An Indian woman's murder goes to trial--too many years later
Dateline: WOUNDED KNEE, S.D.
Today, at 49, Bob Ecoffey is a big shot, a quietly confident bear of a man who runs the government's law enforcement programs for 635 Indian reservations nationwide. But back in January 1976, he was just a young Oglala Sioux who wanted to be a cop, going to college and working the night shift at the jail on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It was there while on duty one night that he heard a young woman crying through the intercom. But when he searched the jail, he couldn't find anyone.
He was haunted by the mysterious crying. Ecoffey respected Indian spirituality, but he had never experienced anything like this. So he went to talk to his grandfather, a medicine man. "What does it mean?" he asked. His grandfather performed a traditional Indian ceremony and told him: "A young woman was killed before her time, and it wasn't right. She came to you because you have a good heart. You don't understand it now, but one of these days, you'll be in a position to help her."
That Indian woman turned out to be Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, and Bob Ecoffey was able to help her. He just didn't think it would take 27 years.
What happened at the Pine Ridge reservation three decades ago was a uniquely American tragedy, and the murder of Anna Mae was only one part of it. In February 1973, about 200 militant young Indians seized the tiny village of Wounded Knee, barricading themselves in a hilltop church, raiding a white-owned trading post, and briefly holding 11 hostages. Their mission: to draw attention to the desperate plight of their people and protest the oppressive regime of the tribal chairman.
Most of these Indians claimed allegiance to the American Indian Movement, a radical civil rights group whose roots were in Minneapolis. Wounded Knee was an ideal site for a protest because conditions on Pine Ridge were so dire: 54 percent unemployment, chronic alcoholism--stubborn problems that persist today on the sprawling reservation of brown hills and wild prairie. The 1973 standoff quickly became national news, as a force of heavily armed federal agents surrounded the Indians and attempted to end the siege. For weeks, the two sides exchanged thousands of rounds of ammunition. Two occupiers were killed, and several people were wounded. The standoff ended after 71 days, but 185 people were subsequently indicted on federal charges. Nor did the violence end; the next two years saw a virtual war between AIM supporters and the official tribal government. Dozens of Indians were killed or assaulted. Many Indians felt that the FBI, which was responsible for investigating crimes on reservations, didn't care. At the same time, tensions rose dangerously within AIM itself. Factionalism divided the organization, fanned by fears that FBI informants had infiltrated the group. The paranoia crested in March 1975, when AIM's chief security officer admitted being a paid FBI snitch. Then, on June 26, 1975, FBI agents Ron Williams and Jack Coler were shot and killed in the tiny village of Oglala. Overnight, 300 FBI agents descended. After a controversial trial, Leonard Peltier, an AIM leader, was convicted in 1977 and is serving consecutive life sentences; his supporters long have pressed to free him, but his appeals have failed.
In the middle of the Wounded Knee maelstrom was Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, a striking mother of two with a fiery devotion to American Indian rights. Though not yet 30, Anna Mae was one of a very few women prominent within AIM, and her dedication to the cause made her a larger-than-life figure. But ultimately Anna Mae--like many others--found that life on the Pine Ridge reservation could be frighteningly cheap. In December 1975, she was killed with a gunshot to the back of the head. And an enduring mystery was born.
Today, for most of America, what happened at Wounded Knee is the stuff of yellowed newspaper clippings. But for those who lived through it, the violence, the grief, and the bitterness are still fresh. So even nearly 30 years later, "Who killed Anna Mae?" is a question that still matters. It matters to her two daughters, who lost a mother for reasons they don't understand. It matters to former FBI executives who believe they've unfairly suffered the ill will of the Indian community. It matters to Indian rights activists who say their work has been mistakenly tarnished. And it matters to Bob Ecoffey, who still hears his grandfather's words and that soft crying from the jail so many years ago.
LARGER THAN LIFE
Anna Mae had gotten involved with AIM to better the bleak lives of Indians, something she knew about firsthand. She had grown up in a Micmac Indian village in Nova Scotia, living in a house without electricity, picking blueberries as a migrant worker. In Boston, Anna Mae helped organize drug and alcohol education for Indians. In Maine, she taught Indian history--and she also taught dignity. Anna Mae was only 5-foot-2 and soft-spoken, but her presence was powerful. "She taught me to respect myself and to respect others," says longtime friend Marilyn Francis. Adds daughter Denise Maloney Pictou: "She always told us not to let anyone tell us that they are any better than we are." In 1970, she attended an AIM protest at Plymouth Rock. Eventually she did grass-roots organizing, then marched with AIM in Washington, D.C., in 1972. A few months later, she was drawn to the action at Wounded Knee. After the standoff, she went to Oglala to help organize Indian women, winning their trust through quilting, planting huge gardens, and ferrying people to the faraway hospital. "There was no phoniness about her," says AIM supporter Debra White Plume. "She was a brave-hearted woman."
