Leonard Peltier

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Leonard Peltier behind bars.

Leonard Peltier (born September 12, 1944) is a Native American (American Indian, North American Aboriginal) activist. Peltier was convicted for the execution-style murder of two FBI special agents in 1977.


Early Life

Peltier was born on the Anishinabe (Chippewa) Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. He came from a family of 13 brothers and sisters. Peltier became involved in the American Indian Movement (AIM), eventually becoming the only person to serve a lengthy prison term for incidents arising from conflict at the Pine Ridge Reservation in the early 1970s.

Murder conviction

Leonard Peltier was convicted and is currently incarcerated for the deaths of FBI Special Agents, Ronald A. Williams, 27, and Jack R. Coler, 28, who died during a 1975 shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Mr. Peltier has been in prison for 29 years.

The supporters of Peltier hold the opinion that he was wrongfully and unlawfully convicted. It is notable that one cannot be President if one has been convicted of a felony, yet Mr. Peltier was a certified Candidate in the 2004 Presidential race, for the Peace and Freedom Party.

Shootout at Jumping Bull Ranch

Special Agents Williams and Coler were searching for a young Pine Ridge man named Jimmy Eagle, wanted for his role in the recent torture and robbery of two local ranch hands. The following day, the agents observed a vehicle matching the description provided to them of a truck which Eagle had been seen in several days before. Unknown to the agents, Peltier and his associates were in the vehicle. At the time, Peltier was in a federal fugitive status stemming from a warrant issued in Milwaukee charging unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for the attempted murder of an off-duty Milwaukee police officer.

Shortly after the vehicle came to a stop Williams radioed he and Coler had come under fire from the occupants of the vehicle. Since the vehicle was approximately 250 yards away and the shooters were armed with high-powered rifles, as opposed to the Agents' standard issue .38 pistols and shotguns, the agents were unable to return fire to any effect. FBI Special Agent Gary Adams was the first to respond to Williams' call for assistance. Upon arrival, Adams also came under intense gun fire.

Williams had received a defensive wound through his right hand and head, killing him instantly. Coler, incapacitated from earlier wounds, was shot twice in the head execution style. In total 125 bullets holes were found in the agent's vehicle, many from a .223 caliber (5.56 mm) rifle. An examination of the physical evidence led to the conclusion the agents had been killed at close range by the same .223 caliber rifle.

With steady gunfire coming from Jumping Bull, the FBI, BIA, and the local police spent much of the afternoon pinned down on Highway 18, waiting for another group of law enforcement to flank the compound. This group was also pinned as repeated attempts to advance were met by steady fire. It would be 2:30 P.M. before a BIA sniper in the flanking group got a bead on one of the shooters, Joe Stuntz Kills Right, and dropped him with a single shot between the eyes, and two more hours before the missing FBI agents would be found dead in a pasture. At 6 P.M., the lawmen finally laid down a cloud of tear gas and stormed the Jumping Bull houses. The only Indian who remained was Kills Right, clad in Jack Coler's green FBI field jacket.

The others, authorities would soon learn, had begun to slip away from the compound after Kills Right's death, eluding the flanking party, to cross White Clay Creek, hiding in a culvert beneath a dirt road. With police focused on the storming of Jumping Bull, the fugitives made a break for the southern hills.

Though fired on by distant police riflemen, the band escaped. In the coming days, they split into smaller groups and scattered across the country, setting off a nationwide manhunt which lasted eight months.

The aftermath

After the murders, those involved split up and fled in different directions. On September 5, 1975, Agent Williams' handgun, and shells from both Agents' handguns, were found in a vehicle near the residence where Darrelle Butler was arrested.

On September 10, 1975, a station wagon blew up on the Kansas Turnpike near Wichita, and a burned-up AR-15 was recovered, along with Agent Coler's .308 rifle. The car was loaded with weapons and explosives which were apparently ignited when placed too close to a hole in the exhaust pipe. Present in the car among others were Peltier's associates, Robert Robideau, Norman Charles, and Michael Anderson.

On September 9, 1975, Leonard Peltier purchased a Plymouth station wagon in Denver, Colorado. Peltier began traveling in a recreational vehicle (RV), accompanied by associates in the recently purchased Plymouth. The FBI provided descriptions of the two vehicles to other law enforcement agencies. An Oregon State Trooper stopped the RV based on the description. Peltier got out of the RV, fired at the trooper, and fled. Agent Coler's handgun was found in a bag with Peltier's fingerprint on it, under the front seat of the RV. Both of the vehicles were loaded with weapons and explosives, as was the vehicle that blew up in Kansas. Some of the weapons had obliterated serial numbers.

Peltier then fled to Hinton, Alberta, Canada, where he hid out at an Indian reservation until apprehended by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Peltier was heavily armed at the time of his arrest, and stated he would have blown the RCMP out of their shoes if he had known they were coming for him. When asked if he knew why he was wanted, Peltier made a statement that two FBI Agents were shot when they came to a house to serve a warrant on him. He identified the warrant as the attempted murder charge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

During his trial in US District Court in Fargo, North Dakota, in April 1977, a jury convicted Peltier of the murders of Coler and Williams. A judge sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences.

