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?
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.