new U.S. attorney is appointed by the president and confirmed by the senate. He was most recently first assistant for U.S. attorney Rod Parsons, who resigned Feb. 25.
As acting U.S. attorney, he is responsible for the supervision of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Dakota. There are offices in Sioux Falls, Pierre and Rapid City. The staff consists of 30 assistant U.S. attorneys and 30 support staff. Holmes also serves as the chief federal law enforcement officer for the state.
Holmes graduated from Custer High School in 1972, and doesn’t get back to Custer as often as he should or would like to. His oldest brother, Bruce, still lives in Custer, and his other brother, Perry, lives in Hot Springs.
“You don’t appreciate it until you leave, but the best part of growing up in the Hills was being able to get out and about into the forest whenever you wanted,” he said. “As kids we were never bored. We hiked, hunted, fished and just explored.”
Holmes recalls that he and his high school friends all owned dirt bikes and would drive them all over the Hills and country exploring old roads, finding old mines and buildings—including the ice racing at Sylvan Lake.
“Today you can’t drive to many of the places we went to then,” he said.
Two of his more memorable cases happened in Custer when he was state prosecutor with the S.D. Attorney General’s Office.
The first was a day of court hearings at the Custer County Courthouse for a group of defendants charged with game violations.
In the early 1980s, Holmes said, wildlife officials were concerned that poaching wild game had become rampant in the Southern Black Hills. Some locals referred to individuals involved as the “Pringle Poachers,” a moniker still heard today.
The South Dakota Department of Game Fish and Parks and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted an eight-month undercover operation which culminated in the arrest of 28 individuals.
“Some of the individuals arrested were persons I grew up with and went to school with,” Holmes said.
Early in the court proceedings, Circuit Court Judge Marshall Young scheduled a full day of court hearings in Custer for many of the defendants. Holmes was the prosecutor for the state in all the hearings.
“I have a vivid memory of walking down the center isle of the Custer County Courthouse that morning,” he said. “As I entered the courtroom on my left, the defense counsel table side of the courtroom, I saw it was filled with defense attorneys, defendants and family and friends of the defendants.  I heard a few boos and hisses as I walked up to the prosecution table on the right side of the courtroom.”
On that prosecution side of the courtroom the benches were empty except for one person: Delores, his mother.
“At least I had one supporter that day,” he said.
Another memorable case was the sentencing of American Indian Movement (AIM) leader Dennis Banks.
A Custer County jury convicted Banks of rioting while armed and assault with a dangerous weapon in 1975. The charge stemmed from the riot at the old Custer County Courthouse February 1973 when protestors burned down the chamber of commerce building and attempted to start the courthouse on fire.  
Banks fled South Dakota prior to sentencing. For many years he lived in California where then Gov. Jerry Brown granted him asylum.
After Brown left office, Banks was returned to South Dakota for sentencing which occurred at the then “new” Custer County Courthouse in October  1984.
Attorney General Mark Meierhenry and Holmes handled the sentencing hearing. Banks was represented by William Kunstler of New York, who was famous for representing many protest movement leaders in the 1960s and ’70s. Holmes said the media filled the parking area outside the courthouse and later the courtroom.
Holmes recalls as he  was walking into the courthouse a well-dressed man came up to him and introduced himself. He was a Canadian lawyer who said he was there observing for Amnesty International.
He then said in a condescending tone, “The world is watching what you do today, Sir.”
Holmes’ reply?
“Well, sir, Custer is my hometown; we always welcome tourists,” he said. “Hope you enjoy your stay.”

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