40-year search for slain civil rights activist Ray Robinson continues in Buffalo courtroom

By Phil Fairbanks
The Buffalo News - Published, June 2017

More than 40 years later, Cheryl Robinson is still asking questions.

Even now – long after her husband, a well-known civil rights activist, was shot and killed at Wounded Knee – she doesn’t know for certain who pulled the trigger.

Or why.

Even more importantly, Robinson wants to know where her husband is buried so she can finally put an end to one of the nation’s most notorious unsolved murders.

“It would be nice to bring him home for a nice church service,” she said. “We’ll just keep moving forward until we get some answers.”

Despite a decades-long campaign to unearth the truth, an effort that includes two Buffalo lawyers and a local civil suit, the answers as to what happened to Ray Robinson remain a secret. What we know for certain is that Robinson was murdered at Wounded Knee, S.D., where he had gone to support the American Indian Movement in its fight against the federal government. Family members suspect Robinson, a protege of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, was killed because the movement believed he was a government informant.


Bit by bit, Cheryl Robinson has succeeded in learning more about her husband’s death, but that effort suffered a recent setback when a federal appeals court in New York recently dismissed her Freedom of Information Act suit against the FBI. Filed in Buffalo’s U.S. District Court, the lawsuit resulted in the release of hundreds of previously secret documents regarding Ray Robinson.

At the same time, the FBI withheld other documents and argued they were too sensitive to make public. The appeals court agreed and closed the door to Robinson’s suit.

“You would think that after so many years the government’s arguments would no longer hold water,” she said of the court’s decision.

While the newly released FBI documents shed light on Robinson’s disappearance, they stop well short of answering the question his widow and children have been asking for decades: Where is he buried?

“One day, we’ll learn what happened to Ray Robinson,” said Buffalo attorney Michael Kuzma, one of three lawyers handling the civil case here.

Despite the legal defeat, Robinson is vowing to continue her fight for more information about her husband’s murder. She believes that the FBI might know where her husband is buried.

The documents date back to 1973, the year of the Wounded Knee occupation, and for the first time reveal evidence that the FBI gathered over the years. They cite confidential sources and witnesses who say they have firsthand knowledge of what happened to the civil rights activist.

Robinson, a prominent figure in civil rights circles, traveled to Wounded Knee with the intention of preaching his message of nonviolence and building a bridge between African-Americans and Indians. By the time he backpacked into the Pine Ridge Reservation, the bloody 71-day siege between the movement and the federal government was well underway. That dispute was based, in part, on the belief that the United States had violated several treaties.

Exactly what happened to Robinson is still secret, but his wife believes – and the FBI concurs –that her husband was shot and killed during the occupation. There were also reports that he was shot in the knee and allowed to bleed to death.

“I keep hoping one of these guys will finally tell us what happened,” Kuzma said of the AIM leaders who were there and are still alive.

The newly released records provide few details about the murder but make it clear the FBI believes the movement was involved in the killing. As recently as 2000, the Minneapolis office of the FBI developed information that the civil rights activist was killed by “militant members of the American Indian Movement.”

A memo documenting the new evidence states that a confidential source had come forward with new information indicating “Robinson had been tortured and murdered within the [movement] occupation perimeter, and then his remains were buried ‘in the hills.’ ”

The source behind the new information, according to the FBI, is someone who took part in the Wounded Knee occupation and was present when movement leaders talked about Robinson.

That same memo also mentions a confidential witness who allegedly recorded a conversation in which movement leader Vernon Bellecourt spoke of Robinson and said the movement “really managed to keep a tight lid on that one.”

Bellecourt, who was not linked to the murder, has since died.

Robinson and her lawyers think a lot of the answers they seek are hidden in the FBI documents that remain confidential. They also think the FBI is hiding something else – the movement members who became FBI informants. The FBI, which has closed its investigation into Robinson’s murder, would not comment on the appeals court decision.

“We would rely on the documents released under the Freedom of Information law, and we think they speak for themselves,” said Jeffrey K. Van Nest, an FBI spokesman in Minneapolis, where the investigation was based.

When asked about the allegations that the FBI used informants at Wounded Knee and might be withholding evidence in an effort to protect them, Van Nest said the FBI could not comment. Decades after Wounded Knee, the movement continues to operate, and one of its recent leaders was Vernon Bellecourt’s brother, Clyde.

In an interview with The Buffalo News in 2014, Bellecourt said the memo suggesting that Vernon had knowledge about Robinson’s murder was news to him.

“I hear these rumors all the time,” he said at the time. “It’s just another attempt by the FBI to get involved in legitimate organizations like ours by making crazy charges.”

Robinson said her search for the truth is not ending with the FBI. She plans to file new Freedom of Information Act requests with several other federal agencies involved in the siege at Wounded Knee.

The effort is being led by Kuzma and attorneys Daire Brian Irwin of Buffalo and Barry Bachrach of Massachusetts.

“We haven’t given up,” said Kuzma. “We’re going to keep chipping away.”



Above: Second page of a two page synopsis of a meeting held with the late Vernon Bellecourt, who often took the title of American Indian Movement Minister of Internal and Domestic Security with his wife Janice Denny present on Wednesday February 14, 2001 at 4:50pm at Chili’s Too in the Minneapolis Airport. Named as principles in this memo are Dennis Banks, one of the founders of the American Indian Movement, Harry David (Mr. X) Hill a bodyguard of Banks and the late Carter Camp, head of Oklahoma AIM.
    This document was turned over to News From Indian Country by author Serle Chapman who also contributed information to the FBI during its investigation into the Annie Mae Aquash murder case after the FBI said it would subpoena his documents. 


Below: Second Document Obtained from Undisclosed Cooperating Witness

Support IndianCountryTV.com and News From Indian Country Projects like this. Thank YOU!!