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Native Blames FBI for Murder of Aquash

The Georgia Straight
December 2003

By Charlie Smith

A Vancouver Native man has claimed that he is being framed for the execution-style murder of Canadian Native activist Anna Mae Aquash in South Dakota in 1975. In an exclusive interview with the Georgia Straight in the North Fraser Pretrial Centre, John Graham, 48, said he believes the FBI played a major role in "orchestrating" Aquash's death, which has been the subject of books, magazine articles, and a National Film Board documentary.

Earlier this month, Vancouver police arrested Graham on a provisional warrant for the murder of Aquash, a Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq whose body was found curled in a fetal position in a ravine in 1976. The U.S. is seeking Graham's extradition to face a first-degree murder charge in South Dakota along with his alleged accomplice, Arlo Looking Cloud.

Aquash was an influential activist with the American Indian Movement, which sided with Native traditionalists in a sometimes bloody three-year war against the FBI and the official tribal government on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Graham said he travelled to South Dakota after Native traditionalists on the reservation issued an urgent appeal to deal with drive-by shootings and fire bombings.

"The FBI orchestrated a civil war on the Pine Ridge reservation in the early '70s," Graham said. "They orchestrated a civil war between the traditional Lakota people, who said no to selling their lands, and the then puppet tribal chairman, who put together a band of goons that literally terrorized, murdered, anybody that opposed them."

Graham said that in the mid-1990s, a U.S. law-enforcement official visited him in the Yukon and offered him immunity if he would testify that American Indian Movement leaders instructed him to murder Aquash.

Graham also claimed that the official told him that Aquash was kidnapped, raped, and murdered. "I said, 'I've done nothing, and I'll repeat it again: I've done nothing to get immunity for, so I can't take this offer,' " Graham said. "He says, 'You don't cooperate with us...and you're going to take all of those charges yourself.' I said, 'Well, if that's what you're going to do, I guess that's what you're going to do.' "

North Fraser Pretrial Centre officials permitted the Straight to visit Graham for an hour on December 15 but refused to allow a reporter to bring a tape recorder, camera, pen, or paper into the jail (see story on page 14). All quotes in this story came from the Straight's subsequent telephone interview with Graham, which was conducted on December 16.

Graham claimed he will never get a fair trial in South Dakota because of the depth of racism against Natives in the state. He also claimed that the United States does not respect the rule of law.

In addition, he alleged that some South Dakota law-enforcement officials and high-ranking politicians want to silence American Indian Movement activists, including Leonard Peltier, who spoke out against the theft of billions of dollars of natural resources from the sprawling Pine Ridge reservation.

"The reason I say I fear for my life if I go down there is because I've been involved with AIM," Graham said.

The U.S. Attorney in South Dakota, James McMahon, refused to comment on any evidence against Graham or his claim that he will never get a fair trial in the state. "I'll save my comments for the courtroom," McMahon told the Straight.

Earlier this year, Associated Press reporter Carson Walker reported that Aquash's two Canadian daughters, Denise Maloney Pictou and Debbie Maloney Pictou, had written to then prime minister Jean Chrétien demanding the Canadian government take action following the U.S. Attorney's decision to charge Graham.

One of the sisters' cousins, Robert Branscombe, and a Wisconsin newspaper editor, Paul DeMain, have separately published material on the Internet fingering Graham as Aquash's killer. They've claimed that after AIM leaders erroneously concluded that Aquash was an FBI informant, they instructed Graham and Looking Cloud to kidnap her from Denver in 1975 and take her back to the Pine Ridge reservation.

Branscombe and DeMain have also claimed that after AIM leaders ordered Aquash murdered, Graham pulled the trigger and Looking Cloud was his accomplice.

Ward Churchill, a University of Colorado professor who specializes in Native American studies, sent an e-mail to the Straight alleging that Aquash was "bad-jacketed" by the FBI. He has written extensively about counterintelligence operations, and has claimed that the FBI regularly tried to neutralize AIM activists by planting suspicions that they had become informants.

