Dreams of Justice: 24-year-old murder keeps
Pine Ridge Reservation on edge
By Mike Anton

He drifted up from the darkness of sleep and into the light.

Patrick Janis stood amid the barren trees on the creek bank behind his sweat lodges. The midwinter trickle was iced over. Janis stepped on the glassy surface and looked down.

A body floated up from the bottom. At first, Janis couldn't tell who it was. But as the body came closer, the Lakota medicine man saw it was Anna Mae. The woman he had met as a boy. The woman whose piercing eyes had looked right through him, measuring his weaknesses and strengths, exposing him. The woman he named his daughter after.

Janis looked down at Anna Mae. Her mouth moved. She was trying to say something. Janis strained to listen, but he could not hear.

"Hey, this woman's alive," he called out in his dream.

A group of men appeared. They smashed the ice and lifted Anna Mae from the water. Janis still couldn't understand what she was trying to say. But he saw her hands were tied with rope.

And then, as quickly as she appeared, she was gone.

When he awoke, Janis was in his mobile home at the end of a rutted dirt road. He felt unsettled. He needed to know more about this dream, discover why Anna Mae's spirit had come to him now, so many years after the Indian activist was abducted from Denver and murdered here on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

"A dream like that is like a thread on your shirt," said Janis, a 42-year-old with small-boned hands and a weight-lifter's chest. "You pull it and you pull it and you think it's going to come off, but it just keeps on unraveling. I wasn't far along in medicine, so I didn't understand it all."

Neither did Robert Ecoffey. Miles away on the reservation, the newly minted federal marshal had had his own dream of Anna Mae. It wasn't the first time she had come to him.

Perhaps a sweat could shed some light on this, Ecoffey thought. Maybe Patrick Janis could help him understand what had happened.

Decomposed body found in ravine

On Feb. 24, 1976, a rancher mending fences came upon a badly decomposed body in a ravine where the prairie meets the Badlands, deep in the heart of a place that's synonymous with the United States' sorry treatment of American Indians.

"I'm pretty sure somebody wanted her found," Roger Amiotte said. "If you wanted to hide something like that there's places here that nobody in the world could find, including me."

A pathologist retained by the government somehow missed a bullet in the back of the head; he said exposure was the cause of death. Unable to identify the remains, the FBI had the hands severed and shipped back East to match the fingerprints. The remains were buried in a pauper's grave.

Another dead Indian on a reservation where gunbattles between warring factions had become a part of life. End of story. Or so it seemed.

In fact, the story of 30-year-old Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash -- who she was, why she was killed and by whom -- has only taken on more meaning through the years. It's another unhealed wound on a reservation where history is notched by injustice.

There was an exhumation. A second autopsy that found the .32-caliber slug. An ongoing FBI investigation. Three grand juries. Accusations that federal agents were involved. Accusations that American Indian Movement leaders had one of their own killed because they feared Aquash was an informer.

Many clues in the mystery of Aquash's murder are found in Denver. It was here that Aquash sought refuge from her accusers within AIM. It was from a Denver public housing project that she was kidnapped and taken back to South Dakota. It took the partnership of two law officers -- one Indian, the other a veteran Denver detective -- to revive the case in the mid-'90s after it had turned stone cold.

And today, Denver's streets are home to one of the suspects in the killing -- a middle-aged homeless career criminal who may be one of only three people who know what happened to Aquash that winter day 24 years ago.

In life, Aquash was a Canadian-born Micmac Indian drawn to the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973 by the 71-day standoff between the FBI and members of the American Indian Movement at Wounded Knee. She quickly became a leader in that fractious group.

In death, Aquash has become a martyr among the Oglala Sioux, a tribe that has known more than its share of violence and deception. She is a folk hero to those who feel they're still engaged in a cold war with the United States, her case a wellspring of conspiracy theories in search of the truth.

Indeed, Aquash's death serves as a metaphor for all that remains unresolved on the Pine Ridge Reservation a generation after Wounded Knee thrust the despair and anger of Indians before the nation.

"This is not just another unsolved crime," said Ecoffey, who reopened the case in 1994 after becoming the first Indian ever appointed as a federal marshal. "It's basically a cry for justice. Not just for herself, but for all Indian people -- especially for Indian people on this reservation. Her case is full of symbolism."

