Denver Detective Abe Alonzo was pretty sure he was about to make a historic bust.
Just to be certain, he drove his unmarked car by the guy strolling along the seedy stretch of neon-lit stores on East Colfax Avenue, swung a U-turn through the morning’s rush-hour traffic, and passed him again for another look. On the seat next to the detective was a warrant for the arrest of Arlo Looking Cloud, charged with killing Anna Mae Aquash, one of the most prominent Indian civil-rights activists of the 20th century.
More from our October 2004 Issue
Throughout the early 1970s, Aquash was a senior member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), the Native American equivalent of the Black Panthers. She was there in 1972 with thousands of AIM supporters as they ransacked the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C. She was also on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1973 for the infamous siege at Wounded Knee. Inside that makeshift AIM compound, while it was surrounded by heavily armed federal agents and commandos, 28-year-old Aquash was ready for a fight to the death if it meant the United States government would honor the many treaties it had signed with her native people. Two years later, her body was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, curled in the fetal position with a bullet hole in her head.
On his second pass Detective Alonzo definitely recognized the brown-skinned man with long, black hair as Looking Cloud. It was March 27, 2003, what would have been Aquash’s 58th birthday. By then, her murder had gone unsolved for 27 years, despite at least three grand jury proceedings and a heated congressional probe. Conspiracy theories had spilled from Indian Country, implicating everyone from AIM leaders to the FBI. Almost every major media outlet in the country had covered the politically sensitive mystery. Books had been written. A documentary had been made. Many Native Americans, including some of Colorado’s 51,000 Indian residents, considered the Aquash “execution” as significant and suspicious as the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
The detective parked his car at the corner of Colfax and Williams Street and approached the suspect. Actually, like many cops on the force, he already knew the man well. Looking Cloud was one of Denver’s homeless, and he’d been arrested dozens of times, usually for petty crimes committed while drunk or high. “Alonzo, it’s me. Arlo,” Looking Cloud said when the detective went through the formality of requesting identification.
At about 8:30 a.m., Looking Cloud, already intoxicated and likely stoned, submitted to cuffing without resistance. He assumed he was being collared for missing a court appearance on a recent misdemeanor charge. He figured he’d be back on the streets in no time, getting wasted with his tribe of destitute Indians. When Alonzo informed Looking Cloud he was under arrest for the Aquash homicide, he was stunned. The full-blood Lakota Indian, a great-great grandson of Chief American Horse, thought he’d put that Anna Mae thing behind him years ago.
One morning this March, almost a year to the day after his arrest, Arlo Looking Cloud walks into a closet-size visitors’ room in South Dakota’s Pennington County jail. Three weeks earlier, a jury in the nearby federal courthouse had found him guilty of the first-degree murder of Anna Mae Aquash. A few weeks from today he will hear he’s to serve the maximum sentence of life in prison.
Wearing an inmate jumpsuit and carrying a folder jammed with papers, he sits on a stool bolted to the ground. He is 51, thin and wiry like an aged sprinter. His brown skin is smooth, and disheveled eyeglasses perched on his prominent cheekbones give him a geeky, boyish quality. On the other side of the thick window between us, he tucks his shoulder-length black hair behind his ears and smiles one of those now-what? smiles. This is the first time he has spoken on the record with a journalist.
Looking Cloud tells me he was present on that night in December 1975 when Aquash, with her hands tied, was marched from a Denver house and put into the back of a red Ford Pinto. He says he drove that Pinto to the Badlands and was within feet of her when she was shot, while she knelt and prayed for her two young daughters. However, he insists, two other people, American Indian Movement members, also were there every step of the way and barking orders. He says one of them was the killer. And he swears he had no idea Aquash would be killed until the trigger was pulled. He describes the person he was then as a drunken 22-year-old following the commands of AIM foot soldiers, a group he viewed with both admiration and fear.
This much of what Looking Cloud says is nothing new. On the day Alonzo arrested him, he gave authorities a similar account in a videotaped statement. And that tape was played for the jury at his trial last February. As our conversation continues, however, Looking Cloud mentions something that was never openly discussed in the courtroom or otherwise made part of the public record. He says he gave a virtually identical statement to law enforcement officials nine years earlier. What’s more, he tells me that before he gave that 1994 statement U.S. attorneys gave him a deal. He didn’t ask for it, he says, they offered. According to Looking Cloud, in return for his account of the murder and for future cooperation with any trials the investigation might produce, prosecutors agreed not to use anything he said against him; then, at his trial in South Dakota, government attorneys broke that agreement by using his videotaped words to pin the murder on him.
Looking Cloud’s jailhouse story, of course, could be nothing more than a self-serving con. After all, the Denver streets are filled with Native Americans pitching seemingly unbelievable hard-luck tales. Why believe a vagabond alcoholic convicted of murder? What reason is there to think the United States government would break a promise made to an Indian and call it justice? Actually, there are reasons.
As I get up to leave, Looking Cloud says he’s going to send me something.
“What?” I ask.
“A copy of my deal with the feds.”
Anna Mae Aquash’s daughter Denise remembers the last time she saw her mom. It was a weekend, September 1974. Denise was 11 and her sister, Debbie, was 9. That Friday, before the girls went to school, Jake Maloney, their father and Aquash’s first husband, informed them they would meet their mother later that day at a nearby relative’s in Nova Scotia. He instructed them to tell no one about the visit. Aquash was then a prominent AIM activist and a fugitive in the United States.
Maloney tried to hide that part of his ex-wife’s life from the girls, so they wouldn’t worry or be put in harm’s way. Aquash, though, had already revealed her risky AIM business to Denise. “She didn’t believe in lying,” says Denise, now 38 years old and living in Nova Scotia. “And she told me things because I was the big sister.” When Denise was 9, Aquash showed her a steamer trunk full of guns and ammunition. “She said they were taking them to this place where people were trying to hurt people, and they were taking the [guns] in so people could defend themselves,” Denise says. “She was on her way to Wounded Knee.”
Aquash always exuded a calm confidence in front of her daughters, except for that last time together. At the end of a weekend filled with joyous chatter and adult whispers, Aquash pulled her girls aside. “She got down on her knees,” Denise says. “She had tears in her eyes as she said goodbye. We kept asking when she was going to come and get us. And she looked at me and told me that because I was the elder that it was my responsibility to look after my sister.”
Seven months later, Maloney called his daughters in from playing. “They found a body,” he told them. “We don’t have all the information in yet, but we think it’s her.” Maloney didn’t mention that the first medical examiner had determined Aquash died of “exposure,” and that it was only after her family demanded a second autopsy that another pathologist noted the obvious bullet hole in her head. Maloney didn’t bring up the rumors spreading through Indian Country: Some people were saying the first autopsy was an FBI attempted cover-up, that Aquash had been killed by corrupt federal agents. Other people whispered that AIM leaders got rid of Aquash because she was an informant. Instead, Maloney broke the news to the girls in the most general terms. He figured it was the gentlest way. Besides, truth be told, he didn’t fully understand the perilous life his ex-wife had been leading. He only knew the Anna Mae he’d married.
She was Anna Mae Pictou, a Micmac Indian, a daughter of migrant workers, raised on the tribe’s impoverished reservation in Nova Scotia. She and Maloney, also a full-blood Micmac, met at the Indian Day School, and before graduating the teenage couple moved to Boston to escape the impoverished life on the “rez.” They married, moved into a small apartment, and the girls were born.
They found decent jobs in the big city – Maloney became a laborer, Aquash worked as a factory packer and a barmaid – but they also confronted a harsh reality in 1960s Boston: Like African-Americans, Native Americans were treated as second-class citizens. At her barmaid job Aquash watched Indian men try to drown their depression with booze. She met a Micmac chief who became her mentor; he taught her that the Micmacs were the first native people to encounter the “European white invaders” and that Micmac had trusted the whites until the British governor offered a bounty for every Indian “savage” scalp.
Aquash channeled her festering rage into action. Change and volatility were in the air. Against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the peaceful civil-rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr. morphed into the black-power of the Black Panthers, and Native Americans imitated their African-American peers by establishing urban activist groups like Boston’s Indian Council. Aquash joined the council, where she encouraged her people to be proud of their heritage, and she helped establish an Indian recreation center.
In November 1971, the Indian Council invited a group calling itself the American Indian Movement to town. On Thanksgiving Day, AIM leaders orchestrated a rally at Boston Harbor. Activists climbed aboard a replica of the Mayflower, hung an AIM banner, and declared Thanksgiving a national day of mourning. It was a turning point for Aquash, who was in the crowd with her two daughters. It seemed to her that this group was destined to do more than just build rec centers; they were out to rebuild an Indian nation.
The Mayflower rally also was a pivotal moment for Aquash’s marriage. Although Maloney was all for Indian rights, he felt his and his wife’s foremost duty was to focus on their family. Aquash, however, was now convinced she owed it to her girls to fight for Indian equality. Her commitment to the cause drove a wedge between the couple. They separated, and Aquash began a new life. As she wrote to her sister in Nova Scotia: “These white people here in the United States, they think this country belongs to them. But they’re only in charge right now because there are more of them than there are of us. This whole country changed with only a handful of raggedy-ass pilgrims that came over in the 1500s, and it can take a handful of raggedy-ass Indians to do the same, and I intend to become one of those raggedy-ass Indians.”
An AIM leader who profoundly affected Aquash at that Mayflower rally was Russell Means, one of the organization’s best known and most controversial organizers. Today, Means lives in South Dakota and sits on the Elders’ Council of AIM’s still-active Denver chapter. “AIM was created because we were pushed to the brink of genocide,” he says. “Our people and our culture were about to be obliterated.” His inflammatory rhetoric is buttressed by historical fact. Columbus’ discovery triggered the New World’s colonization, influx of Christian missionaries, Manifest Destiny, and a United States. By 1820, the indigenous people now dubbed Indians had been chased into the western two-thirds of the country.
In 1868, Native Americans made a seminal stand. Defeating American forces, the tribes won control of a huge swath of the country between the Black Hills and Wyoming’s Big Horn Mountain, including the Lakota “holy lands” of the Dakotas. Congress ratified this settlement in the form of the Fort Laramie treaty, which stated that the lands were for the “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of Indians. Four years later, a Jesuit missionary spread word of gold in the Black Hills, and the United States once again attacked the Indians, this time at Little Big Horn. In response to Gen. George Custer’s overwhelming defeat, the U.S. government cut off rations to the reservations until the Native Americans signed a treaty that would “legally” relinquish title to the territories.
From then on, native people would be forced onto a succession of smaller reservations, relocated each time the government wanted something (railroad passage, water, oil, coal, and, more recently, uranium) from the land. And even the rez was controlled by “the Great Council in Washington.” Under supervision of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in D.C., reservations became corrupt, depressed fiefdoms. Meanwhile, missionaries set up schools to “save” Indian children from their “pagan” culture.
They recruited a young Lakota with a genius for public relations named Russell Means. Under his direction, AIM focused on the heart of the matter: U.S.-Indian treaties. The organization established its headquarters in the heart of Indian holy land South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation; and it became unmistakably more aggressive. In 1970, Means led dozens of AIM supporters to the top of Mt. Rushmore. Before authorities dragged the protesters from the mountain, Means urinated down George Washington’s face and proclaimed that the mountains belonged to Indians, as stated in the Fort Laramie Treaty.
In 1972, Means organized the protest that put AIM on the map and drew Aquash into her first battle for the cause. Busloads of Indians from around the country convened in Washington, D.C., at the Bureau of Indian Affairs building for a rally intended to peacefully draw attention to “The Trail of Broken Treaties.” Timed to coincide with the presidential election, AIM leaders planned to present demands to the Nixon administration. Among them: the return of 110 million acres the United States obtained by allegedly violating treaties, and the abolition of the BIA. Aquash, holding her daughters’ hands, arrived with the Boston contingent.
Outside the BIA office, tensions flared. Police riot squads scuffled with protestors. Fearing tear gas would be launched, Aquash handed wet towels to her girls, telling them to cover their mouths if they saw police put on masks. Thousands of AIM members stormed the BIA building, trashing offices and stealing documents. By the time government officials talked AIM out of the building, promising that no criminal charges would be filed, so much damage had been done that the BIA couldn’t open for six weeks. A congressional investigation concluded that the AIM takeover of the BIA building was “the most severe damage inflicted upon Washington, D.C., since the British burned the city in the War of 1812.”
A 19-year-old Arlo Looking Cloud boarded one of the Broken Treaty buses that departed from Denver, but he never made it to Washington, D.C.
Looking Cloud’s Lakota name is Mahkpiyawakipa. It was given to him when he was in his early 40s, by his father. According to Looking Cloud, it means “Stands Alone.” A more fitting name might have been, “Stands No Chance.”
His parents, John and Victoria, both full-blood Lakota, moved to Denver from South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1940s. Because of its proximity to Pine Ridge, Denver was where many Lakota went looking for a better life than the one on the rez. (It was one of the most popular of the city options afforded under the 1948 Relocation Act.) Whatever aspirations the couple had when they arrived were quickly ravaged by alcoholism. According to John’s sister, Martha Featherman, because of booze John and Victoria were unable to hold down jobs or to deal with their first-born son, Arlo. Six months after he was born, Looking Cloud’s mother disappeared from Denver with him. Weeks later, Featherman got a call from someone living in Allen, S.D., saying baby Looking Cloud was there. Featherman and her mother retrieved the infant and, at John Looking Cloud’s request, raised the child. Now a 79-year-old widow, Featherman still lives in the Northeast Denver neighborhood where she cared for her nephew.
Because of her deep Catholic faith, Featherman sent Looking Cloud to the Holy Rosary School back at Pine Ridge when he turned 8. According to many firsthand student accounts that would emerge years later, sexual and physical abuse were common in the missionary schools. Of his time at Holy Rosary, Looking Cloud says only that he saw “things that weren’t right” and that he ran away whenever he got the chance. “Every time they caught me,” he says, “my head was shaved bald and I was whipped.”
Barely into his teens, Looking Cloud started boozing. The more wasted he got, the less he felt. No mom, no dad, no culture – no worries. When he was sloshed, none of that mattered. An infatuation with drawing led him to the Indian Institute of the Arts in Santa Fe, a high school where he hooked up with what he describes as a “bad crowd” and got expelled. Featherman welcomed him back to Denver. He enrolled in Aurora Central High but spent more time attending the bars frequented by Indians along East Colfax than he did in class.
In one of the taverns he met Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, a woman who was one of many AIM operatives in Denver. She worked in the AIM office on Colfax near Emerson. Opened in 1969, it was headed by founding leader Clyde Bellecourt’s brother Vernon. Yellow Wood and Looking Cloud quickly became friends. Not because of anything political, they both just partied with the same crowd. In 1972, Yellow Wood convinced Looking Cloud he ought to hop on the Trail of Broken Treaties bus.
Looking Cloud socialized with many AIM members, but he was never a member of the organization, according to Russell Means. “He never attended meetings,” Means says. “He just hung around.” Looking Cloud hung around because, as far as he was concerned, the more Indians the merrier. To him, the bus ride Yellow Wood described sounded like a good time. When Looking Cloud’s bus stopped at a Minnesota reservation to pick up more supporters, he got off and stayed to party with friends.
During the early ’70s, in one of those bars on Colfax, Looking Cloud met a girl from Pine Ridge, a Lakota named Charlotte Zephier. The couple had a little boy. Determined to a make a better father than the one he had, Looking Cloud moved his family into an apartment not far from his aunt and got a job as a hospital orderly. He cut back on the drinking. For about five years he did his best to be a family man. Despite everything, it looked like he was on the right path. Then, one night in December 1975, while his wife and son were in Nebraska visiting family, Looking Cloud went to Troy Lynn Yellow Wood’s house on the 4400 block of Pecos Street. As he later told government agents, he was looking for a pal who often crashed there. Looking Cloud was hoping the two would go out and grab a few drinks. When he arrived at Yellow Wood’s, he saw a handful of AIM members in the house. They were discussing what to do with a woman who was locked in a back bedroom. A red Pinto was parked out front.
After the Trail of Broken Treaties in 1972, AIM found itself in the midst of a civil war. It started the moment Means and the Pine Ridge contingent rolled back onto the rez. The newly elected president of the tribal government, Dick Wilson, issued an injunction preventing Means or any AIM member from speaking at or even attending public meetings. After all, if AIM were able to abolish the BIA, it would almost certainly end Wilson’s reign and the patronage he doled out to friends and family. While the average annual per capita income on the rez was less than $1,000, Wilson gave his brother a $25,000 per year job heading the tribal planning office, Wilson’s wife was director of the local Head Start program, and Wilson tripled his own salary to $15,500.
Means ignored the president’s decree and was temporarily incarcerated. Meanwhile, Wilson’s federally subsidized, heavily armed lackeys, who proudly called themselves “GOONs,” as in Guardians Of the Oglala Nation, did their worst to prevent other AIM leaders from making public addresses. Even the most patient Indian elders on the rez had become frustrated by the Wilson administration’s perceived malfeasance. They were tired of the nepotism. They were incensed because Indians who’d challenged Wilson and the BIA had their homes firebombed or ended up dead. The injunction imposed on Means, an Indian who had gone to D.C. and demanded change, only galvanized support for AIM and energized a campaign to oust Wilson. In February 1973, four months after the Broken Treaties protest, the elders demanded an impeachment hearing. Incredibly, the BIA allowed Wilson himself to appoint the tribal judge who presided over the proceeding; not surprisingly, Wilson was exonerated.
The elders turned to AIM. Days after the impeachment hearing, a 54-car caravan with as many as 200 AIM supporters pulled into the town of Wounded Knee, where decades earlier the U.S. Army had slaughtered at least 300 of their ancestors. AIM planned to stage a press conference. Means and fellow leader Dennis Banks notified the media and prepared a statement demanding congressional hearings on the Laramie Treaty, BIA abuses, and Wilson’s regime. The document stated that, “The only two options to the United States of America are: 1) They wipe out the old people, women and children, and men, by shooting and attacking us. 2) They negotiate our demands.” Within hours, dozens of federal agents, U.S. military personnel, Wilson, and his GOONs surrounded the dirt-road town, armed with 17 armored personnel carriers, 130,000 rounds of M-16 ammunition, 24,000 flares, 41,000 rounds of M-1 ammunition, 12 M-79 grenade launchers, 600 cases of C-S gas, and 100 rounds of M-40 explosives.
AIM members grabbed whatever weapons they could and holed up in a small, white, clapboard church on a hill. The siege at Wounded Knee had begun. For the next 71 days and nights, AIM and the feds exchanged gunfire while U.S. helicopters and Phantom jets swooped low. Despite booby traps set by the U.S. forces, AIM members snuck to and from the church with weapons, food, and messages. Aquash arrived from Boston with her trunk of guns and ammo. Along with other female AIM members, she dug bunkers, served as a courier, even picked up a rifle and walked the treacherous night patrol.
The standoff ended on May 7, 1973. Two Indians had been killed, at least five wounded. The settlement: Federal negotiators guaranteed “high-level” U.S. officials would meet with Indian chiefs. At the meeting 11 days later, a Lakota chief stood before nearly a dozen mid-level U.S. officials and asked a simple question: “Can we be reinstated back to the 1868 Treaty?” He got a simple answer: “No.”
Inside the compound during the siege, the life-and-death reality fostered a surreal celebratory sense of carpe diem. Acquaintances became friends. Friends became lovers. And two lovers – Nogeesik Aquash and Anna Mae Pictou – married. He was an artist as well as an activist. Their romance had begun back east, after Aquash’s divorce from Maloney. Nogeesik was a reputed ladies’ man and heavy drinker, and their relationship thus far had been a volatile one; one minute he was making her laugh, the next he was punching her in a corner.
In a photograph of the ceremony, the groom, tall and slender, wearing a black fedora and a waist-length corduroy jacket, is hugging the medicine-man officiate; Anna Mae, petite with long, flowing, black hair, an angelic face, wide brown eyes, and clad in a poncho and jeans, stands by smiling tepidly. Her apparent lack of enthusiasm might have come from a recognition that she married during extreme circumstances and prophetically assumed the relationship would not last. Weeks after the siege, the newlyweds returned to Boston and separated. Another failed marriage, however, would be the least of her worries.
Two years later, on that night in December 1975 at Yellow Wood’s Denver house, the handful of AIM members gathered in her living room adjourned their meeting about midnight. Afterward, according to Yellow Wood’s testimony at Looking Cloud’s trial, two of the activists – Theda Clark, who was Yellow Wood’s 50-year-old aunt, and twentysomething John Graham – along with 22-year-old Looking Cloud marched a crying Aquash from the house, put her into the back of Clark’s red Pinto, and drove off.
Yellow Wood had not been in the living room to hear what was discussed, she testified; she’d been talking with Aquash, who said to her, “If they take me away you’ll never see me again.” On the witness stand, Yellow Wood remembered begging her aunt not to take Anna Mae. “[My aunt] just sort of yelled some obscenities and told me I was stupid and I didn’t know what was going on, and kind of pushed me aside.” Yellow Wood picked up the phone to call police, but an AIM supporter hung up the phone and said, “Don’t get involved in this.”
Anna Mae Aquash’s ordeal began. According to the details consistent with Looking Cloud’s videotape statement and the testimony of several witnesses at his trial, it was one hellish road trip. Looking Cloud did a good bit of the driving. About eight or nine hours after the four left Denver, as the sun rose, they arrived in Rapid City, S.D., and went to the home of an AIM member. They spent the morning there, with Aquash locked in a room. That afternoon, Clark, Graham, Looking Cloud, and Aquash, with her hands tied, got back into the Pinto and drove a few miles to a house that served as a legal-defense headquarters for AIM members. A handful of AIM supporters were in the house. Graham and Clark escorted Aquash inside, but they didn’t stay long. That night, around 11 p.m., the Pinto pulled into the small town of Allen, S.D., and parked at the home of AIM activist Dick Marshall and his wife, Cleo. Graham, Looking Cloud, Clark, and Aquash went inside. Cleo sat with Aquash in one room, while Clark and the men gathered in another room. Clark asked if they could leave Aquash with the Marshalls for a while, and Dick refused. Clark, Graham, Looking Cloud, and Aquash got back into the car and headed to another home in the nearby Pine Ridge town of Rosebud. It was well into the evening.
At the Rosebud House, Looking Cloud and Aquash stayed in the car. Clark and Graham went inside. A few minutes later they returned to the car and headed north through the rez, toward the town of Wanblee. Looking Cloud was now in the backseat. Clark was behind the wheel, with Graham riding shotgun and Aquash curled up in the rear compartment. It was early morning. Looking Cloud could tell it was early morning because, as he later told Detective Alonzo, “The sky was changing from black to blue.” The Pinto’s tires rumbled over the crude desert highway. No one in the car said a word.
About 30 miles into the drive, according to Looking Cloud’s videotaped statement, Clark pulled off to the side of a desolate stretch of desert road; Graham got out of the car, walked to the rear hatch, and removed Aquash. As the two walked off into the desert, Clark told Looking Cloud to go with them. When the three reached the edge of a bluff they stopped. “I didn’t think they were going to do it,” Looking Cloud says on the video. “But he did. John Boy [Graham] pulled out a pistol. Put it to her head, and she started to pray. He shot her in the head.” Aquash crumpled and fell off the bluff.
Looking Cloud “figured if they shot her maybe there were going to shoot me.” As he later told investigators, Looking Cloud took the gun from Graham and fired the rest of the bullets into the ground. He and Graham got back into the car, and they all headed back to Denver. Somewhere along the desert road, they pulled over; Clark and Graham hid the gun under a bridge, and Clark said, “If anything happens, I did it.”
“Why was she shot?” Looking Cloud is asked on the video.
“Well, Theda [Clark] said she was an informant.”
In the aftermath of Wounded Knee, AIM came under a wholly different sort of attack: a psychological blitzkrieg of criminal indictments and covert operatives. Indians turned on Indians, and ultimately AIM turned on Aquash.
U.S. prosecutors filed reams of criminal charges against many of the Wounded Knee activists. Part of the motivation behind filing the charges was a government strategy to burden the leadership with legal matters, in order to distract them from the business of activism. And to a certain extent, it worked. With support from Hollywood heavies like Harry Belafonte and Marlon Brando, AIM established the Wounded Knee Legal Defense-Offense Committee (WKLDOC). Renowned attorney William Kuntsler represented AIM founding father Dennis Banks and Russell Means, who indeed became preoccupied with keeping themselves out of prison.
Now separated from second-husband Nogeesik, Aquash left Boston and returned to Pine Ridge to volunteer with WKLDOC. While assisting Banks with his defense, she and the AIM leader, who was married with four children, began an affair. In order to keep her close, Banks ushered Aquash into the organization’s core, effectively anointing her a senior member of the organization. Aquash wasn’t the only new addition Banks brought into the inner sanctum. During the Wounded Knee siege, Douglas Durham arrived with press credentials, got inside the AIM bunker, and forged a bond with Banks, telling the leader that he was part Chippewa. The AIM honcho was impressed by Durham’s Jeep, access to a personal plane, and almost bottomless pockets. Whenever others within AIM questioned the journalist’s assets, he explained it away as inherited wealth.
Almost from the moment Durham arrived, rumors spread through AIM that FBI informants were lurking. Means, Banks, and Bank’s co-founding partner, Clyde Bellecourt, didn’t know who to trust, or if they could trust one another. The rumors not only spread paranoia, they also fostered AIM-on-AIM violence. In the summer of 1973, AIM held a convention in White Oak, Okla.; word was that one of AIM’s national directors, Carter Camp, was an informant. Attempting to clear his name, Camp confronted Clyde Bellecourt. An argument ensued, and Camp shot Bellecourt in the stomach. Many AIM members became convinced that Durham was the source of the rumors and that actually he was the informant.
In the spring of 1975, Durham confirmed the suspicions. Appearing before a Senate subcommittee hearing on internal security, he revealed that he had been an FBI informant and testified about AIM’s “revolutionary activities within the United States.” His announcement fueled the paranoia already surging through AIM and raised questions about Aquash, the other recent addition to the leadership core.
In the following months, AIM activists had ample reason to doubt her loyalty. On June 26, 1975, two FBI agents drove into an AIM tent community, the Jumping Bull Compound, where Aquash was living. A shootout occurred, and both feds were killed. Two hundred FBI agents descended on Pine Ridge and conducted an investigation that would center on AIM activist Leonard Peltier. The feds raided a home belonging to a Peltier relative, finding guns and arresting six people on weapons charges. Aquash was one of those arrested, but within hours the charges against her were dropped, while the other five suspects were held for trial. Three months later, in September, FBI agents raided the home belonging to relatives of AIM medicine man Leonard Crow Dog. Again they found explosives and arrested six people, including Aquash. And again, she was out on bond in less than three days.
