Jury convicts man in 1975 murder of Aquash

by Paul DeMain
News From Indian Country
Feb. 23, 2004 Edition

The attorney for Arlo Looking Cloud said he will appeal the Denver man's conviction in the 1975 execution-style killing of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash, who was thought by some at the time to be a government informant inside the American Indian Movement.

Arlo Looking Cloud

NFIC File Photo by
Police Department

Looking Cloud, 50, showed no emotion when a federal jury of seven women and five men pronounced him guilty the evening of February 6, after seven hours of deliberation. The jury included one African American and one American Indian juror.

Defense attorney Tim Rensch said he believes he can win an appeal because of hearsay evidence in the case and prejudicial evidence that "had nothing to do with the case and could provide a substantial river of reasons for appeal."

Looking Cloud will be sentenced April 23 to a mandatory life prison term.

Aquash's frozen body was found on February 24, 1976 on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The 30-year-old Canadian woman had been shot in the back of her head.

Federal agents investigated for years but didn't bring an indictment until March 2003, when Denver police arrested Looking Cloud.

Another man charged in the case, John Graham, also know as John Boy Patton, was arrested in December in Vancouver, British Columbia, and plans to fight extradition to South Dakota. His is free on $25,000 (USD $16,000) bond.

Both were charged with being party to first-degree murder committed in the perpetration of a kidnapping.

U.S. Attorney Jim McMahon would not comment when asked if more indictments are coming.

John Graham

Photo from Aboriginal Peoples Television Network

"We're looking forward to a visit by Mr. Graham to South Dakota and then we'll take it one step at a time," he said.

McMahon thanked all the law enforcement officers who have worked on the case the past 28 years, and he complimented the people who came forward to testify about what happened.

Activist Russell Means, a former member of AIM, said he was angered at the verdict.

"Our culture is disregarded and not included, and one of the most pathetic men in the city of Denver is given the sole responsibility for the murder ordered by a leader of the American Indian Movement," he said.

Means has claimed that Vernon Bellecourt, AIM Minister of Information and Director of AIM's Domestic Council on Security and Intelligence ordered the execution of Aquash.Means made his public statements fingering Bellecourt beginning in 1999.

Bellecourt's public response has been denial, and that that Mean's is a CIA agent.

In closing arguments, McMahon said the case boiled down to the fact that Looking Cloud helped take Aquash to the place where Graham killed her - despite opportunities to get away.

Looking Cloud with Aquash

Looking Cloud was with Pictou-Aquash for a period of two and one half days from December 10, 1975 when she was tied up in the Denver, Colorado home of Troy Lynn Yellow Wood Williams, forced to go to the Rapid City law offices of Attorney Bruce Ellison on Dec. 11 for an interrogation, and then until she was shot in the early morning hours of December 12, near Wanblee, South Dakota.

Rensch argued that his client didn't know Aquash was going to be killed and that prosecutors have not proven he knowingly took part in it - something the law requires for a conviction. Merely being present isn't enough, he said.

Annie Mae

Photo courtesy of Aquash family

"They have to prove beyond any reasonable doubt that in his mind he wanted Miss Pictou Aquash to die," Rensch said. "Tagging along isn't enough."

"Why would he take the authorities out there and show exactly what happened unless he was at the wrong place at the wrong time," he said.

Rensch said the killing was horrible. But he argued that Looking Cloud was young and didn't stick up for himself when he was told to help drive Aquash to Rapid City and eventually to the place where she was killed.

In three days of testimony from 23 witnesses, prosecutors in the case of a former American Indian Movement member accused of a 1975 slaying tried to show that Arlo Looking Cloud knew why the victim was being taken from Denver to South Dakota and willingly took part in her killing.

On Feb. 3, a packed courtroom waited to hear opening statements before U.S. District Judge Lawrence Piersol of Sioux Falls.

With a photo of Pictou-Aquash displayed on an overhead video screen, McMahon began with a detailed account of Pictou-Aquash's final months.

Pictou-Aquash, a Mi'kmaq from Canada, first came to the Pine Ridge Reservation to support an American Indian Movement occupation at Wounded Knee in 1973. She remained involved in AIM activities, but rumors began circulating that Pictou-Aquash was a government informant.

At an AIM national conference in June 1975, Pictou-Aquash was confronted and threatened about being an informant but denied it, McMahon said.

In the following months, McMahon said, Pictou-Aquash told several people she was afraid for her life and feared some factions of AIM. AIM members began keeping watch on her, eventually she went to a place she considered a "safe house" in Denver in late November 1975.