Little has changed on the reservation. The county that incorporates most of Pine Ridge is the nation's poorest. Unemployment hovers around 80 percent. Suicide and alcoholism are epidemic. A mistrust of government -- federal, state or tribal -- still underscores nearly every political skirmish.

Indians still are killed without explanation. In the past two years alone, the bodies of six Indian men have been pulled from a river in nearby Rapid City. Last summer, two other men were dumped in a ditch within sight of Whiteclay, the sleazy Nebraska border town that's little more than the dry reservation's unofficial liquor store.

Mitakuye Oyasin. We are all related. It's a Lakota saying that refers to the people. But it also could be applied to issues on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

People here have a deep collective memory, so the clashes of today often have roots that are intertwined with the wrongs of the past. Allegations of tribal government corruption really have to do with a 66-year-old federal law that set up the reservation's form of government. The recent unsolved murders are linked in people's minds not only to Aquash's death but to violations of treaties signed in 1868 and 1851.

Every piece is part of the whole, and it all intersects at a desire for justice.

"People here feel that the only way to get attention to the issues is to do something dramatic," said Elsie Meeks, an Oglala Sioux and member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which recently held hearings on the rash of deaths. "It's really a cry for help."

Last summer, a march on Whiteclay turned into a riot and led to the establishment of a protest camp on the edge of town. Last month, a simmering political battle led to a resident takeover of the tribal government office building in Pine Ridge.

Reports about both can be tracked online, a curious fact given that more than half of the homes on the reservation are without telephones.

Similarly, numerous Internet sites are devoted to the Aquash case, offering not only background and theories but the suspects' names, which authorities have never released.

Ecoffey's work on the case led him to Denver. With the help of Denver police Detective Abe Alonzo, the two determined Aquash was kidnapped from a Pecos Street home by three AIM members two days before she was killed.

In Alonzo, Ecoffey (pronounced ECK-oh-fee) found a partner who was as obsessed by the slaying as he was.

When Ecoffey took Alonzo to the murder scene in South Dakota, the two shared a cigarette -- a tobacco offering to Aquash's spirit. The hair on Alonzo's arm stood up. Ecoffey told him how his car once stalled on the highway at that precise spot. Another sign, Ecoffey said.

"It's been documented during this investigation that Anna Mae had requested to pray before she was 'executed,"' Alonzo wrote in an open letter to American Indians, which he posted on the Internet last year. "Anna Mae was never allowed to say her final prayers. I know and have felt Anna Mae's spirit. She deserves the dignity to rest in peace.

"I have seen the fear of many people when questioned about Anna Mae's murder. The only fear people should have is their inner fear for not bringing justice to those responsible for Anna Mae's death.

"Anna Mae wasn't the only Indian to die during that time that no one cared about. ... This may be the last effort to prosecute those responsible for Anna Mae's murder."

Since then, Alonzo, a 27-year police veteran, was yanked off the case and transferred out of the intelligence unit. A police spokeswoman says the department is no longer investigating Aquash's death and has turned over its files to the FBI.

"I apologize, but I can't talk about it. I've been given orders," Alonzo said.

But then, he added, "This thing isn't over."

Massacre, siege on same ground

A white flag snaps in the wind on the hilltop where the four Army cannons opened fire 110 years ago, raining shells on the 350 Indian men, women and children in the valley, washing away the last remnants of the culture they knew.

Soldiers chased down and shot those who tried to disappear into the maze of dry, rolling hills and pine-studded ravines that lace the countryside.

Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash wasn't born here, but she quickly learned the landscape around Wounded Knee, sneaking past the federal blockade to ferry food and supplies to those who were holed up against the government.

The fact that the 1890 massacre and the 1973 siege by AIM happened on the same ground makes for perfect symbolism. It was a symbolism that drew young, politically charged Indians from across the nation who, like Aquash, wanted to stand up for their people and taste the moment.

"I had the honor to know her," said Tom Poor Bear, who was 16 and rebelling against the anti-Indian teachings of his Pine Ridge boarding school when he joined the standoff.

"She was a very spiritual woman. Really committed and dedicated to her people. Anna Mae was a resister. She resisted the colonializationof our people. She was a treaty fighter. And once you oppose a government -- it doesn't matter what kind of government it is: federal, state or tribal -- that government will do anything to quiet you."