Graham said those accusing him of murder have never spoken to him to hear his side of the story. He said he never believed that Aquash was an informant and he never would have agreed to execute her.

He emphasized that he admired Aquash and Leonard Peltier as leaders, though he didn't think very much of other top AIM officials. He also denied that he and Looking Cloud kidnapped Aquash; instead, he claimed that Aquash asked him to escort her from Denver to South Dakota because she was "very, very scared" that the FBI was hunting her.

He said that during the trip, Aquash told him about her fears that an FBI informant in their group had murdered a young Indian woman. According to Graham, Aquash said the young woman approached AIM to file rape charges against a high-ranking South Dakota politician.

"She had been babysitting for him when she was a kid," Graham claimed that Aquash told him.

Aquash was at the AIM standoff with police at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, in 1973, which resulted in two deaths. Graham claimed that during the trip back to South Dakota in 1975, Aquash told him that an FBI agent named David Price had threatened she would be dead within six months if she didn't cooperate with an investigation into the shootout at Oglala in 1975.

Peltier was eventually convicted and sentenced to two life terms in prison in connection with the Oglala incident, which resulted in the death of two FBI agents and a Native man. During Peltier's trial, Price denied he had issued any threats against Aquash.

After a farmer discovered Aquash's body in the ravine in 1976, Price attended the scene. He did not identify the body, which was initially described as Jane Doe. Her hands were chopped off and sent to Washington, D.C., for fingerprint analysis. The original autopsy concluded that this anonymous Native woman died of frostbite. After fingerprint analysis concluded it was Aquash, her corpse was exhumed and a second pathologist concluded that she died of a gunshot wound to the head.

Graham claimed that he has become the "scapegoat" in Aquash's murder, which would never have been discovered had it not been for the second autopsy. He said he fears he will be killed if he is extradited to the U.S. "I have feelings that I might not live to see trial," he said.

Graham also claimed that his situation has many parallels with Peltier's, who was extradited from Canada in 1976 on the basis of a false affidavit. "This whole thing is like a rerun of the Peltier extradition back in '76, where they used a mentally unstable woman, Myrtle Poor Bear, to sign affidavits that she totally recanted after Leonard was extradited," he said.

In 2000, the Globe and Mail reported that Poor Bear testified at a special non-judicial Toronto hearing that she agreed to implicate Peltier in the shootings. She said this came after enduring months of harassment from the FBI.

The Globe and Mail also quoted Poor Bear saying she was shown autopsy photographs of Aquash, which were hung on the wall of a hotel room. "They said that's how I was going to end up if I didn't cooperate with them," Poor Bear said at the time.

Graham claimed that Looking Cloud, a homeless man in Denver before he was arrested, only implicated him in the Aquash murder after being interrogated repeatedly by police. Graham described Looking Cloud as "mentally ill" and a "career criminal".

Canadian Federal Justice Department spokesperson Patrick Charette told the Straight that the U.S. has 60 days to provide Canada with supporting documentation to justify Graham's extradition. Under Canada's extradition process, the federal government has 30 days after this deadline to decide if it should go through a judicial process in B.C. Supreme Court.

After an extradition hearing, the judge would rule if there was sufficient evidence to order Graham committed to extradition pending the decision of new Justice Minister Irwin Cotler.

Cotler, an international human-rights expert, has previously served as counsel to several prominent prisoners of conscience, including Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Andrei Sakharov in the former USSR, and Jacobo Timmerman in Argentina. Maclean's magazine once dubbed Cotler, on leave as a McGill University law professor, as "Counsel for the Oppressed".

Graham told the Straight he hopes Cotler keeps "an open mind and open heart" if it ever comes time to examine his file. "Hear all the facts--not the rumours, not the speculation--but the facts surrounding this case," Graham said.

He added that he hopes Cotler will examine how the FBI handled the whole autopsy after Aquash's body was discovered. And Graham said he also hopes that Cotler doesn't forget the FBI's tactics in the "illegal extradition" of Peltier.

© Copyright 2003 The Georgia Straight