In October 1975, AIM held a convention in Farmington, N.M. All of the organization’s top people were there: Banks, the Bellecourt brothers, Means, Peltier, and Aquash, who had just returned from what would be her last visit with her girls. Buzzing through the crowd were questions about how Aquash always seemed to be at the scenes of raids and always seemed to walk away from charges. Aquash was well-aware of the talk. A month before the New Mexico convention, while she was with her daughters in Nova Scotia, she told one of her relatives that some AIM members believed she was an informant. In response to the relative’s obvious question of why Aquash would then go back to the group, she said, “I have to go back and let them know they’re wrong.”
According to Kamook Banks, Dennis Banks’ ex-wife, who testified during Looking Cloud’s trial, Peltier took Aquash away from the crowd at the Farmington gathering, and on a deserted mesa he interrogated her at gunpoint. Aquash told Peltier if he believed she was an informant he should go ahead and shoot her. The two returned to the convention. If Peltier was satisfied Aquash had told the truth, he didn’t believe her for long. Later that same October, Banks and Kamook, Peltier, Aquash, and four others left South Dakota in a motor home owned by actor Marlon Brando. Banks was a fugitive wanted for alleged crimes committed at Wounded Knee; Peltier was a federal fugitive wanted for allegedly shooting the two federal officers. Aquash was brought along, according to Kamook’s testimony, because Peltier and Dennis Banks didn’t trust her. During the drive, Peltier addressed Aquash in front of everyone in the motor home. As Kamook testified, “He said that he believed she was a fed, and that he was going to get some truth serum and give it to her so that she would tell the truth.”
A few weeks into the drive, the motor home reached Oregon. On Nov. 14, a state trooper stopped the vehicle. A firefight erupted. No one was killed. Peltier and Banks escaped. The rest of the five passengers were arrested. At her arraignment hearing in South Dakota 10 days later, Aquash once again was released on bond. Three days after that, on Nov. 28, Aquash went to stay at an AIM safe house in Denver: Troy Lynn Yellow Wood’s place on the 4400 block of Pecos Street. Theda Clark arrived, there was a meeting in the living room. Afterward, Aquash was walked to Clark’s red Pinto.
“It was kind of a fluke,” Detective Alonzo says, describing how he got involved with the Aquash investigation 11 years ago. It’s an unseasonably warm spring morning and we’re in Alonzo’s car, parked on Colfax, where the 33-year veteran of the Denver police department arrested Looking Cloud. Alonzo is a squat, heavyset, middle-aged man with a busy salt-and-pepper mustache and glasses. Clad in an untucked floral-print shirt, he could pass for a bouncer at a beach-themed nightclub. He explains that in 1993 police chief David Marshad asked him to help out the head U.S. marshal for the Federal District of South Dakota, who was coming to investigate the murder.
The marshal was Robert Ecoffey. He was the first Native American ever appointed to a top position in the 206 years of the U.S. Marshal Service; he was also a former GOON. He arrived at Denver police headquarters wearing jeans and cowboy boots. Briefing Alonzo on the Aquash murder, Ecoffey said he’d been interested in the case ever since an otherworldly experience in 1976. Ecoffey said that one day, back when he was a supervisor at the Pine Ridge jail, he heard voices emanating from a cell in the women’s block. He went to investigate and found the cell was empty. Spooked, he consulted with a medicine man, who left Ecoffey thinking the voice was Aquash crying from the afterlife pleading for justice.
“When I first talked to Bob,” Alonzo says, “he mentioned Arlo right away. We just didn’t have all the pieces back then. We had bits and pieces, but we were running short of time. Because our witnesses were dying off on us. And there was still an atmosphere where we weren’t trusted by the Native Americans, understandably, for some reasons.”
The reasons were many. There was history. There was the fact that Ecoffey was a former GOON. And there was the way the feds initially handled the investigation. When a rancher found Aquash’s body on his land in February 1976, some two months after the murder, FBI agents arrived on the scene. Although one of the agents had arrested and interrogated Aquash and knew her well, he said he was unable to identify the body. At the Pine Ridge morgue, an FBI-paid pathologist determined the probable cause of death was “due to exposure.” He tagged the body “Jane Doe,” and it was buried in an unmarked grave on March 2, 1976. The following day, the FBI determined the body’s fingerprints belonged to Aquash and notified her family, who immediately requested a second autopsy. The body was exhumed, and a second pathologist noticed the bullet hole surrounded by dried blood on Aquash’s head. In 1981 the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights determined the FBI’s handling of the Aquash homicide had been “at the very least an extremely indifferent and careless investigation.”
Nothing would come of the case until 1993, when Ecoffey was made the top marshal in South Dakota and started asking questions. He came upon a confidential source who told him he ought to talk to Looking Cloud, a homeless Lakota on the streets of Denver.
Looking Cloud wasn’t hard to find. After the killing, he returned to Denver and rarely left the northeast neighborhood. He did odd jobs for his Aunt Martha – because she gave him a few dollars here and there, because she was family, but also because she was an older native woman. In the Lakota culture, when a matriarch needs help a male obliges. That tradition, Looking Cloud says, influenced his decision to go with Clark and Graham. “When I arrived at Troy Lynn’s, Theda told me to go down to the basement and I did. She asked me to drive to Rapid [City], she didn’t say why, and I said “yes.'” As Looking Cloud tells it, he was shaken by the Anna Mae murder, and shortly thereafter he experienced another tragic death. Looking Cloud’s lover, Charlotte Zephier, gave birth to their second child, a baby girl whose heart inexplicably stopped beating. “Some days,” Looking Cloud now says, reflecting on that period, “you wish you’d never been born.”
