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Looking Cloud begins fight for justice

RAPID CITY, S.D. - A trial in the death of Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash is finally under way, after 28 years of waiting.

Arlo Looking Cloud, charged with Aquash's 1975 slaying, began his journey through the trial in which the prosecution must prove their charges against him are real.

Looking Cloud is charged with murder and aiding and abetting a murder.

The U.S. Government asserts it has charged the right people in the death of the young Micmac from Canada. John Boy Patton, a.k.a. John Graham was also indicted and was arrested in Canada. He is out on bond and faces an extradition hearing.

Jury selection for Looking Cloud took five hours, with some potential jurors dismissed for reasons that may be termed racial, or problems related to the American Indian Movement. The selected jury consists of one American Indian, one African American with the rest of the 12 jurors and one alternate being white.

One potential juror, Richard Iron Cloud of Porcupine on the Pine Ridge Reservation, was dismissed when he said he wondered if an American Indian could receive justice in South Dakota.

The U.S. Government, led by U.S. Attorney Jim McMahon, painted Looking Cloud as an accomplice in the killing of Aquash in December of 1975. Her body was found in a ravine along a highway in the badlands on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

McMahon laid out a scenario that put Looking Cloud squarely in a group of people whose intention was to eliminate Aquash because many people in the American Indian Movement thought Aquash was an informant.

"In 1988 the defendant talked to people about his involvement. He talked to a number of people. You will hear from those people.

"When (Aquash) was hauled to the Badlands Arlo was there every step of the way," McMahon said during opening statements. McMahon described a scenario that placed Looking Cloud with Aquash when she was taken to Denver and met with members of AIM at a safe house.

He said after a national AIM convention, which Aquash attended, her name was mentioned as an informant for the government.

She was taken from South Dakota to Denver, tied up with ropes and was transported to locations in Rapid City, on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations before she was shot and her body dumped in the Badlands.

McMahon said Looking Cloud was either the driver of the car or with two other people who moved Aquash. The three people with Aquash were Theda Clark, John Graham and Looking Cloud.

McMahon said Aquash told people in Denver that she was scared and feared members of AIM and the FBI. "She said she didn't want to go because people would 'never see me again.'"

The prosecution wants the jury to know that Looking Cloud knew all the time what the intent was - to kill Aquash.

Defense attorney Rensch countered the prosecution story with a story that puts Looking Cloud at the scene, but unaware of any plan to have Aquash killed. "This is a case of fate. What (Looking Cloud) became embroiled in was being in the wrong place at the wrong time," Rensch told the jury.

Looking Cloud, 22 at the time, lived in Denver with his girlfriend, had a job selling art and had a child. "One weekend would change his life," Rensch said.

He said the girlfriend left for the weekend and Looking Cloud drank all weekend. It was then he met Clark, Graham and Aquash. He was talked into driving a car to Rapid City, Rensch said, and didn't know the reason. He also drove the car to locations in South Dakota and was present when Aquash was killed, shot by "Graham," Rensch said.

"He doesn't know what's going on. He knows enough not to ask questions. Arlo had lived on the street, taken drugs and drank, it affected his memory. "That day he thought something was amiss, but didn't ask questions," Rensch told the jury.

The jury heard that Looking Cloud remembers driving the other three to Rosebud, but doesn't remember Aquash begging him to let her go when they were alone in the car together. The prosecution alleged that's what happened.

Rensch said when they got out of the car in the Badlands, Looking Cloud thought they were going to leave Aquash there. "He heard them praying. He thought that's what they were going to do. Then a gunshot," Rensch said.

He alleged that Looking Cloud asked for the gun, fired it in the air to empty it; "because he was afraid for his life."

Rensch told the jury that if a person is with someone who commits a crime, but doesn't know that a crime was the intent, he is not guilty.

The trial is estimated to last more than a week. On the first day, four witnesses were called to establish the location where the crime took place and how the body was situated at the bottom of a 30 foot drop in the Badlands. Roger Amiotte, the rancher who found the body in February 1976 was called to the stand; also Nathan Merrick, former criminal investigator on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Merrick said he was certain that a crime had been committed because he saw blood under Aquash's head, but during the autopsy at the hospital he couldn't get an X-ray because the equipment was not functioning.

Merrick said the face was not recognizable because of decomposition. He added that the investigative team searched for evidence in a large area around the body, but found only hair where Aquash had tumbled down the cliff. He said there was not evidence of a gun discharge at the scene.

The court room looked like a reunion of AIM leaders; Vernon Bellecourt, Bill Means, Russell Means, Joe American Horse and others attended the trial. Most said they planned to follow the trial to the end.