After a meeting was held at the house, Pictou-Aquash was tied up and put in a car to be driven to Rapid City by Looking Cloud, John Graham and Theda Clark, McMahon said. He said Pictou-Aquash told Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, who lived in the house, "If I go back to South Dakota, you will never see me alive again."


Theda Nelson Clark
Photo by Robert Branscombe

After more meetings in South Dakota, Pictou-Aquash was eventually taken to a spot near Wanblee, where she was led to the edge of a cliff and shot in the head, McMahon said.

In February 1976, rancher Roger Amiotte found her frozen and decomposing body. An autopsy was done. "In a nutshell, that autopsy was botched," McMahon admitted. "Dr. Brown found the cause of death was exposure."

Pictou-Aquash's body was later exhumed, and a second autopsy was done. That time, Dr. Gary Peterson ordered an X-ray, which showed a bullet:

...the gunshot entered the back of the head on the right side of the base of the neck behind the ear, the bullet crossing the back of the head from right, to center and left alongside the left side of the head, with the bullet ending up in the region of left temporal muscle.

February 3rd, 2004

Prosecutors called three witnesses Feb. 3, including rancher Roger Amiotte and former Bureau of Indian Affairs criminal investigator Nathan Merritt.

Merritt explained a decision to cut off Pictou-Aquash's hands after the initial autopsy. The body hadn't been identified, he said, and the hands were too far decomposed to get fingerprints from them outside a lab setting. Investigators gave the severed hands to FBI agents, he said, and further analysis identified them as belonging to Pictou-Aquash.

The FBI announced her identification on March 5, 1976.

Merritt also testified that during the initial autopsy done at the Indian Health Service hospital in Pine Ridge, no X-rays were taken of the body. "I was told the machine was broke," he said.

On Feb 4, Darlene Nichols, also known as Ka-Mook Nichols, the former wife of AIM co-founder Dennis Banks, testified that another AIM member, Leonard Peltier, said "he believed (Aquash) was a fed and that he was going to get some truth serum and give it to her so she would tell the truth."

Nichols testified that she also heard that Peltier had "put a gun to her (Aquash's) head and wanted to know if she was an informant." That interrogation, described by Robert Robideau, a cousin of Peltier in the 2000 Canadian Broadcast Corporation Fifth Estate show was allegedly order by Vernon Bellecourt or Dennis Banks at the June 1975 AIM National Convention in Farmington, New Mexico according to other NFIC sources.


Lakota woman, Ka-Mook Nichols
Yolo Country California, 1982.
(© Michelle Vignes)

"She told him that if he believed that, he could go ahead and shoot."

Nichols cried as she told the jurors that she was with Banks, Aquash and others when Peltier said one of the agents begged for his life but that he shot them anyway.

"He (Peltier) started talking about June 26th (1975) and he put his hand like this" using her thumb and forefinger to imitate a gun, "and started talking about the two FBI agents," said Nichols.

"He said, 'That f......er was begging for his life, but I shot him anyway.'"

Peltier was found guilty of killing the agents on the Pine Ridge Reservation and is serving back-to-back life sentences. He has maintained his innocence, but appeals have failed to overturn the conviction.

Nichols said she and Aquash shared a jail cell in the fall of 1975 when Aquash started talking about her fears. It was the last time she saw Aquash alive, Nichols said. "She was upset, she was crying, she was afraid," said Nichols. "I knew she was scared of Leonard and Dennis at that point."

Nichols said she learned Pictou-Aquash was dead when Banks called her on Feb. 24, 1976 - the same day her body was found. The FBI did not identify Aquash until March 5th, 1976.

Nichols said she remembered the day Banks called because it was her nephew's birthday.

Peltier's attorney Barry Bachrach, denied Nichols' accusations in an Associated Press interview, saying "I'm not sure who put her up to it, but it is unequivocally false."

Nichols joined AIM as a teenager and soon became involved with Banks, having four children including a daughter who was born while Nichols was in jail. She refused to cooperate with federal authorities about the where-abouts of Banks and Peltier.

After reading newspaper reports about the murder of Anna Mae Pictou Aquash in the 1990s, "I started believing the American Indian Movement had something to do with it."

Nichols said she contacted the FBI and later wore a wire to record conversations with Looking Cloud, Dennis Banks and others.

