South Dakota Life sentence awaits man in 1975 slaying of AIM activist

By Nomaan Merchant

Associated Press

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) -- When a former American Indian Movement activist is sentenced Monday for the 1975 killing of a fellow activist, the outcome is certain: Life behind bars.

What still isn't known, and may never be, are the circumstances behind the slaying of Annie Mae Aquash, whose death remains synonymous with the often violent clashes during the 1970s between AIM activists and federal agents. Though no AIM leader has been charged in the case, investigators have long believed leaders ordered Aquash's death because they suspected she was helping the government.

A South Dakota jury convicted AIM activist John Graham in December for taking part in a kidnapping that led to Aquash's death. State law in effect at the time requires a mandatory life sentence for Graham, Attorney General Marty Jackley said.

During five days of testimony, witnesses said they saw Graham and two other AIM activists take Aquash from a house in Denver and eventually to the Pine Ridge reservation. Arlo Looking Cloud, who was convicted in Aquash's slaying in 2004, testified that he watched Graham shoot Aquash with a .32-caliber pistol. A jury convicted Graham of felony murder in connection with a kidnapping, but found him not guilty of premeditated murder.

Authorities and observers have long believed Graham, Looking Cloud and a third activist, Theda Clark, acted on orders from AIM leadership.

No AIM leader has ever been charged in her slaying, and several people involved with AIM have denied their own involvement.

But Aquash's elder daughter, Denise Maloney Pictou, said Friday she thought others with information had not yet come forward. "I want to know who made that call," she said. "They obviously are the people that started this ball rolling." Both she and her sister, Debbie Maloney Pictou, are expected to speak Monday.

Jackley would not comment Friday on whether others will be charged, but said: "I think it's fair to state that the Annie Mae Aquash investigation remains an open investigation."

Aquash was active in AIM, a group started in the late 1960s to protest the U.S. government's treatment of American Indians and demand the government honor its treaties with Indian tribes. The movement grabbed national headlines with its 1972 takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington and, the following year, its 71-day occupation of the reservation town of Wounded Knee, S.D.

Aquash, a member of the Mi'kmaq tribe of Nova Scotia, joined the Wounded Knee takeover and later became close to several movement leaders. But as tensions grew between the government and AIM, some started to suspect that Aquash was helping the government, witnesses said. Authorities have denied that Aquash was an informant.

By late 1975, Aquash had started to fear for her life due to the rumors, witnesses said. One prosecution witness, Troy Lynn Yellow Wood, testified that AIM members showed up at her Denver home where Aquash was staying in November of that year. Yellow Wood said Aquash told her she was afraid the activists thought she was an informant.

"'If they take me from here, you will never see me alive again,'" Yellow Wood said Aquash told her.

Another witness, Angie Janis, testified about receiving a phone call about Aquash from AIM supporter Thelma Rios that same month. Janis, who said she was Graham's girlfriend at the time, testified that she was told "something to the effect that Annie Mae needed to be brought back to Rapid City. She was an informant."

Prosecutors have not revealed who told Rios to call Janis. Rios pleaded guilty last November in connection with Aquash's kidnapping but did not testify at Graham's trial. Jackley later said her exclusion "wasn't an oversight."

For now, Graham, a 55-year-old Southern Tutchone Indian from Canada, joins Looking Cloud as the two people convicted in Aquash's death. Clark has never been charged and refused to testify at Graham's trial, invoking her constitutional right not to incriminate herself.

Another man, Richard Marshall, was acquitted earlier last year on murder charges. Prosecutors had accused Marshall of providing the pistol used to kill Aquash.

Graham's daughter, Naneek Graham, said his son and brother would attend Monday's hearing. "Our whole family is devastated by the decision, and we will always support our dad no matter what," she said. "We believe his innocence."

Graham's attorney, John Murphy of Rapid City, said he will appeal the conviction.

Published: Tue, Jan 25, 2011


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