Aquash grew up poor in Nova Scotia, in a house with no electricity or plumbing. She dropped out of high school and moved to the United States, first to Maine to pick blueberries, then to Boston, where she was introduced to AIM and Indian political activism.

She joined the protests of her time, including the 1972 takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C. Aquash was smart and her skills ran the gamut. She could raise money, organize clothing drives, teach martial arts and handle a gun. Just 5-foot-2, she wouldn't back down from anyone.

She married her second husband during the Wounded Knee siege. Later, she took up with AIM leader Dennis Banks.

"A lot of other AIM women were jealous of her," remembered 71-year-old Geraldine Janis, a friend from Pine Ridge who still has the red shawl with the AIM logo Aquash wore at her wedding. "She didn't let no one boss her around. She said what she wanted to say. She was just such a strong person."

Janis' daughter, Eileen, was a little girl when she met Aquash. Like her brother Patrick, Eileen remembers Aquash as a towering figure, a woman whose goal was to compile a history of the Indian people as told by Indians.

"To me, she was free," Eileen said. "She traveled to fight for other people. And when she traveled around she got to meet different people that you only see on TV when you live on the 'res.' But she actually got to meet them, you know?"

In the years after the Wounded Knee standoff, the Pine Ridge Reservation became the scene of a civil war pitting supporters of the federally backed tribal government against dissidents wanting to overthrow it.

Lawlessness stalked the isolated towns that dot the reservation, a vast expanse the size of Connecticut. More than 60 Indians were killed, untold numbers wounded. Meanwhile, government infiltration of AIM led to suspicion within the group and a hunt for those who had turned informant.

After two FBI agents were gunned down in 1975 at an AIM encampment near Oglala where Aquash had been living, she was sought for questioning. She was arrested and interrogated by FBI agents searching for Leonard Peltier, the AIM leader who would be sentenced to life in prison for the killings after one of the most controversial trials in American history.

"You can either shoot me or throw me in jail," Aquash reportedly told the agents, "as those are the only two choices that I am taking."

She was released on bond, but was arrested again two months later after Oregon police stopped a motor home she was traveling in that belonged to actor and AIM supporter Marlon Brando. There was a shootout, and Peltier and others escaped.

After another FBI interrogation, Aquash was released again. Some within AIM wondered why the FBI kept letting her go. Suddenly, Aquash was under suspicion.

"She moved back to Oglala and they started the talk that she was a snitch," Geraldine Janis said. Aquash, once fearless, was now clearly afraid. "She was scared of everybody. She never did tell me why. All she said was, 'I don't trust anybody.'

"I knew she wasn't a snitch. I do know one thing, though: She was scared and wouldn't get into a car with anybody she didn't know. So whoever took her out, she had to know them. Whoever killed her, she had to know."

Back on the reservation, Janis regularly drove Aquash to town for food and cigarettes. "She lived all alone out there," Janis said. "I'd bring her to my house so she could take a shower. And then, one day I went out there, and she was gone."

A week later, Aquash called Janis. She had moved to an AIM safehouse in Rapid City, she said, but was kicked out.

"I don't know where I'm going, what I'm going to do," Aquash said.

Janis offered to come get her, bring her back to Pine Ridge. Aquash said she'd call her back.

"But I never heard from her," Janis said. "I think that's when she went to Denver."

In Denver, Aquash sought refuge with her friend TroyLynn Yellow Wood, moving into Yellow Wood's red-brick triplex on Pecos Street. It was late November 1975.

Aquash talked about her two young daughters a lot; she had left them with relatives in Canada and she was always concerned about them, Yellow Wood said. Aquash also talked about how the FBI released her, hoping she'd lead them to Peltier and others wanted for the murders of the two agents.

"She knew what was going on. More than I did," said Yellow Wood, who is 49 and still lives on Denver's west side. "I didn't think there was anything to be frightened of. She was paranoid about everybody and everything -- as was everybody back then. Everybody was pointing fingers back and forth. I mean, everybody was afraid of everybody."

Yellow Wood won't say who abducted Aquash, but she knows the three people -- two men and a woman, all Indians active in AIM -- who many believe took her friend back to South Dakota for questioning. She is related to the woman and considers one of the men to be "like a brother."

"She didn't want to go, and I did whatever I could to try to prevent that. But I didn't have any leverage. I tried to put a stop to it, but I just got pushed aside," Yellow Wood said. "Once she thought it was going to cause a problem for me, she said, 'I'll go. I'll take care of this. I can't continue living like this.'

