RAPID CITY, S.D. - It took 28 years to bring one person to justice for the killing of Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, Micmac from Nova Scotia and an activist with the American Indian Movement.
Her body was found in February 1976 in the Badlands on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Time of death was estimated to be Dec. 12, 1975. She was tagged as an informant for the FBI within AIM. During Arlo Looking Cloud's trial that information was used to show cause for her death. That rumor was corroborated by witnesses during the trial. Looking Cloud, a man who had never met Pictou-Aquash before Dec. 10, 1975 was found guilty of Pictou-Aquash's assassination by a seven woman, five man federal jury.
Defense attorney Tim Rensch told the jury in closing arguments and throughout the trial, that Looking Cloud was not aware that Pictou-Aquash was headed for her disastrous fate. Testimony from witnesses, which was labeled as hearsay for the most part, repeated parts of stories told by Looking Cloud that he was surprised when Pictou-Aquash was killed.
Prosecuting attorney Jim McMahon told the jury in closing arguments that Looking Cloud knew all along what the final result would be. "No folks, he's been in this since Denver, he knew exactly what was going on."
The final days for Pictou-Aquash began in Denver, although some may argue it started as early as June 1975 when she was confronted by Leonard Peltier about rumored involvement as an informant.
Testimony at trial from John Trudell and Darlene "Ka-Mook" Nichols, ex-wife of Dennis Banks, laid out a scene whereby Pictou-Aquash told Peltier to either shoot her or defend her.
That Dec. 10 evening in Denver began a series of events that led to the death of one person and life-changing events for others. Looking Cloud went to the home of Troy Lynn Irving Yellow Wood to meet a friend so they could drink together. He was told by Theda Clark, who was at the house, to help drive to Rapid City.
Pictou-Aquash was at that house, along with other people. Testimony was unclear as to whether Pictou-Aquash was taken from the home against her will or if she walked out by herself. Pictou-Aquash was taken to Rapid City for meetings with AIM leaders and others to answer to rumors that she was an informant for the FBI.
She was taken, the prosecution said, and tied up against her will, from Rapid City to various locations on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations and finally at a stop on a lonely road near Wanblee, S.D. she was killed by John Boy Patton, aka, John Graham, according to stories told by Looking Cloud. Graham was arrested on a Grand Jury indictment. He is living in Canada and is free on bond awaiting an extradition hearing.
Rensch objected frequently to hearsay testimony, much of which was overruled by U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Piersol.
FBI agent David Price said on the stand there were very few informants working for the FBI at that time. He also said there were attempts to recruit informants, but he only knew Pictou-Aquash as a person who might provide some information about the death of Jeanette Bissonette.
The prosecution used violence within AIM as a reason to explain why Pictou-Aquash may have been killed. Nichols, after a defense objection, told the jury about an incident in Oregon while they were on the run from legal authorities. Pictou-Aquash was present. Nichols said Leonard Peltier made accusations against Pictou-Aquash. Peltier is now serving time for the killing of two FBI agents in 1975.
The prosecution used Nichols, who was paid by the government, to talk about the making and placing of bombs and about her arrest in Kansas for having explosives in a vehicle. Nichols also spoke with Troy Lynn Yellow Wood and Looking Cloud while she wore a wire placed by the government.
Rensch, after the verdict said the government did not present a prima facie case on hearsay evidence, and grounds for appeal were in place. He did say he would appeal the decision.
Rensch brought out to the jury that the incident and events that led up to the killing were life changing for Looking Cloud. When he returned to Denver he never associated with John Graham or Theda Clark again, and he severed all ties with AIM.
He also called Pictou-Aquash's daughters to explain what happened to their mother and he also told them he was sorry and sad.
Rensch told the jury that Looking Cloud was surprised when Pictou-Aquash was shot and he thought they were just going to scare her.
The defense pointed out that he was never present at meetings where Pictou-Aquash was discussed and that while traveling in the car, either there was no conversation, or it did not reflect what was happening or about to happen.
Prosecutors brought up the fact that Looking Cloud could have walked away from the situation at any time, and had a few opportunities, but didn't.
Looking Cloud was a pitiful person, as many who knew him said and that he would never harm anyone, for any reason. Looking Cloud was living on the streets for the most part in Denver. He went to a house to arrange a drinking session with his friend Joe Morgan, and was asked to be part of something. He was a member of AIM, which for many turned into a family. Looking Cloud was given an opportunity to do something and feel important, former AIM members at the trial said.
Was Looking Cloud another victim of injustice in South Dakota? Many people said yes.
Following the verdict after a four-day trial, the majority of spectators remained in the court house halls, expressing disbelief and anger over the outcome. The most-used words were - there is no justice in South Dakota.
Sam Gardipe, Oglala Lakota and activist for justice and change, brought up the fact that potential juror Richard Iron Cloud of Porcupine on the Pine Ridge Reservation said it first. He was dismissed from the jury pool because he told Judge Piersol he was curious to see if an American Indian could receive fair treatment in a South Dakota court. After questions, Iron Cloud said he didn't think it was possible.
"The verdict was not real surprising. It shows what this judicial system in South Dakota is," Gardipe said.
"Its hard to think the government would give him a fair trial."
Robert Quiver, Oglala Lakota, said "It's typical American justice in a South Dakota courtroom."
In the opening statement at trial, Rensch said Looking Cloud was in the wrong place at the wrong time, a theme many in the American Indian community embraced.
"This poor soul was in the wrong place at the wrong time. We will see indictments of more people on the national level. People have to answer to the senseless killing of Anna Mae Aquash," said Russell Means, actor, activist and former AIM leader, after the verdict was reached. "I'm disgusted, supremely disappointed that South Dakota has not reached a level above Neanderthalism."
In the larger sense, the extradition hearing for John Graham is upcoming and throughout Looking Cloud's trial it was brought out that Graham was the trigger man who killed Pictou-Aquash.
Of those people who attended the trial, it was clear that this trial was only the beginning, and it was easy for the government to start with a vulnerable person like Looking Cloud in order to work their way to the top of the AIM leadership to find out who, if anyone, ordered the killing of Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash.