Government officials promised Arlo Looking Cloud a deal if he'd help them solve one of the most notorious murders in Native American history. So what's he doing in prison?
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."