"She didn't want to go. At the same time, she wanted to get things resolved. She was tired of what everybody had been saying about her, how they had been treating her. She was just sick of it. So she went.

"I never thought anything bad would happen. I didn't think there was anything for her to be frightened of. I never had anything to fear from Indian people. I never had anything to fear, I guess I should say."

It was the last time Yellow Wood would see her friend.

The next time Geraldine Janis saw Aquash, she was dead and her hands were gone.

It was after the exhumation from the unmarked grave and the second autopsy. Several dozen people, mostly women, gathered on a hill in a small family cemetery on the reservation.

The day was cold, windy. Blowing snow lashed at faces set in stone. They burned the cheap wooden coffin and wrapped Aquash in a traditional star quilt. Then the younger women took turns digging. The ground was winter hard and it took them two hours to get the job done.

"It was real tough work. Everybody was scared," Janis said. "None of the AIM leaders came. That was odd. Probably felt that somebody was going to shoot them. I think they're cowards."

Another crime unsolved

First light and Loren Black Elk emerged from his tepee and faced the cold January wind looking exactly like a man who has been sleeping on an old mattress on the ground for seven months.

He looked tired. His 40-year-old body was hunched over, stiff. He wore his night clothes, which also happened to be his day clothes: a jean jacket over a sweat shirt. He shuffled to the cook shack he built with donated wood and pushed through the door, which had a sticker on it that read "Home Sweet Home."

He lit a cigarette, stuffed some newspaper into the stove and chased it with a match. A warm, yellow glow illuminated the room, the plastic coolers and the camp equipment, the rifle and machete propped up in a corner, the photo of a smiling Wally Black Elk, Loren's brother, hanging on a wall.

Wally's body was found outside in the ditch along with the body of his cousin Ronald Hard Heart last June. The FBI will reveal little except to say its investigation is ongoing. Many Indians, though, believe the crime was racially motivated -- that the two men were abducted in Whiteclay, killed and dumped on the reservation.

"He was a good guy, not like most," Loren said of his brother. "Hate. That's why he was killed. We're going to stay here until we see justice."

They call this Camp Justice: three tepees, a collection of tents, the cook shack and two portable toilets. Established to draw attention to the murders, the ramshackle camp has attracted family members of the victims and veterans of protests from long ago.

Twenty-four years after Aquash's death, this roadside vigil is a troubling reminder of how naturally murder and politics intersect on the reservation.

"We're at war with the United States government," said John Small, a lanky 51-year-old camp resident who has been living on disability checks ever since he blew his left hand off "fooling around with explosives" during the turbulent '70s.

"It's hard," Small said of life at the camp. "But poverty makes you a survivor."

Camp Justice went up on tribal land after a protest march last July brought out not only locals angry at what they say is indifference by authorities assigned to the double murder case, but American Indian Movement leaders from across the nation.

On the surface, it appeared that the decades-old feud between Russell Means and Vernon and Clyde Bellecourt had been put aside as the AIM icons led 350 people on a two-mile march from Pine Ridge to Whiteclay.

(Four months later, Means said one of the suspects told him that the Bellecourts orchestrated Aquash's murder because they feared she would expose Vernon as a federal informant. Bellecourt denied the accusation and suggested that maybe Means played a role in the killing. "Of course an FBI operative would say that," Means said. "That's standard operating procedure.")

The march on Whiteclay -- a town of 22 residents where 4 million cans of beer are sold each year -- started peacefully. But the protest escalated into an outpouring of enduring grievances: Racism. Exploitation. Claims that Whiteclay and all of northern Nebraska rightfully belong to the Sioux. Robert Ecoffey carried a sign that read "Justice for Anna Mae."

Police blocked the entrance to Whiteclay. Tempers flared and the march quickly turned into a riot.

"Ever since Custer discovered gold in the Black Hills, they've been murdering our people -- over our land, over our spirituality, over our way of life," said Tom Poor Bear, Aquash's friend from the Wounded Knee siege. "A white person can kill an Indian person and get away with it."

Wounded Knee shaped a teen-age Poor Bear in lasting ways. "It opened up my eyes. It made me who I am. It gave me my identity back." Now 43, he once led a campaign to cut the reservation's sky-high rate of diabetes, which he blames on the high cholesterol and fat content of the federal commodity food so many here rely on.

