'Devastating' fire at Lake Andes' Native American Resource Center deemed arson, one arrested

Police say the suspect started multiple fires while on a walk around town

Organization leaders say they are devastated after a fire at the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center caused major losses to the building's services and tribal history. Submitted photo
Submitted photo

LAKE ANDES — One man has been arrested after a suspicious fire at the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center (NAWHERC) in Lake Andes left their building damage heavily damaged.

Shortly after 4 a.m. on Dec. 20, first responders in Lake Andes were dispatched the NAWHERC at 809 High St. Upon arrival, the building's west side was engulfed in flames, and flames were exiting the roof to the north.

After an hour of working to extinguish the fire, Lake Andes Fire Chief Rod Bergin told a Charles Mix County deputy that the fire appeared suspicious, and that he had contacted the State Fire Marshal to investigate.

The Native American Community Board, which oversees the operations of the building, said nobody was hurt in the fire.

Later, deputies returned to the scene after two juvenile females told firefighters they had witnessed suspicious behavior.


The girls claimed that earlier that morning, they were sitting outside their house when they saw a man, unknown to them, in dark clothes and a ski mask walking along High Street toward the NAWHERC. It appeared to the girls that the man may have been carrying something in his pants.

At approximately 6:30 a.m., deputies say Donavon Sully, 27, of Lake Andes, entered the Charles Mix County Sheriff's Office looking to speak with a deputy.

Organization leaders shared this photo of the damage from a fire at the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center in Lake Andes. Submitted photo

An arrest affidavit for Sully says he told police he had been given a ride from a casino to the Gus Stop, gotten angry and blacked out. When he "came to," he was holding a gas can, and the leaves at his feet were on fire. He claimed he threw the gas can, put out the fire and left the area.

During a formal interview, Sully initially stayed quiet. After a deputy informed him that his probation officer would be contacted, he began talking.

Sully allegedly told police he was angry because a friend wouldn't answer his door. He walked to the NAWHERC and smoked a cigarette outside the building's west door. After some time, he said he stuffed a pair of black Converse shoes with paper, lit them on fire and placed them between a screen door and a storm door.

After placing the shoes, Sully said he walked down an alley and lit a garbage can on fire, hoping it would burn down a shed. Elsewhere, he said he lit a dictionary on fire and placed it inside an electrical box next to a wooden post.


As he continued walking away from the NAWHERC, he said he also started a leaf on fire near a propane tank, slashed a tire, lit a pile of leaves on fire and slashed a second tire.

Authorities verified the details of Sully's story and arrested him, charging him with first-degree arson, reckless burning and intentional damage to property.

Court documents make no mention regarding the extent of any damage resulting from the other fires.

Rebuilding from the ground up

In a fundraising page published by the Native American Community Board, organization leaders say the fire resulted in the loss of their physical office, equipment, documents, community radio studio, and food pantry. Archival photographs and taped interviews with tribal elders were also a loss.

The board believes the fire will result in nearly $250,000 of unexpected expenditures to rebuild.

"We are faced with the daunting task of literally rebuilding from the ground up. We have some very good insurance, but there will be costs beyond that coverage," the board wrote on their GoFundMe page. "We did not have business interruption insurance to pay employee salaries in the event of a disaster. Construction costs and the contents of the building will only be partially covered."


Organization leaders say they are devastated after a fire at the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center in Lake Andes caused major losses to the building's services and tribal history. Submitted photo
Submitted photo

The board says it is resolved to continue providing non-stop services to the fullest extent possible through temporary offices that will be established at their emergency domestic violence shelter. It hopes to resume programming on its community radio station in early 2022.

The Native American Community Board is accepting donations to offset costs. Donors can give by mailing a check to the address listed on their GoFundMe page , or by donating through the internet.

Suspect has extensive criminal record

Sully's criminal record includes eight criminal entries, all of which resulted in convictions.

In September 2013, Sully was convicted of domestic abuse through sexual contact and secret use of a camera to record a person's body. He was sentenced to 35 days in county jail, which he served in 48 hour increments.

In September 2016, he was convicted of impersonating a police officer, for which he paid a $284 fine, and in June 2018, he paid a $166 fine for disorderly conduct.

In September 2018, he was sentenced for three separate criminal violations in the same appearance. In one case, he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, threatening a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest, which resulted in fines of nearly $750. In a separate case tried in the same court appearance, he was sentenced to pay another fine of $186 for refusing to leave property. The third case ordered he pay a $286 fine for failure to appear.

Finally, in September 2020, Sully was convicted on charges of simple assault and assault committed by an adult confined in jail. He was sentenced to pay $563 in fines and spend three years on probation.


In most cases, Sully's sentences included jail time credited for time served or to run concurrent with other cases.

First-degree arson — of which Sully was charged in the NAWHERC fire — is a Class 2 felony, punishable by 25 years in prison, a $50,000 fine or both. South Dakota law qualifies reckless burning as a Class 4 felony and intentional damage to property valued between $1,000 and $2,500 as a Class 6 felony.

If convicted on all charges, Sully faces 37 years in prison, a a $74,000 fine or both. He could also be sentenced to additional time and fines if he's found guilty of violating his probation across various cases.

Sully is due in a Charles Mix County courtroom for a preliminary hearing on Jan. 4. He's currently being held in jail on a $10,000 cash-only bond.

A South Dakota native, Hunter joined Forum Communications Company as a reporter for the Mitchell (S.D.) Republic in June 2021 and now works as a digital reporter for Forum News Service, focusing on local news in Sioux Falls. He also writes regional news spanning across the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin.
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