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Unsolved deaths debunked by FBI Case by case examination puts some rumors to rest

MINNEAPOLIS - An activist American Indian organization claims there are 64 unsolved deaths on reservations in South Dakota. The FBI came forward with a report that stated there were only four.

For many years the American Indian Movement and the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee made a list of 64 names public with explanations that no investigation was conducted or that investigations into the deaths were insufficient.

On July 10, the FBI fought back and issued a 30-page booklet that briefly explains cases in question. It does address the eight deaths that occurred along Rapid Creek in Rapid City within the last several years.

"The publication is part of our attempt to correct the many, many myths circulating on the Internet and on the reservations," said Chip Burrus, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Minneapolis division.

"For many years, rumors of unresolved murders of Native Americans have come to our attention," wrote Douglas J. Domin, special agent in charge of the Minneapolis Division in the forward of the booklet.

"At times, these allegations represented that there were hundreds of murdered Native Americans that had not been investigated by the FBI. The names of murder victims were not attached to the rumors and addressing the allegations could not be accomplished," Domin stated.

Burrus intended to release the booklet to tribal elders at Pine Ridge, but when he started in Kyle he began handing them out in parking lots as well. He dropped the report at 18 different locations on the reservation. He said the FBI could not do its job if tribal members do not trust the work done by the FBI.

"I hope the document will stop the idea that the FBI lets murders go uninvestigated," Burrus said. "I was really surprised. Our reception was favorable. Some people we gave the book to said we should take it down to the Red Cloud Building. We did not get a negative response there and they said they would pass it along to the elders."

The attempt by the FBI is to dispel deep-seated criticism against the organization by tribal members. The FBI is under severe criticism for its inability to solve the most recent murders of Wilson Black Elk and Ronald Hard Heart in June 1999. Their bodies were found on the reservation north of the town of White Clay, Neb. Since that time an organization has kept vigil over the town and protested the sale of beer and alcohol just two miles from the reservation border. The Pine Ridge Reservation does not allow alcohol to be sold within its exterior boundaries.

The estimated gross sales of beer in the small town of White Clay is more than $4 million per year.

The deaths and treatment of American Indians in the justice system in South Dakota prompted the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to hold a one-day public forum in Rapid City last December. Since then controversy over the commission report has led to divisions within the state. The report was critical of the work done by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies and courts within the state regarding crimes against American Indians, especially in race profiling. As a result of the commission report, the FBI received a list of 57 allegedly unsolved deaths provided by the media and other organizations. The FBI response is a result of that commission report.

The FBI report is already under criticism from Vernon Bellecourt, a member of the Grand Council of the American Indian Movement. He said the report was a good start, but didn't damage any of the movement's credibility. He alluded to the fact the reports came out of an era of extreme violence, created in large part by the FBI. Bellecourt and AIM want a special grand jury to investigate the cases and called for open congressional hearings. Burrus said neither was needed. Burrus added, "Anytime Vernon Bellecourt says it's a good start we have done something right."

On the other hand, Elsie Meeks, executive director of the Lakota Fund on the Pine Ridge Reservation and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was not optimistic that report would convince anyone, but added it may stop some rumors about any conspiracies.

She said she believed the data and the perception of the matters not being investigated would be put to rest.

Burrus said the intent of the booklet was to present the facts as known by the FBI and say that some of the perceptions and myths are not true. "Make a judgment for yourself and determine if the FBI has credibility in Indian country."

He added that one of the names on the list, that of Michelle Tobacco was listed by the activist organizations as an AIM supporter killed at Pine Ridge by unknown persons. "Michelle was a 9-month old infant. If people want to know the truth, read this. How could she be an AIM supporter?"

One of the names in the report was that of Buddy Lamont. Lamont bled to death after being shot and held down by gunfire during the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. AIM asserts in its list that Lamont's death was never investigated. The FBI claims Lamont died during a gunfight with federal officers at a roadblock and that the case was reviewed by the U.S. Attorney. No charges were filed.

Robert Lamont, Buddy's uncle, told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader the FBI report brought a lot of answers to questions that had run through his mind. He said he never talked about the incident nor was he ever told. He said he thought Buddy was shot by a sniper.

Joseph Swift Bird told the Argus Leader that no one bothered to ask about his brother's death. Leon Swift Bird was listed by AIM as being killed by members of the Guardians Of the Oglala Nation. Swift Bird agreed with the FBI report that said after a fight, Leon's girlfriend stabbed him. Dorothy Iris Poor Bear pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to three years, but the sentence was suspended and she was placed on probation. The AIM list claims the investigation is ongoing.

Two of the names most recently mentioned in the public media and by activist organizations which appear in the report are those of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash and Joseph Killsright Stuntz.

Aquash's partially decomposed body was found in the Badlands in 1976. Her death was never solved. Rumors of her involvement with the FBI as an informant are, according to the report, false. The report stated the coroner died shortly after performing the autopsy therefore no deposition was ever taken.

Stuntz died from gunshot wounds during a gunfight at the Jumping Bull Camp in 1975. Two FBI agents also were killed for which Leonard Peltier is serving two life sentences. Activists claim there was no investigation of the Stuntz death.

The FBI finds that Stuntz was firing at FBI agents when he was shot by a police officer. When his body was found, he was wearing a SWAT fatigue jacket with FBI on the back. The jacket belonged to Jack Coler, special FBI agent killed just before Stuntz died. Coler and Special Agent Ronald Williams died at the scene.

The FBI would like to have feedback on the report. "We believe they are accurate, but we want feedback about any missing substance," Burrus said.