SURROUNDED BY TROUBLE
But in the long, hot summer of 1975, anyone involved with AIM was subject to scrutiny, and the FBI wanted to talk to Anna Mae about the murder of its agents. In September, FBI agents found her in a green tent with dynamite and a sawed-off, .30-caliber carbine. She told them she didn't know anything about the agents' murders. Today, Norman Zigrossi, the former assistant special agent in charge of the FBI Rapid City office, says he's convinced that Anna Mae was at Pine Ridge "to pursue her ideals." But back then, bureau agents couldn't be so sure; they charged her with unlawful possession of a firearm. On Nov. 24, 1975, she appeared before a federal judge in Pierre, S.D., who released her on her own recognizance. She was to appear the next day for a trial, but she didn't show. The FBI considered her an armed and dangerous fugitive.
The truth was that Anna Mae was scared because false rumors were flying within AIM that pegged her as an FBI informant. An AIM activist and her husband took Anna Mae to a safe house--a squat, brick triplex in a gritty, Hispanic neighborhood of Denver. She stayed there for a few weeks until one night in early December when some AIM activists came for her. They drove her nearly eight hours to the Wounded Knee Legal Defense Committee office in Rapid City, where some female members of AIM questioned her for the better part of a day. Anna Mae's friend Candy Hamilton saw her crying there and argued that Anna Mae was not an informant. That was the last time Hamilton saw her friend alive.
A BUNGLED INQUIRY
Anna Mae's body was found on the sunny afternoon of Feb. 24, 1976. Indian cattle rancher Roger Amiotte spotted her lying at the bottom of a 30-foot ravine, clad in jeans and a blazer. Her skin was badly decomposing. Amiotte called the police.
The case was botched from the start, which gave rise to talk of a coverup. None of the cops recognized her because the body was so decomposed. Pathologist W. O. Brown, now deceased, said she died of exposure. The FBI couldn't get a print from her fingers so they instructed Brown to cut off her hands and send them to the FBI lab in Washington for more sophisticated analysis. The Bureau of Indian Affairs buried her in a pauper's grave March 2 without waiting for the identification. A day later, however, the lab results came back, and the bureau issued an urgent teletype: The victim was Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash. The FBI got a court order to exhume the body, and two days after that, Garry Peterson, the medical examiner in Minneapolis, discovered something the first coroner had missed: a bullet wound behind her ear.
For 27 years, theories have swirled about who killed Anna Mae. Most law enforcement officials thought AIM leaders ordered her killed, believing she was an FBI snitch. Many Indians believed the FBI did it or at least didn't try too hard to find her killer. "Had this been a white person in the Republican Party," says Amiotte, now 63, "they would have solved it right away."
Zigrossi, the former FBI executive, oversaw the investigation of the murders of the FBI agents and Anna Mae. "We didn't kill her," says Zigrossi, now retired. "There was no coverup. We sincerely tried to find her killer. And it's bothered me ever since that we didn't." Zigrossi says his agents were quickly convinced that AIM leaders were behind her murder. He also said that the FBI had several contacts with Anna Mae--which very likely prompted rumors within AIM that she had turned informant. "We would have loved to have had her as an informant," he said. "But she didn't want any part of us."
The investigation was stymied by intense suspicion and even animosity in the Indian community. "No one would talk to us," says Zigrossi, who left South Dakota in the late 1970s. "No one trusted us. A lot of people would say, `Get out of here.' You couldn't blame them. The innocent Native Americans on the Pine Ridge reservation got caught in all this political stuff. They were scared. They didn't want to be seen talking to us."
And so, many Indians simply gave up on finding Anna Mae's killer, believing no one cared.
SEARCHING FOR JUSTICE
But Bob Ecoffey couldn't escape the crying and his grandfather's words. As he learned more, he was moved by Anna Mae's quest for social justice. In turn, he wanted justice for her and her family. Today, Anna Mae's daughters--one of whom is a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer--have their own families. "We have been in silent mourning for 27 years," says Denise Maloney Pictou, who was 12 when her mother died. "It has been very painful. You have people walking around for 27 years knowing what happened." When Ecoffey first called Denise about three years ago, his voice was cracking. "He felt for us," she said.
