Lost Sparrow

Lost Sparrow

About the Film

On June 27, 1978, a 44-car Conrail freight train struck and killed two Crow Indian brothers near Little Falls, New York. The day before, the boys had disappeared. It was later revealed that the two boys — Bobby, 13, and Tyler, 11 — had run away from the white, Baptist family that had adopted them and their biological sisters seven years earlier, spiriting them from a troubled Montana reservation family to an idyllic Victorian castle across the country. Lost Sparrow is filmmaker Chris Billing’s investigation into the dark family secret that prompted his own adopted brothers’ fatal flight. MORE

A mosaic of Super 8mm home movies, family photographs, newspaper articles, adoption records, police reports, and new on-camera interviews with key people involved in the lives of the two boys, Lost Sparrow pieces together memories and theories from Bobby and Tyler’s biological sisters and father, adoptive parents and siblings, social workers who oversaw their adoption, and the police officers who investigated their deaths.

Bobby and Tyler’s brief lives were tragic from their very beginnings. They were born to teenage parents on the Crow reservation in Montana, survived early years of abuse and neglect, were adopted by a wealthy East Coast family, and finally died on a railroad track in upstate New York. Thirty years later, in an act to close the circle, filmmaker Chris Billing arranges the return of his brothers’ remains from Rural Park Cemetery in Manheim, New York, to the Stands Over Bull Family Cemetery in Pryor, Montana.

“We as Crows don’t believe in burying a Crow Indian some place off in a far away land,” says Pat Stands Over Bull, the boys’ uncle. The Crow belief is that their spirit never rests, and they just go around, when that happens.”

Seeking answers for his own closure, Billing returns to the site of the train accident. Two Little Falls Police officers who investigated the tragedy recall their all-night search for Bobby and Tyler, an early morning call about an incident at the railroad tracks, and the grisly discovery of two young men on the tracks.

“It was just a terrible, terrible, terrible thing,” says retired officer Edward John Dillon. ”Even today, the thought still comes into my mind. You never forget things like that. Never.”

What caused the boys to run away remained a mystery for years, until Billing began to gently peel away the layers of shame, denial, and fear to begin to heal and forgive.

The Filmmaker

Chris Billing is a writer, producer, director, and editor. Previous to Lost Sparrow, he produced, directed, and scripted the full-length documentary Up to the Mountain, Down to the Village (2005), about Chairman Mao’s decade-long youth re-education campaign during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Billing worked for more than a decade as a China-based journalist, including a five-year stint as NBC News Beijing Bureau Chief (1996-2001).


Film Credits

Written, Produced and Directed by Chris Billing


Diann E. Billing
Greg W. Billing
Stuart Billing
Kimberly E. Blackwell
Lana C. Lenhardt
Janelle D. Stands Over Bull

Alee A. Bird Hat
Norma Falls Down
Benjamin Stands Over Bull
Patrick Stands Over Bull, Sr.

Gregg A. Deluca
Edward John Dillon
Cynthia D. Fortune
Rev. Linda Little Owl
John Pretty On Top
Angela Russell

Three Billing siblings declined to be interviewed for this film.

Directors of Photography
Ken Chalk
Michael K. Rogers

Chris Billing

Associate Producer
Janelle D. Stands Over Bull

Additional Camera
Chris Billing & Liang Cai

Graphic Design
Michael Schafer

Sound Design
Chris Mcmorrow

Kasey Kirby

Archival Material courtesy of

Robert P. Allan
Diann E. Billing
The Billings Gazette
Corrigan's Studio, Newport, NY
Norma Falls Down
The Flandreau Indian School
The Little Falls Evening Times
The Newark Star-Ledger
Wrgb, Albany, NY


“Inner Voices”
by R. Carlos Nakai

by R. Carlos Nakai

“Into the Twilight”
by R. Carlos Nakai

“12/20/82 Song”
by R. Carlos Nakai

“Meditations on Dinetah”
by R. Carlos Nakai

“Canyon Reverie”
by R. Carlos Nakai

“Rainbow World”
by R. Carlos Nakai

“Kokopelli Wind”
by R. Carlos Nakai

“Amazing Grace”
by R. Carlos Nakai

R. Carlos Nakai Music Courtesy Canyon Records
Published by DMG Arizona (ASCAP)
All Rights Reserved

“Foot Slide”
by Black Whistle Singers
courtesy KIVA Records
All Rights Reserved

“My Brothers Come Home”
by Janelle D. Stands Over Bull
All Rights Reserved

Special Thanks

Donald Aney Jr.
Elizabeth Broadwin
David Casullo
Dustin Chao
Kimberly Crusey
Donald L. Dixon
Steve Dorst
Daniel Fisher
Natalie Giannelli
Erica Ginsberg
Glenn Hoburg
Andrea Hsu
Sarah Jackson-Han
Deanna Johnston
Melanie Kawano
Duke Kwon
Michael A. Laris
Jennifer Ludden
Mason James Mcgurk
Christopher S. Moser
Brian Palmer
Robert V. Perry
Pamela Pines
Sue Reynolds
Majel Russell
Sara Sarasohn
Adele Schmidt
Scott Seligman
Stephanie Slewka
Brewster Smith
Leah Yoon

Fiscal Sponsorship Provided by the International Documentary Association

Funding Provided by
WaterStone Foundation

And others. A complete list is available from PBS.

Lost Sparrow was produced by Small Handful Productions, LLC, which is solely responsible for its content. © 2009 Small Handful Productions, LLC. All rights reserved.

Have you ever had a dark secret in your own family or a family you know that would be powerful if brought to light? Do you at all empathize with the Billing's mother in this story?


  • American Indian Film Festival
    Best Documentary Feature
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Have you ever had a dark secret in your own family or a family you know that would be powerful if brought to light? Do you at all empathize with the Billing's mother in this story?