ONEIDA NATION HOMELANDS, N. Y. ? Stepped-up investigation of a 21-year-old alleged murder has spawned a secondary mystery involving a doctored Associated Press report and an apparent attempt to smear the Oneida Nation leadership.
The murder case involves the still-unsolved disappearance of Tammy Mahoney, a Long Island native who was last seen hitchhiking on Route 46 near Oneida, N. Y. on May 8, 1981. Investigators are looking into allegations that she was sexually assaulted and murdered at a party on the "original" 32 acres of Oneida Indian land. Apparently on the basis of statements from people who attended the party, the multi-agency task force has identified 12 to 14 suspects. The pace of the investigation is clearly picking up, but the body has not been found and no arrests have been made.
A subsidiary scandal involving charges of slander and a smear campaign against Oneida Indian Nation leadership erupted ironically at the Native Media Awards Gala banquet at the recent 18th annual convention of the Native American Journalists Association. As the main event of the convention, held June 21 in San Diego the banquet featured the presentation of NAJA's Wassaja award for courageous reporting to Paul DeMain, editor of News from Indian Country, a twice-monthly paper in Wisconsin.
Indian Country Today has been told by Sonny Skyhawk and Kenneth Deer, who were among the 300 or so people who attended, that DeMain in a rambling acceptance speech mentioned the Mahoney case and said that unfolding events would involve "the hierarchy" of the Oneida Indian Nation. A similar statement reappeared in the June 28 edition of The Eastern Door, the weekly newspaper of the Kahnawake Mohawk territory edited by Deer.
A lead article under the byline of its staff reporter Ross Montour and consisting mainly of an Associated Press story also contained the sentence, "Investigators are alleging that the trail of evidence is leading to several suspects and that among the suspects being named is a 'top Oneida official.'" (The Oneida Indian Nation is owner of Four Directions Media, Inc., the parent company of Indian Country Today.)
Deer attributed the statement to an Associated Press report from early May, contained in a packet of press clips about the case sent to him by a source he declined to name.
But in comparing this article to the original, Rik Stevens, news editor of the New York AP, ascertained that the statement was not made by the AP.
The AP report contains the sentence, "The names of suspects and potential grand jury witnesses were turned over three weeks ago to the U. S. Attorney's office in Syracuse." The clip relied on by Eastern Door and provided to Indian Country Today includes after "suspects", the added words "which allegedly include the name of a top Oneida Nation official." Although the clip does not carry the name and date of a newspaper, it is sourced not only to AP but also to ICC. The corporate parent of News from Indian Country is Indian Country Communications, Inc., and other stories in a recent copy of the paper also carry the same ICC source mark. News from Indian Country published an article attributed to AP and ICC that included the allegation in its Late May 2002 edition.
By press time, Paul DeMain, editor of News from Indian Country, had not responded to calls about the source of this insertion, but all the members of the Mahoney task force reached by Indian Country Today stated emphatically that it is false.
They denied unequivocally that their work leads to any member of the Oneida Nation hierarchy.
"That's not true," said Douglas Bailey, Undersheriff of the Madison County Sheriff's Department and the lead investigator in the case. "That's an erroneous statement. The investigation of suspects has absolutely no connection to the Oneida Indian Nation government."
Bailey denied that he or anyone on his team had ever talked to DeMain of News from Indian Country or Montour of The Eastern Door. "Never been contacted," he said of DeMain. "Never been contacted," he said of Montour. "These two names are new to me."
Arthur Pierce, Oneida Nation Commissioner of Public Safety and the top law enforcement officer of the Oneida Indian Nation Police Department, added, "The Oneida Nation police have been an integral part of the Tammy Mahoney task force since 1995. Although we have identified some suspects, none of them are or have been governmental officials of the Oneida Nation, and any suggestion to the contrary is outrageous."
Pierce emphasized that his men are fully involved in the task force, which also includes the Madison County Sheriff's Department, the Oneida City Police Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The investigation has reached a point in which the U. S. Attorney's office in Syracuse is preparing to present evidence to a federal Grand Jury.
"All the agencies meet as a group periodically and share all information candidly," said Pierce.
"The Oneida Nation government has cooperated fully and has supported the Oneida Nation police to be active participants on the task force. Among other things, our investigators have gone out of state to conduct interviews and provided equipment and personnel relative to searches and excavations involved with the investigation."
As reported in the July 3 issue of Indian Country Today, a large Oneida Nation backhoe on June 25 dug up a portion of the parking lot by the Nation's Shako:wi Cultural Center, believed to be the site of a pond in which evidence related to the case might have been dumped. An FBI "Evidence Recovery" team waited at the dig along with personnel from the Sheriff's office and the Oneida Nation police, but nothing was reported to have been found.
Said Pierce, "The Oneida Nation has also put up $5,000 reward money, which is 50 percent of the entire reward money, for information leading to the recovery of Mahoney's body. The FBI has matched that amount.
"The Nation wants to see justice in this matter as much as anyone else, if not more."
David Hollis, Director of Communications and Special Media for the Oneida Indian Nation, issued a statement attacking the report in the Eastern Door:
"There is nothing to suggest that the story by The Eastern Door and the reporter Ross Montour is true. They did, however, violate every canon of responsible journalism with this story, and the suggestion that 'a top Oneida official' is a suspect. They have been duped by others with an anti-Nation agenda into publishing this nonsense, which they shoddily stitched together from other media sources."
Investigators from the task force have told Indian Country Today that they believe they know the people at the party and the alleged killers of Mahoney, from information provided by other participants. They say the case has reached a stage of cat-and-mouse, in which both sides are engaged in psychological war. Investigators are hoping to crack crucial witnesses, who have the choice of dealing with the U.S. Attorney or facing potential indictment as accessories to murder.
On the other side, they say, the suspects believe, mistakenly, that no case can be brought as long as the body is missing. In a situation somewhat the mirror image of the case of Helen Betty Osborne, a Cree Indian girl raped and murdered in Manitoba, Canada in 1971, the identity of the suspects is claimed to be widely known in the small Oneida community and discussed somewhat furtively by both Indians and non-Indians in local bars which prominently feature posters offering the ,000 reward for recovery of the body.
Investigators say the 12 to 14 people at the lethal party included both Indians and non-Indians from ages even younger than age 14 to adult. They indicate that Indian suspects are not exclusively Oneida. They deny however, that anyone from the party now holds or has ever held a position in the Oneida leadership.
Those who have been following the case are now wondering who is the source of the bogus allegation.