During that period cover almost four years, Nichols was reimbursed some $42,000 for moving twice for security reasons when Dennis Banks found out where she lived, and for travel, lodging, phone and meal expenses. The $42,000 reimbursed is accounted for by receipt according to Jim Graff, FBI agent caseworker for the Aquash case.

In the meantime, Nichols told News From Indian Country, she has had to pass up several contracts for movie casting in the last three years that has cost over $100,000 in personal income, including one three month casting offer that would have paid her around $50,000 alone.

Former AIM member Mathalene White Bear also testified that Pictou-Aquash was afraid in 1975. Pictou-Aquash came to see her in California that September, White Bear said, and told White Bear that threats had been made on her life.

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't she also afraid of the FBI?" McMahon asked. "Yes," White Bear said.

Before Pictou-Aquash left, she showed White Bear an unusual silver filigree ring. She also gave her a phone number, saying that she hoped the next time White Bear saw the ring, it would be on Pictou-Aquash's finger. "But if it were to come to me another way, then what I was to do was to call that phone number," White Bear said.

White Bear later received three phone calls from Pictou-Aquash. The first time, Pictou-Aquash said she was OK and was waiting for word on what to do next. The second time, she was more upset. "She said she felt like she was being caged in," White Bear said. "The people she was with had her afraid to go outside. They had her afraid that she was being watched, is the feeling she got."

By the third call, Pictou-Aquash sounded scared. "She knew something was going wrong," White Bear said. That call was disconnected.

White Bear cried, saying that was the last time she spoke with Pictou-Aquash. A few days after that call, she testified, "I got a little box in the mail ... And when I opened it up, all that was in there was the silver ring."

White Bear called the telephone number Pictou-Aquash had left, which belonged to John Trudell, a former national AIM president and poet. He picked up the ring.

"Then, I spent 28 years of hell waiting to find out what happened, the truth," she said.

Earlier in the day, several retired FBI agents and experts testified about how the investigation and autopsies were conducted.

[former] AIM Chairman John Trudell testifies at trial

John Trudell, AIM's national chairman from 1973 to 1979, was a friend of Pictou-Aquash. He testified that in 1988, Looking Cloud told him how he, Graham, and Theda Clark drove Pictou-Aquash from Denver to Rapid City, where Pictou-Aquash was to be questioned about being an informant.

Under cross-examination, Trudell acknowledged that Looking Cloud hadn't said he wanted Pictou-Aquash to die.

"The impression that I got was that he didn't know what the end result was going to be. I will say that," he said. "But it happened, and he played his role."

Trudell said he believed the group left Rosebud with orders to kill Pictou-Aquash. "See, after they left that house, I don't know about surprise anymore, because somebody said to do this," he said. "John Boy and Arlo and Theda, they weren't decision makers. They did what they were told."

Theda Clark was not part of the indictment that charged Looking Cloud and Graham. She now lives in a nursing home in western Nebraska and has refused to talk about the case...

Trudell told NFIC that he spoke with US prosecutors earlier in the day, telling them that "for all practical purposes he should consider them the enemy." We had a war thirty years ago, and during a war there are no niceties, said Trudell. They want to know the same thing I want to know, and that is who ordered and killed my friend Annie Mae. We are hunting for the same thing, the truth about what happened to her.

"This is not about the thousands of members of the American Indian Movement who supported us, who went to Wounded Knee, this is not even about the leadership of the American Indian Movement, this is about some individual people, who made decisions that they need to be held responsible for," said Trudell.

Aquash brought to WKLDOC

Candy Hamilton, who moved to South Dakota in 1973 to help with the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee, was in Rapid City the night Pictou-Aquash was brought from Denver. She spent the night in Rapid City, and the next day went to the Allen Street house that served as committee - or WKLDOC - headquarters.

Hamilton testified that she saw attorney Bruce Ellison, Ted and Laurelei Means, Clyde Bellecourt, Madonna Gilbert and others at the WKLDOC house, where they were apparently meeting behind closed doors.

Hamilton also saw Pictou-Aquash briefly. "She had been crying," Hamilton said. "She appeared very unhappy."

Hamilton later left for Sioux Falls - where she was to testify at AIM leader Russell Means' trial in connection with the Custer courthouse riot earlier that year - with Clyde Bellecourt, Ted Means, Webster Poor Bear and another man. She said they stopped at Bill Means' house in Rosebud, where she waited in the car. During the trip there, Hamilton noted that hardly a word was said, which she felt was uncommon.

On cross-examination, Rensch established that Hamilton and Pictou-Aquash were alone in the kitchen at the WKLDOC house, which had a back door. Yet Pictou-Aquash never tried to leave or ask for help, Rensch affirmed.

Hamilton was prevented by Rensch in the courtroom from saying she had overheard Ellison arriving earlier on in the day, to the home of Thelma Rios-Conroy-Hill and telling Rios, that they had Annie Mae at the WKLDOC house and to get over there. Hamilton had previously told that story to NFIC off the record.

Rios, was then the common law wife of David Hill, who Hamilton also testified had showed up the night before Annie Mae was brought to Rapid City.

Hill is presently the Executive Director of the Leonard Peltier Defense Fund, and has been previously been identified by Dino Butler, and Vernon Bellecourt as the man who stages himself as Mr. X, and who says he was the person who executed two FBI agents on June 26, 1975 at the Jumping Bull Compound.

One of Pictou-Aquash's two daughters, Denise Maloney Pictou, also testified Feb. 5, telling how Looking Cloud contacted the sisters in 2002. "He was very emotional and said that he felt bad that he hadn't done it a long time ago," she said.

She said Looking Cloud told them he thought they were just out to scare Pictou-Aquash. He also said he stayed with the car while Clark and Graham took Pictou-Aquash out and shot her.

Arlo handed John Boy the gun

That differed from other versions of the story. Another witness, Richard Two Elk, testified that he had spoken with Looking Cloud about the murder at least a half-dozen times and that Looking Cloud once described handing the gun to Graham as the two walked Pictou-Aquash up the hill to her death.

But when questioned, Two Elk couldn't say when or where the conversations took place or what was said. When Rensch noted that Two Elk has said Looking Cloud "consistently told him the same thing over the years," a confusing exchange resulted, with Two Elk describing how he had had repeated conversations with Looking Cloud, "but the answers are often different. ... All the different answers are consistently the same."

Rensch suggested that Two Elk hates AIM leadership and wanted to make AIM look bad, a claim Two Elk denied.

Also on Feb 5, Cleo Gates testified that Looking Cloud, Graham, Clark and Pictou-Aquash came to the Allen home she shared with then-husband Dick Marshall one night in December 1975. "They brought the girl (Aquash) in, and she sat on a chair in the living room, and they (Looking Cloud, John Graham and Theda Clark) went into the bedroom with my husband," Gates said. When Marshall came out, he said they wanted the couple to keep Pictou-Aquash at their house.

"I said no," Gates said, because she had heard the rumors about Pictou-Aquash. "I didn't want to be any part of it."

Prosecutors asked Gates if she knew of any guns that might have been in the house or bedroom, but Gates said there were no guns in their house at the time.

There were through-out the testimony of several witnesses, suggestions of inconsistencies in Looking Cloud's stories, or perhaps in his memory.

Looking Cloud describes killing during confession on video tape

Prosecutors, Feb. 5, played a videotape of an interview that Robert Ecoffey, now deputy director for the Department of Law Enforcement Services for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Albuquerque, N.M., conducted with Looking Cloud in Denver in March 2003.

On the tape, Looking Cloud says he doesn't remember stopping in Allen before taking Pictou-Aquash to Rosebud, something that became an apparent omission in every story Looking Cloud told other people.

The questioning during Cleo Gates testimony, suggested that Looking Cloud avoided discussions regarding stoping at Dick Marshals home, because they may have obtained a gun there.

However, Looking Cloud claims during the tape, that John Graham handed him the gun after Graham shot Aquash and that Looking Cloud then unloaded the gun by shooting it into the ground.

Jurors watched the videotape in which Looking Cloud described taking Anna Mae Pictou Aquash to South Dakota and watching as she was shot. Looking Cloud said on tape he didn't know another member of their group was going to kill her.

Graham denies shooting Aquash, but Looking Cloud blamed him for the killing in the videotaped interview, conducted in March 2003 after the two men were indicted on murder charges.

In a Denver interrogation room, Looking Cloud said he, Graham and fellow AIM member Theda Nelson Clark took Aquash from Denver to Rapid City. He spoke slowly and said he was under the influence of "a little bit of alcohol."

Looking Cloud said Clark told him he needed to go to Rapid City because people there wanted to talk to Aquash.

Graham tied Aquash's hands, put her in the back of Clark's red Pinto station wagon and the four drove to Rapid City, Looking Cloud said in the interview. He said they slept at a vacant apartment and went to a house on the Rosebud Reservation the next day identified as the home of Bill "Kills" Means, a younger brother of Russell Means before ending up near Wanblee, where Aquash was shot.

