Slain AIM activist heard 'incriminating' statement

By Nomaan Merchant
Rapid City, South Dakota (AP) December 2010

A witness testified last week that an American Indian Movement activist later convicted of killing two FBI agents made an "incriminating" statement in front of her and another group member who was later shot and killed.

Darlene "Kamook" Ecoffey was testifying at the trial of John Graham, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of first- and second-degree murder in the 1975 slaying of a fellow AIM member, Annie Mae Aquash, near South Dakota's Pine Ridge reservation. Graham, a 55-year-old Southern Tutchone Indian from Canada, could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted.

Ecoffey, the former common-law wife of AIM leader Dennis Banks, was forbidden by Circuit Court Judge John Delaney from telling jurors exactly what she alleges group member Leonard Peltier told her Aquash six months before Aquash was killed. The judge deemed it hearsay.

But under questioning from prosecutors, she was allowed to say that Peltier made an "incriminating" statement.

At the 2004 trial of Arlo Looking Cloud, an alleged co-conspirator who was convicted of taking part in Aquash's slaying, Ecoffey testified that Peltier told her and Aquash that he killed two FBI agents during a June 1975 shootout at a Pine Ridge ranch.

"He said the (expletive) was begging for his life, but I shot him anyway," Ecoffey testified then.

Peltier was convicted of shooting the agents in 1977 and is serving a life sentence.

Ecoffey also wasn't allowed to tell jurors about an alleged incident at a national AIM convention a few weeks before the shootout with the FBI agents. In 2004, Ecoffey testified that she was told Peltier held a gun to Aquash's head and asked her if she was a government informant.

Ecoffey only said Aquash appeared nervous and upset in discussing what happened at the convention.

Prosecutors allege that Graham, Looking Cloud and Theda Clark killed Aquash because AIM leaders believed she was a government spy, which authorities have denied. Aquash's killing has become synonymous with AIM and its violent clashes with federal agents during the 1970s.

Also testifying last week was Cleo Gates, the ex-wife of Richard Marshall, a man once accused of providing the .32-caliber pistol used to kill Aquash. Marshall was found not guilty earlier this year.

Gates said Aquash sat inside their Pine Ridge home in late 1975 while Graham, Looking Cloud, Clark and Marshall met inside a bedroom, where prosecutors allege Marshall passed along a gun.

Gates testified that she didn't see a gun and didn't believe Marshall kept any weapons inside the house.

Candy Hamilton, a legal defense worker at the time of the incident, testified that she heard AIM supporters talking to Aquash inside a Rapid City building, before prosecutors believe she was taken toward Pine Ridge. But Hamilton dismissed rumors of Peltier threatening Aquash as "gossip," and when prosecutor Rod Oswald asked her if she thought an FBI agent could have killed Aquash, she replied the agent "didn't pull the trigger, but I think he could make it happen."

Aquash, a member of the Mi'kmaq tribe of Nova Scotia, was 30 when she died. Her death came about two years after she participated in AIM's 71-day occupation of the South Dakota reservation town of Wounded Knee.

AIM was founded in the late 1960s to protest the U.S. government's treatment of Indians and demand the government honor its treaties with Indian tribes. It gained national attention in 1972 when it took over the Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington, but has since faded from public view.

Graham was first indicted in 2003, and extradited to South Dakota four years later to face federal murder charges. But after federal courts ruled that U.S. prosecutors didn't have authority to prosecute Graham, he was indicted in state court.

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