GRAND PORTAGE, Minn. — The search for a missing Indigenous man in Minnesota came to a grisly end last week after authorities pulled his dismembered remains from the waters of Lake Superior.
Robert Thomas West, 41, of Duluth, has been charged with being an accomplice after the fact to felony murder and concealment of a body in the disposal of Richard Anthony “Ricky” Balsimo, court records show.
Additional charges are expected, according to Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension officials.
Balsimo, 34, of St. Paul, was last seen alive on June 20, according to the BCA. The Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Balsimo had texted the mother of his child around 2 a.m. that morning before going silent.
The father of three, who was a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Chippewa in North Dakota, was never heard from again.
Balsimo’s sister, Raquel Turner, said a friend in Duluth was supposed to bring her brother home for Father’s Day, but he never showed up.
“When my brother didn’t respond to anyone from the family for a couple of days, we feared that something bad had happened to him,” Turner told Native News Online. “He always made sure we knew he was OK.”
Turner reported her brother missing on June 30.
Investigators initially did not consider Balsimo’s disappearance a suspicious one, but his desperate family released photos of the missing man and offered a $10,000 reward for information on his whereabouts.
They also hired a Duluth-based private investigation firm, Applied Professional Services.
“All we wanted was to bring Ricky home, and we had hope that he was alive, but there was no way Ricky would have been (alive) and not contacted someone,” Turner said.
The family’s search came to its tragic end last Thursday and Friday, when dive teams working off the coast of Grand Portage recovered Balsimo’s remains, BCA officials said. The Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office determined he’d died of “homicidal violence.”
Applied Professional Services helped find the evidence that led to the discovery, company president Justin Terch told Native News Online.
“APS detectives began a comprehensive investigation into his disappearance as soon as we could,” Terch wrote in an email. “Our detectives determined that Mr. Balsimo was the victim of homicidal violence, while securing evidence that identified the people responsible for his death.”
A criminal complaint in the case alleges that Balsimo was shot to death before his body was cut up.
No one had been charged with killing Balsimo as of Thursday. The man Balsimo was last seen with, according to his family, was arrested on unrelated charges June 24 in Douglas County, Wisconsin.
The man, whose name is being withheld because he’s not been charged in Balsimo’s death, remains jailed due to a probation violation, jail records show.
The criminal complaint states that Douglas County sheriff’s deputies contacted the BCA July 13 with a tip that Balsimo “was likely murdered and dismembered on June 20 and his body later placed in five-gallon buckets in Lake Superior outside of Grand Portage.”
Grand Portage is an unorganized territory on northeast Minnesota’s border with Ontario. Located about 300 miles from St. Paul, it is home to the Grand Portage Indian Reservation.
According to the court documents, a female witness told BCA investigators that she’d met up with West and another man at West’s Duluth home on June 20. The other man, described by the Star Tribune as a 35-year-old who has not been charged in the case, seemed nervous about something hidden in his vehicle, the woman said.
“Please don’t make me tell you what I have on me,” the man said, according to the witness.
The woman said she later noticed bullet holes in the passenger seat of the man’s car.
Two days later, on June 22, West allegedly asked the woman if she knew anyone with a boat, claiming that he wanted to go fishing. According to the complaint, she told him about a commercial fisherman she knew in Grand Portage.
The woman and West traveled that day to Grand Portage, taking separate cars. During a quick stop at a camping area 15 minutes from their destination, the woman questioned West about how paranoid he appeared.
“Ya, with a dead body in the back,” he alleged responded.
The witness told police that she and West met with her fisherman friend around 11:30 a.m. that day in Grand Portage. West reportedly said he had some of “his grandmother’s valuables that he wanted to dump in the lake.”
Once on the water, the fisherman said he saw West dump two heavy five-gallon buckets into the water, followed by the tote.
West told him the tote contained the body of a dog, the complaint states.
On June 23, West told the female witness a little of what he said he knew about Balsimo’s fate. He claimed that the 35-year-old suspect had shot Balsimo and the dead man’s body was “chopped up” inside a camper.
The motive for the shooting was not made clear, though the woman said West claimed that the shooter had killed Balsimo in self-defense.
The fisherman later took BCA investigators to the approximate area where he said West dropped the containers. BCA searchers, with assistance from a Duluth private investigation firm hired by Balsimo’s family, recovered the tote and one of the buckets.
The tote did not contain a dog.
“Within the tote was discovered a male human torso with legs, arms and head removed,” the documents allege. “Agents observed what appeared to be a bullet wound in the torso.”
The contents of the bucket were not specified in the complaint.
Searchers also recovered a pair of pants. Inside a pocket was a casino player’s card in Balsimo’s name, the complaint alleges.
The Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa own and operate a casino in the community, though it was unknown if the casino card belonged to the venue.
Meanwhile, West had been arrested July 14 on drug charges in Douglas County. While being held in the county jail, he asked to speak with BCA investigators.
According to the complaint, West confessed Friday to concocting the plan to get rid of Balsimo’s remains and to helping the alleged killer dismember him. His statement corroborated details that the fisherman and the female witness had already told detectives, authorities said.
The investigation into Balsimo’s death is ongoing.
Balsimo’s family is now left to mourn their loss.
“My brother was an amazing man with a big heart,” Turner told Native News Online. “Ricky had three little boys who will never see their father again.”
Turner was critical of the response her family received when they first reported Balsimo missing. According to the family, St. Paul police officers who took the missing person report seemed to shrug off his disappearance after noting that Balsimo had an active warrant.
She said police investigators “had their opinions about my brother and it clouded their judgment on all of us.”
“If it weren’t for the BCA and our private investigator with APS, we would have been swimming ourselves to find my brother,” Turner said. “It seemed as if my brother was just another missing Indigenous man who they viewed as a criminal.”
APS president Terch expressed his staff’s condolences to their clients.
“We feel deeply for the Balsimo family,” Terch said. “No one should have to go through the terrible emotions and sad news that they have dealt with in recent weeks.”
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