Alleged Trial Irregularities and Responses

There has been debate over Peltiers guilt and the fairness of his trial. Several allegations have been made by Peltiers supporters which they claim point to his innocence. The FBI, however, disputes all of these.

  • An FBI agent who had previously testified that the agents followed a pickup truck onto the scene, a vehicle that could not be tied to Mr. Peltier, later changed his account, stating that the agents had followed a red and white van onto the scene, a vehicle which Mr. Peltier drove on occasion.
  • The FBI did not record radio communications in 1975 and there was a discrepancy between several Agents as to whether Agent Williams said he was pursing a red and white truck or pickup truck.
  • Three teenaged Native American witnesses testified against Mr. Peltier. All three later claimed that the FBI terrorized them and forced them to testify.
  • The majority of all murder convictions are made without an eyewitness to the actual event, and several eyewitnesses identified Peltier as one of the individuals seen approaching the Agents vehicle shortly before the two were murdered.
  • An FBI ballistics expert testified that a shell casing found near the dead agents' bodies matched the gun tied to Mr. Peltier. However, critics of the case argue that a ballistic test proving that the casing did not come from the gun tied to Mr. Peltier was intentionally concealed.
  • The FBI ballistics expert testified that although the marks from the firing pin of the AR-15 connected to Peltier did not match the casings found at the murder scene, the extractor marks from the before mentioned AR-15 matched exactly with the casings found at the scene. The ballistics expert testified that the firing pin had probably broken and been replaced. Peltiers defense team never disputed the extractor evidence.
  • The FBI also points to Peltiers statements made to Royal Canadian Mounted Police that he would have blown the RCMP out of their shoes if he had known they were coming for him. And when asked if he knew why he was wanted, Peltier made a statement that two FBI Agents were shot when they came to a house to serve a warrant on him.

Post-trial allegations

New revelations about incidents of 1975 on Pine Ridge indicate that there is little agreement, even among Indian communities close to the events, regarding Peltier's claim to innocence. News from Indian Country publisher Paul Demain wrote that an unnamed delegation with knowledge of the incident told him, "Peltier was responsible for the close range execution of the agents..." [1] (http://www.indiancountrynews.com/anniededication2.cfm)

More recently, two women--Darlene "Kamook" Nichols and Bernie Lafferty- have said that Peltier confessed to the murders in a private conversation with them. It should be noted that Kamook, a long-time lover of AIM leader Dennis Banks, has admitted to being an FBI informant.

DeMain and colleagues conducted an investigation, reviewing trial documents, investigative records, books, and media accounts. His paper has interviewed individuals related to the incident.

DeMain describes the delegation who revealed Peltier's role as "grandfathers and grandmothers, AIM activists, Pipe Carriers and others who have carried a heavy unhealthy burden within them that has taken its toll."

DeMain has suggested the cover-up of Peltier's role in the agents' deaths led to the execution of AIM activist Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, for whose murder two other AIM members were indicted in 2002. Having reviewed alleged irregularities or deception by government officials in the case, DeMain suggests the FBI, lacking evidence sufficient to make a genuine case against Peltier, framed a nonetheless guilty man.

Pursuit of freedom

Near the end of President Bill Clinton's presidency in 2000, rumors began circulating that Clinton was considering granting Peltier clemency. This led to a large campaign against possible clemency orchestrated primarily by FBI agents, culminating in a protest outside the White House by about five hundred agents and their families, and a letter opposing clemency from then FBI director Louis Freeh. In the end, Clinton did not grant Peltier clemency, which some speculate was at least partially due to the pressure from these protests.

In 2002, Peltier filed a civil rights lawsuit against the FBI, Louis Freeh, and a long list of FBI agents who had participated in the campaign against his clemency petition, alleging that they "engaged in a systematic and officially sanctioned campaign of misinformation and disinformation." As of August 2003, this suit is still pending.

Peltier is considered a political prisoner by some people and groups including Nelson Mandela, Rigoberta Menchu, Amnesty International, the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights, Tenzin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama), the European Parliament, the Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights, and Rev. Jesse Jackson. To many indigenous peoples, Leonard Peltier is a symbol of the long history of abuse and repression they have endured.

The case for Peltier's pardon has been two-fold. One argument asserts his innocence, and that he variously had no knowledge of the murders (as he told CNN in 1999), that he has knowledge which he will never reveal, or (as told in In the Spirit of Crazy Horse) that he approached and searched the agents but did not execute them. Another argument holds that the killings (no matter who committed them) occurred during a war-like atmosphere on the reservation in which FBI agents were terrorizing residents in the wake of the Pine Ridge standoff in 1972.

External links

ru:Пелтиер, Леонард


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