PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION, S.D. — The top federal prosecutor in South Dakota, stepping into the middle of a bitter dispute between the Oglala Lakota Nation and the FBI, has reopened a series of unsolved murder cases that tribal leaders say the FBI has for too long ignored.
The homicides — shootings, stabbings and beatings, some stemming from a violent political uprising in the 1970s — have deeply frustrated residents because no arrests were ever made. Many no longer trust the FBI and believe that the bureau, with jurisdiction on federal lands, lost interest in Pine Ridge after two FBI agents died during the unrest here.
FBI officials, denying that they have forsaken this place of crushing poverty and a deadly history going back 130 years, said they had conducted their own review 12 years ago of many of the deaths but simply could not produce new arrests.
Now Brendan Johnson, the U.S. attorney for South Dakota, has moved squarely into the center of the conflict by agreeing to re-examine homicide cases from lists presented to him by tribal leaders. They include 45 unsolved murders and 11 other homicides that reservation officials said resulted in light prison sentences.
Johnson also is circumventing the normal process of having the FBI investigate the cases. Instead, he is contracting with a private investigator in nearby Rapid City to dig up new leads, has asked the criminal division of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to share its expertise and assigned his top three prosecutors to manage the review.
What is happening today on the Upper Plains in many ways mirrors what occurred two decades ago in the Deep South, when activists urged federal officials to reopen closed homicide cases in which African-Americans were killed during the civil rights struggles there. That effort ended with a few new convictions. But the vast majority of the unsolved deaths there remain just that – still unexplained.
Now it is Indian Country’s turn to be tested.
“I hope, I pray, that a lot of people will come forward and we will achieve justice,” Tom Poor Bear, vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said at a recent Rapid City meeting with Johnson. “Every day someone calls me or stops me and says this has opened their hopes again.”
In a large white cowboy hat, his long black hair hanging in braids, his voice low but firm, Poor Bear stood before the U.S. Attorney and pleaded, “Just one case. Can’t we solve at least one case?”
The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, 2 million acres rimming the South Dakota Badlands, is home mainly to the Oglala Sioux and some of America’s harshest poverty. The summers are blazingly hot, the winters brutally cold. Eighty percent of the residents are unemployed and many struggle with alcoholism. The reservation says its community is burdened with “crushing financial, housing, health, educational and social issues.”
It also is where the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee essentially ended the Plains Indian Wars.
In the early 1970s, tensions mounted on Pine Ridge when political factions sparred over control of the reservation and residents split between a new tribal chairman and traditional tribe members. Some members of the American Indian Movement led an armed takeover at the Wounded Knee site, which prompted a 71-day siege by federal law enforcement officials.
Later, in 1975, FBI Special Agents Jack R. Coler and Ronald A. Williams, while investigating reports of an assault and robbery on Pine Ridge, were shot to death. Leonard Peltier was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, becoming a cause for Indian rights activists who believed him innocent.
During that time, at least 50 homicides were reported on Pine Ridge, cases tribal leaders want resolved. They include:
Leo Wilcox, a tribal councilman, who law enforcement officials said froze to death after his car broke down in 1973. “We do not believe it,” Gerald Big Crow said.
Oglala Sioux Tribe Judiciary Committee Chairman James Toby Big Boy’s brother Marvin, killed in a 1960 beating. “We didn’t find him until the snow melted, and nothing came of it,” James said.
Buddy Lamont was shot at a roadblock near Wounded Knee in 1973. No charges were filed.
In 1974, John S. Moore was found with stab wounds in the neck and face. His death was ruled a suicide.
And others, including a girl who was raped and left in a grove of trees, a man killed in a snowbound home and a young man whose body was dumped in a trash barrel.
Johnson has emerged as a strong advocate for many reservation families as they mail, email and text potential leads to his office. Private attorneys provide him legal documents with new details about old homicides.
He also chairs the Department of Justice’s Native American Issues Subcommittee, and dresses in blue jeans and a starched white shirt, the curve of a tobacco tin embedded in his hip pocket — all an easy fit in Indian Country. Yet as someone who appears ambitious — his father is Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. — failure to solve any of the cases could carry political risks. Indeed, he cautions that his review may not bring arrests either.
“I won’t make everybody happy,” he told the tribe’s judiciary committee members. “There may be nothing we can do in a lot of these cases.”
But his first assistant U.S. attorney, Randolph J. Seiler, said one case already shows promise. An 11-year-old girl was killed and a “person of interest” has been located in a penitentiary on unrelated charges. Seiler declined to discuss specifics but added with a smile, “A fresh set of eyes brings new hope.”
At FBI regional headquarters in Minnesota, Kyle Loven, chief FBI division counsel and a special agent, said the bureau stands by its 2000 review of 57 cases, though none resulted in new arrests.
That review came after the South Dakota Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights was “sufficiently impressed” about reservation complaints and forwarded 57 names to the FBI. Agents launched a review and sent a brochure back to Pine Ridge saying that “our records” show most of the cases either brought a conviction or were accidental deaths, suicides or other causes. Fifteen cases were declared “unsolved murders known to the FBI and remain under investigation.”
“Absent any new information,” Loven said in a recent interview, “we weren’t going to open up any of these closed investigations.”
But Jane Turner, a former FBI agent who handled reservation cases, said teams of agents should have been dispatched to Pine Ridge searching for new witnesses and evidence. “Nobody went out to Indian Country,” she said. “If they had, they would have opened some cases.”
Many on Pine Ridge want justice at long last, even if only one case is solved. Peltier, locked away for killing the two FBI agents in 1975, said in an email that he hopes Johnson’s “independent investigation” heals old wounds from the unrest of the 1970s.
“We never knew who we could trust,” he said, “and many people died in that bitter time.”