"He shot her in the head" as she was praying, Looking Cloud said. "And then he gave me the gun and I thought if they... killed her, they're going to kill me. So I emptied what was left in the gun."

Ecoffey asks Arlo directly, "Isn't the reason that you are telling us that Arlo, is because if we tested the gun, we will find your fingerprints on it?" Looking Cloud responds, "No."

Also on the tape, Looking Cloud denied that AIM leader Vernon Bellecourt ever visited him after the murder, although Ecoffey tells Looking Cloud he has a witness who says otherwise. However, near the very end of the his interview, Looking Cloud tells Ecoffey, if he wants to talk to somebody who knows everything, "talk to Bellecourt.... Vernon Bellecourt." (Bellecourt, who attended the first two days of the trial, was not in the courtroom Feb. 5.)

The sole witness called by Looking Cloud's lawyer was FBI Special Agent David Price. He testified for less than ten minutes that he had developed informants in AIM in 1975, but that Aquash was not among them. The defense then rested their case.

Prosecutors summed up their case in closing arguments on the morning of Feb. 6, saying Looking Cloud knew what he was doing when he helped Graham lead Pictou Aquash, bound and begging for her life, from the road to the cliff's edge where she was shot.

McMahon pointed to Looking Cloud's claim that once in Rapid City, he had left the others and visited a friend for a while. "If he left for a while, why didn't he leave for a long while?" McMahon asked jurors. "He was a part of this every step of the way, folks."

McMahon also noted testimony that Looking Cloud, Graham, Theda Clark and Pictou Aquash had stopped at an Allen home, where everyone but Pictou Aquash and the woman who lived there, Cleo Gates, went into a bedroom and closed the door.

Looking Cloud has said he doesn't remember stopping there "because it shoots his defense right in the head," McMahon said. "His defense through this whole trial has been, 'You know, I'm just the dummy. I didn't know what was going on.'"

But in Allen, McMahon said, Looking Cloud was included in the closed-door meeting. "If the defendant was really on the outside like he wants to make you believe ... why wasn't he told to stay out, like Cleo Gates?" McMahon asked. "He went into that room, and he was part of that discussion. He knew exactly what was going on."

Wrong place, wrong time

Rensch continued to maintain that Looking Cloud was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and didn't know Pictou Aquash was going to die until Graham shot her.

And he said that if the case was really about what happened to her in the Badlands, the testimony would have focused on that.

"But we didn't start out with that, and we didn't hear that," he said. "You heard about how terrible the American Indian Movement was."

Rensch said Looking Cloud wasn't privy to the meetings in Denver or Rapid City or Rosebud where Pictou Aquash's fate was allegedly decided.

"If you're weaving a story, and if you've been on the streets for a good portion of your life and you've been drinking a lot of alcohol ... how are you going to keep a story straight?" Rensch asked, reminding jurors that in the videotaped interview with Ecoffey, Looking Cloud admitted to being under the effect of "a little alcohol."

He said Looking Cloud has consistently said he doesn't remember stopping in Allen that night.

Rensch said evidence didn't support the claim that Looking Cloud knew Pictou Aquash was going to be murdered. Several witnesses testified that Looking Cloud had said the shooting was a surprise, and Rensch reminded jurors that merely being present at a crime doesn't make a person guilty.

"They're falling back on the fact that he was there," he said. "Tagging along isn't enough."

McMahon responded, "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time for an awful long time."

Looking Cloud stayed with the others all the way from Denver to that Badlands cliff, he said, never choosing to leave. And he helped escort Pictou Aquash out to the ridge, which McMahon said was enough to prove he helped her die.

What about Annie Mae?

"It was offensive to me to hear that last little argument we heard about poor little Arlo Looking Cloud," McMahon said. "What about poor Annie Mae? What about the lady that they shot in the head? What about her 8- and 10-year-old daughters?"

Jury instructions where given and they went into deliberations shortly after noon.

The jury returned their verdict at 7:30 p.m. None looked at the defendant upon entering the courtroom, and Looking Cloud himself showed no emotion when the verdict was read. The defendant's family members, including an aunt who has watched the trial from her wheelchair, cried openly.

Note: Compiled from The Associated Press, Rapid City Journal, News From Indian Country and in-court testimony Feb. 3-6, 2004.]