Aquash murder case gets new grand jury hearing

by Carson Walker
Sioux Falls, South Dakota (AP)
January 24, 2003

Afederal grand jury in Rapid City took testimony this month on the slaying 27 years ago of American Indian Movement member Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, according to a woman who testified. A rancher found the frozen body of Aquash, a member of Mi’kmaq Tribe of Nova Scotia, Canada, on Feb. 24, 1976, north of Wanblee, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. She had been shot once in the head, execution style.

Aquash had been taken from Troy Lynn Yellow Wood’s home in Denver in late 1975. In an interview, Yellow Wood said she testified Jan. 14 before a grand jury in Rapid City. “She had been brought to my house as a place of refuge. To hide, basically. That’s about all I can say. She was at my home,” Yellow Wood said.

The Rapid City grand jury is latest of several to take up the case over the years. Grand juries meet in secret. Federal investigators and prosecutors can’t speak about pending cases until someone has been indicted and arrested, so they would not confirm if jurors took testimony.

“I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to comment on that,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Mandel of Rapid City.

Talk in Indian Country about possible new evidence revisits a turbulent time in the reservation’s history when tensions between AIM members and government-backed factions turned deadly.

Aquash was among Indian militants who occupied the village of Wounded Knee for 71 days in 1973. Her death three years later and the various probes that followed have left some with more questions than answers, wondering if the latest investigation will yield anything.

“There’ve been so many and then nothing happens. I’ve quit holding my breath,” said Aquash friend Candy Hamilton of Oglala, who testified at a previous hearing and was with Aquash in Rapid City shortly before she was killed.

Hamilton said Friday she had no idea her friend would end up dead when she last saw her. Now that there’s another investigation, “I expect there’s some pretty nervous people,” she said.

Russell Means, an activist turned actor and politician, testified about the case before a federal grand jury in November 1999 in Sioux Falls. At the time, he accused senior AIM members of ordering the execution because Aquash knew which of them were federal informants. Others have said Aquash was killed because she was an informant.

Means said federal investigators have had the information they need to arrest someone for years. “It’s perplexing and frustrating,” he said this week from the Pine Ridge reservation.

Vernon Bellecourt, now director of international affairs with AIM in Minneapolis, dismisses Means’ accusation that Bellecourt and other AIM leaders had anything to do with the death.

“I don’t know if he’s trying to draw attention to himself or what,” Bellecourt said. He thinks the responsibility rests with the federal government.

“Why did they say they couldn’t identify her and sent her hands to Washington?” Bellecourt asked. That’s a reference to what happened after Aquash’s body was found.

At the first autopsy, the local coroner, Dr. W.O. Brown, ruled she died of exposure to the cold. Then FBI agents cut off the hands and sent them to Washington for identification.

Authorities later identified the body as Aquash. A second autopsy by Minneapolis pathologist Garry Peterson revealed she had been shot in the back of the head with a .38- caliber handgun. Brown then wrote that he “inadvertently overlooked” the bullet, although Peterson said a nurse at the first autopsy remembered seeing blood flowing from the head wound. Federal authorities have repeatedly denied any involvement.

“We are still actively investigating it but I can’t go any further than that,” said Mark Vukelich, Rapid City FBI supervisor.

Because Aquash was a Canadian citizen, people north of the border know her story well. One of Aquash’s daughters, Denise Maloney Pictou of Toronto, was 11 when her mother was killed. She said the family is surprised the case has lingered so long. “A Canadian woman was murdered on American soil and nothing was done about it,” Pictou said. “It seems to be more than a visible border, as far as the justice process goes.”