For Ecoffey, the case has broad symbolism. "It's justice for Indian people as a whole," he says. So gradually, Anna Mae's murder became personal. And as he worked his way out of the grinding poverty of the reservation--he was the first in his family to attend college--and built his career as a police officer, first as a tribal cop, then as a BIA officer on the reservation, Ecoffey kept poking at the unsolved case. It was never easy. When he first called Anna Mae's friend Candy Hamilton in 1981, she hung up on him. Still, as an Indian, Ecoffey did have an advantage over the white agents at the FBI--and after a while, the FBI recognized that too. In 1981, Pine Ridge acquaintances shared a good tip that pointed to Denver. Anna Mae had been down in Denver, he learned, and somehow brought back to South Dakota. He passed it on to the FBI, and bureau officials suggested he work with them. Now, he was officially on the case. Ecoffey and now retired FBI case agent Al Garber checked out leads in Denver and confirmed Anna Mae had been taken from the safe house. But AIM supporters mostly refused to talk to them. They went home, frustrated.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ecoffey worked for the U.S. Forest Service and as a BIA administrative manager at Pine Ridge. In that job, he befriended an elderly woman, a prominent AIM member who had been at Wounded Knee. In the early 1990s, he helped her with a right-of-way issue on her land and then pressed for a favor in return. "Do you have any information about Anna Mae's murder?" he asked.
"There are people who know about it," she told him.
"Do you think they'll talk to me?" he asked.
"I'll contact them," she promised.
Not long afterward, that conversation bore fruit when a man from Denver showed up unannounced at Ecoffey's office and provided key names and crucial information. It was the break Ecoffey had been waiting for. He then focused hard on two young AIM operatives who allegedly took Anna Mae from the Denver safe house to Rapid City: activist John Graham and AIM security guard Arlo Looking Cloud.
The tide really turned when Ecoffey was chosen to be South Dakota's U.S. marshal in 1994, the first Indian to hold that post. Ecoffey used the power of his new position to press forward. He traveled to the FBI office in Pierre, where the bureau gave him office space, and he pored through 15 volumes of records on the case. By then, animosities had eased, and Ecoffey decided to try a return trip to Denver.
But now he needed help. Ecoffey turned to the Denver police chief, who assigned detective Abe Alonzo, a cigar-loving ex-marine, to help. Ecoffey also reached out to Rick Iannucci, a former Green Beret and respected U.S. marshal who was running a drug enforcement task force in Denver. The three men seemingly had little in common--Ecoffey a taciturn Indian, Alonzo a Mexican-American chatterbox, Iannucci a tough Italian from Philadelphia. But they had all grown up poor, they were all religious, and they were all part of rich but often stereotyped minority cultures. So they hit it off. As they sat together one day, Ecoffey shared more about the mysterious crying and his grandfather's message. The other two cops were riveted, though Alonzo was skeptical. "At the time," he says, "I didn't understand Indian beliefs." That would change. In the ensuing years, they all came to feel a special bond with Anna Mae.
Alonzo and Iannucci did a lot of the legwork in Denver. With Ecoffey, they approached Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, the AIM supporter who had rented that Denver safe house. Over the course of several meetings, the cops began coaxing information from her. In a recent interview with U.S. News, Yellow Wood said the AIM activists brought Anna Mae to her in November 1975. "They asked me to keep her safe," said Yellow Wood. "She was afraid of the feds. And she was tired of people in AIM accusing her of being an FBI informant." Then, one evening in early December 1975, several AIM members came to the house and told Anna Mae she had to go with them. "She didn't want to go," recalled Yellow Wood. "They told her she was going. I got shoved aside and told I didn't know what was going on. She walked out on her own because she didn't want to cause a problem for me. She wanted to face it and get it over with." Yellow Wood said she saw two people that night: her own aunt, now ailing in a nursing home, and AIM activist Graham. Law enforcement sources say Looking Cloud also was there.
Alonzo and Iannucci were then able to arrange a meeting that ultimately paid big dividends. They went to talk to Arlo Looking Cloud's father, a chief who had them sit through a cedar purification ceremony in his tiny living room in Denver. The Indian elder prayed and lit a smudge stick in a seashell before he told the cops, "I think you have good hearts and you want to do the right thing." He said he would urge his son to talk to them.
A few months later, Looking Cloud, who was in jail on a local misdemeanor charge, agreed to tell the detectives his story. Though the details of that arrangement remain confidential, what Looking Cloud told the three investigators was a major break in their case; Looking Cloud's attorney would not comment on it. But Looking Cloud even drove with the officers in 1995 to the lonely South Dakota ravine where Anna Mae was shot. The cops say Looking Cloud admitted he was there but claimed that Graham fired the fatal shot. Iannucci was in tears, and even though the temperature exceeded 100 degrees, Alonzo grew cold, and the hair on his arms stood straight up. "That's Anna Mae's spirit," Ecoffey told him. "She knows you are a good man." The emotional trip to the ravine helped immensely; Looking Cloud fleshed out the officers' knowledge. But they couldn't rely on his word alone. So they worked to corroborate it, reviewing old interviews and conducting new ones.