"It's stuff my dogs wouldn't eat," he said. "It's another government smallpox blanket."

Poor Bear, an organizer of the Whiteclay march, is Wally Black Elk's brother and among the dozen or so mainstays at Camp Justice.

"The FBI is not doing a thorough investigation," he said. "If it had been two white people who'd been murdered, this place would be swarming with FBI agents. I look back to when those two FBI agents were killed here on our land and I feel the FBI still holds that against the Oglalas."

To Poor Bear, it's 1972 all over again. That year, an Indian man was plucked from a street by a group of whites, beaten, stripped of his pants and forced to dance at a bar in nearby Gordon, Neb. He died the next day. Three men were convicted of manslaughter.

The case turned Pine Ridge into a magnet for Indian activists, and sent the American Indian Movement down the road that would lead to Wounded Knee a year later.

One thing often leads to another on the reservation, a connecting of the dots that can make old scars bleed and reinforce long-held beliefs.

That's what happened when the U.S. Civil Rights Commission met in South Dakota in December. It was a hearing that started early and stretched well into the night, a day when a pot full of emotion came to a boil and overflowed.

"A lot of the testimony was on issues that I doubt we'll have any impact on" such as poverty and the lack of jobs, said commission member Elsie Meeks. "I know these issues. I'm from here. And to sit and hear these people for 17 hours ... .

"It was pretty overwhelming. I was terribly depressed. People had some immense expectations of us that I know we won't be able to fulfill."

Mitakuye Oyasin. We are all related.

On Jan. 16, the pot boiled over again when 100 Oglala Sioux took over the tribal headquarters building, demanding an investigation into allegations of corruption and fiscal mismanagement against the tribe's treasurer and some members of the tribal council.

The move was spontaneous, with backers of the tribal president -- a political foe of the treasurer's -- hoping to secure documents they feared would be destroyed.

When FBI agents showed up with a U-Haul truck and carted out boxes of paperwork, a group of protesters formed a circle and chanted to the beat of a drum. Historically, the FBI has been the local villain; on this day, it rode to the rescue.

It was all done peacefully, even though on that first night a gunshot rang out from a passing car and set everyone on edge. The tribal police supported the occupation; many were among the hundreds of government employees who were threatened with being laid off because of a funding shortfall.

Inevitably, the protest's aim grew -- from the issue of corruption of individual people to the corruption of the entire system.

"This has been going on since 1934," said Harvey White Woman, a former council member and a protest leader. "This all goes back to the Indian Reorganization Act." That law replaced traditional forms of government with tribal councils supported by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"When we have elections, it's 'Here -- vote for me,"' White Woman said, pulling a handful of cash from his pocket. "Or it's, 'Here's some beer. Some drugs. Some whiskey.' People off the reservation don't take us seriously because they don't take our council seriously.

"We want the people to control our destiny in the traditional ways. The people -- not this corrupt system -- need to say which direction our children's lives are going to go. We're just tired of it."

As one day stretched into another, supporters brought food, coffee and goodwill to those holding the building. Elders placed a sacred pipe in the council chambers -- a not-so-subtle message that they were now in control. At first, the American flag was flown upside down -- a signal of distress that was adopted in the '70s by AIM. But after some military vets among the group complained, it was taken down.

Outside the building's doors and on the rooftop, men with walkie-talkies and binoculars kept an eye on things.

"Working security," they all said. And as the takeover stretched into February a feeling of deja vu developed, a feeling that it was the 1970s all over again, a feeling that, like the Aquash murder, there are no clean endings in Pine Ridge.

He heard it over the intercom, a woman weeping. It was coming from the jail in the basement, so Robert Ecoffey, then a young police officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Pine Ridge, walked down to check.

The cell was empty.

"That was back in 1977," said Ecoffey, who is 45. "I was curious. I asked myself, 'What does this mean?' I was a young man and did not understand what was happening. I heard her crying, but there was no one there. So I sought counsel from a medicine man, and the medicine man said there is this young woman who has been murdered and she has come to you for help and one of these days you will be in a position to help her. He said she knows you have a good heart and will help her.

"It was the first time she came to me. But there have been others."

The time his car stalled by the murder scene. And dreams. Once, Anna Mae came to Ecoffey in the night, as clear as the plains sky. She was smiling. Keep going, she seemed to be telling him. You're on the right track.

Ecoffey shared that dream in the sweat lodge with Patrick Janis. Janis told Ecoffey of his dream, the one at the creek where Anna Mae's hands were tied with rope. That's what happened to her, Ecoffey told him, but it has never been publicized. The two talked and sweated some more.

By then, nearly 20 years had passed and Ecoffey was now a U.S. marshal. He had access to the FBI's files on the Aquash murder. After reading them, he decided to try to revive the moribund investigation.

"This case was so messed up from the beginning," he said. "Anna Mae deserves justice."

When he was young, Ecoffey took a different path than many of his friends on the reservation. The year that Tom Poor Bear ditched school for Wounded Knee, Ecoffey was a high school senior, already married and a father. A year later, he was in college studying for a criminal justice degree.

In June 1975, Ecoffey was doing an internship with the tribal police when he was assigned to accompany two FBI agents to a reservation ranch to look for a man wanted on theft and assault charges.

They didn't find him that day. The next morning, Ecoffey was pulled off the search and told to investigate a burglary. The FBI men returned to the ranch for another look. There was a fierce gunbattle and both agents and a young Indian man were killed.

"I feel very lucky I wasn't with them," Ecoffey said. "I guess the grandfathers had something different in store for me."

When he began to pursue the Aquash case, Ecoffey had an edge over the FBI: People would talk to him. The government's probe -- botched at the start -- stalled, Ecoffey says, because people on the reservation wouldn't cooperate with agents of a government many feel played a role in Aquash's slaying.

"I befriended an elder in the community, a strong leader and a member of AIM, somebody who was looked upon highly," Ecoffey said. "I helped her with some things. One day, I posed a question, whether she had heard what happened to Anna Mae. She was friends with an individual from Denver who might know something. She said she'd visit with that person. And, lo and behold, that person visited me."

The trail led to Denver and eventually to three suspects. Ecoffey won't comment on the case further.

One man is said to be living in Canada's Yukon territory. The other man is 46 years old and lives on the streets of Denver. His Colorado Bureau of Investigation rap sheet runs 10 pages, single spaced, and includes arrests for robbery, theft, assault and possession of drugs and weapons dating to 1974. Last month, he was jailed for assaulting a man at a bus stop. Three days later, he was cited on East Colfax Avenue for drinking gin.

"I was only trying to stay warm," he told the officer.

Robert Pictou-Branscombe tracked this man down in Denver two years ago.

"I could have tore him up right there, but that wouldn't have been right," said Branscombe, 52, a cousin of Anna Mae's and a former Marine who began looking into the case nine years ago when he thought the authorities had abandoned it. "When I told him who I was, he fell to the sidewalk and was on all fours throwing up."

The two sat on a curb. Branscombe lit him a cigarette, and they talked.

"He just nodded his head in agreement to everything I said" -- confirming the story of what happened, Branscombe said. "I tried to talk him into getting into a halfway house. He hits the sauce pretty good. To get credible statements out of these people, we're going to need people who are straight.

"He has a reputation," Branscombe said. "He is known as a hit man with the street folks. He's a dangerous little character."

Branscombe has traveled thousands of miles and claims to have interviewed more than 400 people trying to piece together the puzzle of his cousin's final 48 hours.

Aquash, he says, was driven from Denver to Rapid City where she was interrogated and beaten. There was a trial of sorts, a lot of angry people, some of whom wanted to take care of the job right then and there.

Instead, Aquash was driven to another home, then to a lonely stretch of reservation highway near the town of Wanblee. It was mid-December 1975. Aquash's hands were untied and she was led to a snow-covered ditch by the same three people who kidnapped her two days before, Brancombe says.

She asked if she could have time to pray.

The answer came from behind, the crack of a gun.

"There are no secrets on a reservation," Branscombe said. "The people who know the truth at Pine Ridge need to come forward, stand united. They need to think of Crazy Horse, think of Sitting Bull, think of what the Lakota nation stands for. They need to come forward with the truth. The whole truth."

Perhaps one place where the truth can be found is in the western Nebraska town where the third suspect -- the woman -- lives in a battered mobile home.

When her door opened, a young man stepped out. He was missing his two front teeth. His fists were clenched at his side.

