Former dropout shares distinction with Weinberger, 61 others Montana man got pardon from Bush

January 01, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

"I feel like a pebble next to a mountain," Joe Bear was saying this week, considering something he has in common with former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, something more than Americans have sought and only 63 have received: President Bush's official forgiveness.

On Christmas Eve, Mr. Bear, a 49-year-old Blackfoot Indian, received a presidential pardon along with 25 others, including Mr. Weinberger and five other Reagan administration officials mixed up in the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal.

To set the record straight, Mr. Bear, a former dropout who runs a homeless shelter in Browning, Mont., was not part of any White House intrigue. His offense was stealing some six-packs of beer from a store on the Blackfoot reservation where he grew up.

It happened 30 years ago.

"We were still teen-agers," he said. "You couldn't buy beer unless you were 21. So my buddies and I did a real dumb thing."

Stealing on a federal reservation is a federal felony. Mr. Bear served three weeks in jail in Great Falls, Mont. His conviction was still on the books until Mr. Bush erased it last week.

Joining Mr. Bear and the Iran-contra officials on the list of forgiven were a former Postal Service worker from Texas who stole $3.65 from a letter in 1980, a draft dodger whose case was 49 years old and a man from Big Creek, Ky., who served time for making moonshine in 1949.

It's a curious mix. Of the 12,096 clemency applications screened from thousands of others and passed on from the Justice Department to the White House during Mr. Bush's term, 63 have been granted, according to a Justice Department official.

Bonnie Combes Heavyrunner Craig, an attorney who heads the Department of Native American Studies at the University of Montana in Missoula, said she has known Mr. Bear all her life.

"His personality has never changed," she said. "He's upbeat, kind, forgiving, loving, caring."

"I had been a dropout," Mr. Bear said. "I had trouble with alcohol. I couldn't qualify for degree courses in social work at the university. But when I got turned down, I said: 'I don't need a damned degree; I'll do it on my own.' "

Today, his Bear Medicine Shelter offers 30 permanent beds and a dozen cots for families. It offers hot meals and alcohol rehabilitation and classes in self-esteem.

Things were going so well a while back that Mr. Bear was encouraged to run for the tribal council.

"I thought this would be another way to contribute," he said. "Everyone said I was a shoo-in. But three days before the election, one of the elders said, 'Joe, you've got this problem. You've got a felony. You can't run for office.' "

Mr. Bear's campaign for clemency began in 1989, just after Mr. Bush took over the White House. Now that the president has pardoned him, he can run for public office, something he is


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