FBI won’t reopen Pine Ridge cases

By Kristi Eaton
Sioux Falls, South Dakota (AP) April 2012

The FBI won’t reopen decades-old investigations into the deaths of more than 50 people on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation unless new information emerges, an official with the bureau said.

The decision came after Oglala Sioux Vice President Tom Poor Bear and James Toby Big Boy, chairman of the tribal council’s Judiciary Committee, asked U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson to reopen the investigations into the deaths in the 1970s and what they believe are additional unsolved murders that have occurred since 2000.

“Mr. Johnson, we ask that you demand the FBI and (Bureau of Indian Affairs) Division of Law Enforcement to reopen ... the unsolved and largely uninvestigated murders of the individuals whose names are enclosed with this letter as well as those whose names shall be forthcoming,”  Poor Bear and Big Boy wrote in their letter March 16.

The FBI in 2000 issued a report detailing their investigations into the deaths of 57 people that occurred during a violent period of the 1970s, when the murder rate on the reservation was the highest in the nation. The report said the bureau was right in closing the cases, even in situations where no one had been prosecuted for a death deemed unnatural.

“Absent new information, there’s no intention to reopen any of these investigations,” Kyle Loven, chief counsel for the Minneapolis Division of the FBI, told The Associated Press in an interview. Loven’s statement was the government’s first public response to the request.

In a statement, tribal officials said they are disappointed with the FBI’s decision but are hopeful a meeting with Johnson next month will persuade federal officials to change their mind.

The tribe has said they will not publicly release the list of names because of privacy concerns but said its list does include names listed in the 2000 FBI report that they felt were insufficiently investigated and prosecuted. One person listed in the 2000 report, for instance, was killed with an axe. According to the report, a suspect was identified but was not prosecuted because of impairment caused by a mental condition. In another instance, a man was fatally stabbed through the neck and right side of the face. The autopsy report showed the death was deemed a suicide and the FBI did not investigate.  

Before the FBI rejected the request to re-open its investigations, Lisa Shellenberger, an outside attorney working with the Oglala Sioux, said the work done on the cases was “just not convincing.”

“The conclusions that they issued for each name, each unsolved murder, were pretty sparse and limited and without additional information or additional public knowledge besides a couple sentences, that’s supposed to clear up the taking of an individual?” said Shellenberger, an attorney with Westminster, Colo.-based Smith, Shelton, Ragona & Salazar.

U.S. Attorney Johnson cited the prosecution of John Graham and Fritz Arlo Looking Cloud in the 1975 killing of American Indian Movement activist Annie Mae Aquash as a sign that federal officials are dedicated to prosecuting cases with enough information – even decades later.

Aquash’s death had gone unsolved until Looking Cloud was convicted of first-degree murder in 2004 in federal court. Graham was convicted in state court in 2010.

“Whenever we have a case that we believe we can pursue and prosecute, we’re going to do it. It doesn’t matter if it’s 20 years, 30 years old, we’re going to do that,” Johnson said, adding that public safety on the Pine Ridge reservation and the state’s other reservations are a high priority for him.


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