"Go talk to the FBI or somebody who knows what's going on," he said.

The woman stepped behind him. She is said to be in her 70s now. She is small, tired-looking, her voice as coarse as the frost-covered prairie grass.

"I don't want to talk about it," she said. "I've talked to too many people already. I don't know anything about it."

And the door slammed shut.

Gunshot at tribal office

In late January, a man working security at the tribal office occupation was shot in the leg a half-block away. Word spread quickly that the protesters were now under siege by council supporters looking to retake the building.

Rumor -- the reservation is hip-deep in them -- was that a second man also had been shot. Some believed it was Ecoffey. The rumor was wrong.

Ecoffey, who went from being the reservation's marshal to its BIA superintendent, has spent the past several weeks trying to mediate the dispute that led to the building takeover.

The murder of Aquash, however, is never far from his mind.

"We know who's responsible, we know who did it," he said. "But knowing it and proving it in a court of law are two different things."

Ecoffey is among those who wonders whether AIM leaders -- and not just renegades within the organization -- were involved. Aquash had been on the lam with Peltier and knew things about the killing of the FBI agents, he says.

But there are other theories. Many Indians firmly believe that the FBI falsely put out the word that Aquash was an informant as payback for the killing of the agents.

Was the FBI involved? Dennis Holmes, the assistant U.S. attorney in South Dakota who has overseen the case in recent years, has a one-word answer:


A federal grand jury in South Dakota heard testimony in the case as recently as November, when Russell Means repeated his accusation against the Bellecourts. "If I had known about it in the '70s, we would have taken care of it internally," Means told a radio interviewer. "In other words, we'd have probably offed 'em."

Vernon Bellecourt says Means, who has worked as an actor in such films as The Last of the Mohicans and Natural Born Killers, is simply stirring the pot to promote a movie he wants to make, a story about the Pine Ridge reservation becoming a free and independent nation.

"I get charged with always seeking the limelight and that the only reason I'm bringing up the Anna Mae case is because I'm trying to get before the cameras," Means said. "Hey -- my profession is getting before the cameras. I don't need the news media anymore."

Amidst all the verbal crossfire, both men say that only an investigation by Congress will get to the truth.

"What I've said for the past 20 years is that I have no idea who killed her, but the U.S. government was squarely behind it," Bellecourt said. "To ask the FBI to investigate this is outrageous."

And if rogue members of AIM were also involved? "The American Indian Movement," Bellecourt said, "is not any more responsible than, say, the American Legion would be responsible for the wrongdoing of some of its members. Or the Shriners."

The case has left many Indians who knew Aquash caught in the middle, squeezed by competing loyalties to family, friends and revered political leaders who empowered them a generation ago.

"I don't think anything will ever come of it," said TroyLynn Yellow Wood, who believes Aquash was protecting her from harm when she left Denver with her abductors. "If there was just one person involved, then, maybe. But there's so many people ... "

"I think she was really courageous and lived life on her own terms. I wish that her daughters could have been able to know her better. Her gentleness and her vibrancy and her beauty and her hope for the future. The pride she had in being a Micmac. The softness of her voice. The strength of her heart.

"She saw me as one of her last friends, somebody she could depend on," Yellow Wood said. "I still admire her. I still care about her. I still pray for her."

Across the Pine Ridge reservation, people disagree whether AIM leaders ordered Aquash's death. Nearly everyone, however, believes that the case remains unsolved after 24 years because the FBI set her up.

"Of course the FBI was involved," said medicine man Patrick Janis, who once worked as a reservation cop. "To believe that they weren't -- nobody's that unsophisticated today. The question you need to ask is 'What's going on in this country?' Because if they can do it to us, they can do it to you."

It's also not surprising, he says, that AIM leaders are now pointing fingers at each other.

"There was this other dream ..."

In it, Janis sat in a courtroom. There was a trial going on. In front of the judge sat the old AIM leaders -- the Bellecourts, Means, Dennis Banks.

One of them -- Janis won't say who -- walked up and whispered something in his ear. At that moment there was a huge explosion, and to Janis it was a sign that someday the truth about what happened to Anna Mae will burst forth and scatter like shrapnel.

"Now they're accusing each other of doing it." Janis raised an eyebrow and slowly nodded his head. "I believe the people in my dream were showing me the future. The truth, I believe, will come out."

Anna Mae
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