Drinking wasn’t enough to make him forget Aquash, his dead baby daughter, and so much else. He turned to drugs. Serious stuff. Acid, speed, mescaline, whatever he could find on the streets and in the “Indian bars.” Wasted and high, he roamed away from his family and into trouble. In the fall of 1994, he was arrested after a car accident. He was drunk and driving with a suspended license. Back at the police station, Looking Cloud found himself sitting across a table from Alonzo, who started asking about Aquash.
Other than Featherman, Looking Cloud says, he didn’t associate much with family after Aquash’s murder. “I didn’t want to bring any trouble to anyone, or involve anybody,” he says. “I wasn’t sure what [AIM] would do if they thought I’d told people.” But with Alonzo asking him pointed questions, uncertain what to do, Looking Cloud turned to his father. John Looking Cloud had gotten himself clean and sober. He’d even managed to land some acting gigs, playing an Indian in a couple of forgettable movies. On his son’s behalf, John, who is now deceased, hired a Parker-based attorney, Henry Mulvihill, to represent his son.
A few nights after Looking Cloud’s arrest, Looking Cloud and the lawyer were, as Mulvihill recalls, “smuggled” from police headquarters to the FBI’s Denver office. “There were armed guards all around,” Mulvihill says. “People were worried about Arlo’s safety. I was worried about my safety.” And the feds indeed offered Looking Cloud a deal. Dated Nov. 3, 1994, and signed by Looking Cloud, Mulvihill, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Dennis R. Holmes, it reads in part: “No statements made by or other information provided by Mr. Looking Cloud during the ‘off-the-record’ proffer or discussion will be used directly against your client in any criminal proceeding.”
Looking Cloud says he told the feds what he knew because he was tired of running from the past and he wanted to do the “moral thing.” He says that’s why, in 1995, he went with Ecoffey and Alonzo out to Pine Ridge, to where Aquash was killed, repeated what he had told them in 1994, and helped them piece together the crime. Looking Cloud says that’s also why, in 2002, when a friend approached him with the name and number of Aquash’s daughters, he called and told them what he remembered of that night.
“His words were, ‘We were told to pick up your mother in Denver and drive her to Rapid City,'” recalls Denise. “He said he believed they were just taking her out to scare her, and he didn’t think things would go the way they did. His voice was shaky. I assume he was crying. We couldn’t believe it,” Denise says. “He said he wanted peace and he wanted to give us closure. We listened to him for what was about an hour. We thanked him and we wished him healing.”
Instead of healing, Looking Cloud got indicted. The following year, in 2003, a grand jury hearing was convened and indicted both him and John Graham. Alonzo hit the streets and found Looking Cloud wandering along East Colfax. Even before Looking Cloud was booked, the detective called Ecoffey in South Dakota. The U.S. marshal hopped on the next plane to Denver, and that afternoon he and Alonzo took a videotaped statement.
In the beginning of the interview, Alonzo informs Looking Cloud of his rights; he’s advised he has the right to remain silent, anything he says can be used against him, that he has the right to talk to a lawyer before questioning and have a lawyer present during questioning. Looking Cloud’s asked if he understands these rights. In a barely audible voice, he says, “Yes.” He is sitting across a table from Alonzo and Ecoffey, with his head down, hands in his lap. His eyes are slits and his voice is a mumble. He appears exhausted or high or drunk, or perhaps all three. Alonzo and Ecoffey have Looking Cloud sign a couple of forms as proof that the statement he is about to give is given voluntarily. Only a few minutes into the interview, after Looking Cloud has offered short, disorganized answers to Ecoffey’s questions, Alonzo asks him if he’s been drinking or on drugs. “A little bit,” Looking Cloud says. “Alcohol.” Alonzo then asks him to sign another form indicating he’s giving his statement voluntarily and the interview continues.
There is no mention of the 1994 deal then, and there was no mention of the deal at his trial. Likewise at the trial, no one addressed the fact that many notes from Looking Cloud’s 1994 interview with Alonzo and the 1995 interview with Alonzo and Ecoffey at the crime scene had been, as Alonzo puts it, “mistakenly” destroyed. Incredibly, while the prosecution called more than 20 witnesses to establish that Looking Cloud at the very least knowingly assisted with the murder, Looking Cloud’s court-appointed attorney, Timothy Rensch, called only a single person to the stand. Rensch asked a former FBI agent who was detailed to Pine Ridge in the ’70s if Aquash had been an informant. While the question had little to do with the legal heart of the case, the agent’s response answered at least one of the long-lingering mysteries; he testified that to his knowledge Aquash had never been an FBI informant.
The last bit of evidence U.S. prosecutors offered to the jury before Looking Cloud was found guilty of first-degree murder was the March 27, 2003, videotaped statement of Looking Cloud. It was, in Ecoffey’s opinion, “the evidence that hung Arlo.” James McMahon, the lead U.S. prosecutor on the case, says the videotape was admissible because the deal his colleagues made with Looking Cloud in 1994 applied only to what Looking Cloud told them “at that specific time. Therefore what he said on the tape in 2003 was not covered by the agreement.”