After stepping down as U.S. marshal in 1996, Ecoffey became BIA's superintendent at Pine Ridge for five years. His Anna Mae file was always nearby, and his approach with people never wavered: He told them he was seeking the truth--and justice for Anna Mae's family. "He was never pushy," says Candy Hamilton. "But over the years, he stuck with it and stuck with it." A few years ago, Ecoffey got the biggest break of all from a source who came forward on his own. It had been extremely difficult for this person to come forward, but the individual knew what had happened and was able to corroborate events. "This person wanted the truth to come out about what happened to Anna Mae and the history of AIM back then and where it is today so the truth could be known to younger generations," says Alonzo. "Without this individual, we would have never gotten as far as we have." Around that time, Ecoffey dreamed one night that he saw Anna Mae, and she was smiling. He believes she was pleased with his progress.
But there was still another piece needed to complete the puzzle. Even as the evidence mounted, Ecoffey couldn't get a prosecutor interested in pursuing the case. That finally changed after James McMahon became U.S. attorney for South Dakota in 2002. Last spring, McMahon took the case to a federal grand jury, which indicted John Graham and Arlo Looking Cloud for first-degree murder. Now, McMahon, along with his deputy Robert Mandel, is preparing to try Looking Cloud on February 3 in federal court in Rapid City. "I've thought for a number of years that we had enough information to file charges in the case," Ecoffey says. "Jim McMahon had the courage to say, `Yes, I'm willing to step forward and do what's right.' " McMahon shrugs, "This case was never closed."
On the eve of trial, what emerges from official sources and court filings is law enforcement's theory of what actually happened: Investigators believe that after the interrogation at the Wounded Knee Legal Defense Committee office, Looking Cloud and Graham held Anna Mae in an apartment in Rapid City for a day. Then, on December 12, they allegedly drove her to the ravine about 120 miles from Rapid City. As the sun was rising, she stood at the cliff's edge and asked to pray but was shot instead.
Investigators don't believe that Graham and Looking Cloud--low-level AIM operatives--acted on their own. "These people didn't dream this up themselves," says Alonzo. "The theory was she was an informant for the FBI. She had close ties to people in the AIM movement, its main leaders. . . . They were worried she might tell on something."
It's unclear whether onetime AIM honchos might be charged someday. In November 1999, at a Denver press conference, AIM leader turned actor Russell Means accused senior AIM members of ordering her execution, naming AIM leader Vernon Bellecourt. "Until the spring of 1999, I believed it was only the FBI who killed her," Means said in an interview with U.S. News. "Then, I was told by some Indian women some particulars that pointed to AIM. My own investigation satisfied me. It makes me very, very angry." Bellecourt, today AIM's principal spokesman, told U.S. News that he and other AIM leaders had nothing to do with Anna Mae's death. "During that time, there was real concern about infiltrators," he said. "Did that lead to someone ordering her murder? Absolutely not."
Graham, now 48, was arrested in Vancouver just two weeks ago after someone tipped police to his whereabouts. U.S. authorities are seeking the Yukon man's extradition. "He will fight that tooth and nail," says his lawyer Terry LaLiberte. "He is being scapegoated." LaLiberte says Graham did travel with Anna Mae but left her in Rapid City and headed back to Denver. "She wasn't forced to be with him," he says. Graham had previously denied involvement in an appearance on Canadian television. Looking Cloud's attorney, Tim Rensch, says his client did not kill anyone. "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time," says Rensch.
For years, Looking Cloud, 50, has been a sorry but familiar figure on Denver's streets, unemployed, often drunk, and possessing a long rap sheet. For Alonzo, it was maddening that Looking Cloud was still walking around in public. Alonzo was at home on Tuesday, March 25, when an FBI agent called to tell him that Looking Cloud had been indicted. The news brought Alonzo to tears, but he had no idea if Looking Cloud was still in Denver. Two mornings later, the cop was headed to Starbucks when he saw two Indian men walking along Denver's East Colfax Avenue. Alonzo drove past, circled around, and asked for ID.
"Alonzo, it's me, Arlo," replied the shorter of the two.
The detective, 18 months from retirement, rang Ecoffey on his cellphone.
"Guess where I am?" he said. "I'm here on Colfax, and I've got Arlo."
It was meant to be, Ecoffey told him. It was Anna Mae's birthday, March 27. She would have been 58.
By Angie Cannon
Copyright 2003 the U.S. News & World Report, L.P. All rights reserved.