Respected defense attorney Terry Gilbert, however, describes McMahon’s playing the videotape at the trial, and for that matter the entire case against Looking Cloud, as unconstitutional and wrong. Working pro bono, Gilbert filed a 69-plus-page appeal on Looking Cloud’s behalf last August. The Cleveland-based attorney is no stranger to controversial, high-profile cold cases. He spent a decade trying to clear the name of the infamous Sam Sheppard. A Chicago doctor convicted of killing his pregnant wife in 1954, Sheppard passionately maintained his innocence and became the inspiration for the television and movie series “The Fugitive.” Hired by Sheppard’s son, Gilbert meticulously researched the case, discovering DNA evidence that strongly suggested another person had in fact committed the crime, yet the science was not enough to convince a jury. Gilbert is convinced his Looking Cloud appeal will have a different outcome. In the appeal, Gilbert argues Looking Cloud had ineffective counsel that allowed the government to convict a mentally weak and vulnerable man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was a mentally weak and vulnerable kid. (Defense attorney Rensch did not return several calls made to his office seeking comment.)
“The prosecution’s case against Arlo,” Gilbert says, “is based on trickery and deception. Arlo was really being used as a scapegoat when the government got frustrated with the courts and the investigation. To me, they were hoping to get Arlo to name higher-ups and put AIM on trial, but when he said he didn’t know how exactly AIM was involved – because he didn’t know – they wound up putting Arlo on trial, who really had nothing to do with the murder. There really was no evidence against Arlo proving anything except he was there for the ride. I think this case is in line with the whole history of using Indians in a disingenuous way, of the government making promises and then breaking their promises.”
After 33 years on the force, Detective Abe Alonzo is preparing to retire next year. He expects to see a television show about his work on the Looking Cloud bust, maybe even a feature film. He says he’s been talking with representatives of A&E’s “Cold Case File” and more recently has gotten calls from Tom Hanks’ people. They want to meet with him and Ecoffey.
If Hollywood does put this cold case on the screen, it may have a hard time fashioning Ecoffey into a white hat audiences can root for. He was promoted from South Dakota’s top marshal to director of law enforcement for the Bureau of Indian Affairs right about the time he was wrapping up his investigation of Looking Cloud. But last summer he was “reassigned,” while the U.S. Interior Inspector General investigated a number of inmate deaths that had occurred at BIA prisons under Ecoffey’s watch. And then there’s this: Sometime between when he began investigating Looking Cloud and the trial, Ecoffey, estranged from his wife, began a romance with the prosecution’s star witness, Kamook Banks, the former wife of AIM founder Dennis Banks. Alonzo says news of the relationship, which was not disclosed at Looking Cloud’s trial, is “like the Watergate of Pine Ridge.” It’s also a fact that Looking Cloud’s attorney, Gilbert, feels will be relevant to his appeal efforts. As of late summer, Ecoffey was a police captain on the Pine Ridge Reservation, planning on wedding Kamook in the fall.
John Graham is fighting extradition in Canada, where he has lived for years and where he got married and had three girls. Theda Clark is a barely lucid eightysomething in a Nebraska nursing home. Sources involved with the case suspect she was not indicted because the U.S. attorneys didn’t think a jury would convict such an old, feeble woman. Clark’s niece, Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, tells me that in the 1980s Clark’s daughter was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer in Denver. Yellow Wood says, “My aunt told me that was God paying her back for what she’d done to Anna Mae.”
Anna Mae Aquash’s daughters, Denise and Debbie, successfully petitioned the court to award them custody of their mother’s remains. Last June, they reburied their mother in a Micmac cemetery back in Nova Scotia. For the past 27 years the body had been in a grave on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The first time she was buried, it was as a Jane Doe. The second time, following the FBI’s identification, she was put in the ground as a traitor. That day in South Dakota was cold and dreary. A crowd of Indians circled around the wooden-box coffin sitting next to the hole in the frost-covered earth. Some of them undoubtedly came not to pay their respects but simply to confirm the perceived informant was dead. Women dug the grave, because the Indian men refused.
But on that day last summer in Nova Scotia, the sun shined bright and warm. As Aquash’s new casket was gently lowered into the land where she was born, it was surrounded by family and friends. There were native songs and dancing. In the air was a sense of peace and that justice had been done. “The trial [of Arlo Looking Cloud] was cut-and-dry,” Denise says. “He was there the whole time; when my mother was begging for her life he could have done something. He could have stopped it, but he didn’t. Simple as that.”
In reality, however, many people familiar with this case – including Alonzo, Ecoffey, even AIM leader Russell Means – agree that very little about Anna Mae Aquash’s execution and the investigation has been cut-and-dry. They are convinced that the order to kill Aquash came from high within AIM. Yet no senior ranking member of the organization has ever been charged. Means, who attended the Looking Cloud trial, says the proceeding was “racist to the point of exemplifying how Indian people are treated in the unjust judicial system of America. Arlo gave them the truth when they had nothing. It is standard police procedure while investigating any crime – [that authorities] arrest all of the suspects, then they make deals and they get the main culprits. That’s what the police do. They make deals and they get the main culprits. That has never been followed in the case of Anna Mae.” Why? Means believes the feds are trying to protect a senior member of AIM who actually was an FBI informant and who had Aquash killed because she knew his secret. In 1999, Means held a press conference on the steps of the Colorado state Capitol, where he accused Vernon Bellecourt, the first head of Denver’s AIM chapter and the brother of AIM’s co-founder, Clyde, of orchestrating the hit. It’s an allegation Vernon has denied.
“My effort was bound to be stopped sooner or later,” Anna Mae Aquash wrote to her sister shortly before she was killed. “But no sweat. I’m Indian all the way. I hope I am a good example of a human being and member of the Micmac tribe. Keep that in mind at all times and all that I do.” m
Maximillian Potter is 5280’s Executive Editor.