Free Richard Lafuente!
Did the kid from Plainview really drive his El Camino over Eddie Peltier on a North Dakota Indian reservation in 1983? Nobody on the rez thinks so, and neither will you. So why is he still in federal prison?
The Killing Of Eddie Peltier
There were about a dozen drunk Indians in the mob that beat Eddie Peltier half to death and then ran him over. The men, mostly in their twenties, had been drinking beer and smoking pot at an all-night party that began on August 27, 1983, when, toward dawn, one of them started fighting with him. That fight broke up, but another started soon after. Eddie fled, running down the hill toward the highway. The mob followed.
“Get that son of a bitch!” someone cried.
“Don’t let him get away!”
Several of them caught him in a ditch by the side of the road and fell on him with, according to various witnesses, fists, feet, a pole, a lead pipe, a bat, a stick, two clubs, and a set of nunchakus.
“Teach him a lesson! He’s a pig!”
Four witnesses would tell of the fighting that morning on the Devils Lake Sioux reservation, in North Dakota, but only one reported seeing the actual killing with her own eyes. She described Eddie breaking away and making it to the other side of the road before he was grabbed, beaten some more, and dragged back to the asphalt, where, as the others stood by, two Texans, Richard LaFuente and John Perez, finished him off. John signaled to Richard, who was sitting in his El Camino. Richard started the car and crept forward, rumbling its V8 327 engine loudly, then stopped in front of the doomed man, who had risen to his hands and knees. After a dramatic pause, he stomped his foot on the accelerator and the car shot forward, tires squealing, and slammed into Eddie, rolling over him and crushing his head and heart. Then he did it again, putting the car in reverse, squealing the tires, and backing over the body. Another witness, who said she was in the El Camino (she swore John was in there too) but had averted her eyes, added that nobody was near Eddie when Richard ran over him and that he did it only once. Once was enough.
“Anyone tries to help him gets the same thing,” one of the thugs had announced. “If anybody says anything,” said a second, “the same thing’s gonna happen to him.” It sounded like dialogue from a Hollywood movie.
Two and a half years later, the two men from Texas, along with nine others from North Dakota, were tried as a group for the murder of Eddie Peltier. The trial, held in Fargo, was one of the biggest in the state’s history. All but one of the eleven defendants had an alibi for that night, and the prosecutors had not one piece of physical evidence tying any of them to any crime. What they had were four witnesses, a hanging judge, and a jury with no Native Americans on it. In the end, all eleven were found guilty, and the Texans were given the longest sentences: twenty years for John Perez and life in prison for Richard LaFuente.
Pretty soon, though, people began talking. Two of the four witnesses recanted their testimony, claiming they had been threatened the first time around. And others on the reservation—“the rez”—told investigators what they’d been saying privately for years: There wasn’t a party that night. There wasn’t a fight either. The nunchakus, the beatings, the yelling, the chasing, the murder—all of it was a lie.
By 1990, every one of the nine North Dakotans would be free, and in 1999 John was paroled too. Today only Richard remains in prison. Twice a court would find that he had been denied a fair trial and deserved a new one, but both times the decision would be overruled. In 1994, after the second new trial was ordered, prosecutors offered Richard a plea bargain: If he would just confess to the murder, he would be sentenced to time already served. He could go home to the Panhandle town of Plainview and see his family again.
Richard refused, insisting he wasn’t going to confess to a murder he didn’t commit. “I don’t have another inmate who would do that,” says Julie Jonas, of the Innocence Project of Minnesota, a nonprofit advocacy group that has been investigating his case. “Someone who’s been in federal prison that long and is given the key to the door and he won’t go—that’s indicative of innocence. And a real strength of character that very few possess.”
Up on the rez, few were surprised. If you go there today, 65 miles south of Canada and 95 miles west of Minnesota, you’ll find plenty of people who’ll tell you that Richard, John, and the other nine didn’t kill anybody. They’ll tell you with the deadpan certainty and obviousness of someone relating 23-year-old baseball scores. They also might tell you who they think masterminded the frame-up: 51-year-old James Yankton, a six-foot-one, 350-pound former policeman whose family of five brothers and five sisters has dominated the rez for years.
And they’ll tell you stories—about the killing, the aftermath, the conspiracy, and the anger they feel to this day. Because people on the rez are still haunted by the trial and by the sentences handed down twenty years ago, especially the one given to Richard LaFuente, the half Sioux Indian and half Mexican American who found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. “Dakota people are not always saying things that reflect how we think and feel,” Lorraine Grey Bear, the mother of one of the other defendants, told me as her eyes filled with tears. “We’re not like that. But this case is never going to go away until Richard is out of jail.”
The Cousin From Texas
RICHARD REMEMBERS HIS EXACT WORDS to his attorney, Jonathan Garaas, who phoned him in 1994 with the prosecutors’ deal. “I said, ‘Let those prosecutors take that plea bargain and stick it where the sun don’t shine.’” I asked him if he ever regretted turning it down. “No. I would never do that. I’m innocent. I ain’t got no choice.”
The 48-year-old was sitting at a table in a conference room at the Federal Medical Center—Fort Worth. It was bleeding ulcers that had brought him here originally, though the facility is no longer just a prison hospital. Richard is short and quiet and speaks softly and with little animation, even when he gets excited, as when proclaiming his innocence. He looks like an Indian, with light-brown skin. His graying hair is receding on his forehead but long in the back, and he wears round wire-rim glasses.
Richard’s story is simple: He never met Eddie Peltier. He never went to Bernice Juarez’s house, where the party was supposedly held. He spent that night doing what he had done almost every night on the rez: watching TV. He had come to North Dakota in early August, driving up from Texas with his brother-in-law John Perez in a blue-and-white 1971 El Camino with mag wheels, extrawide tires, and raised rear-end shocks.
Richard was born and raised in Plainview. His parents separated when he was still a baby, and his Sioux mother took him and his two sisters to the rez town of Fort Totten, where she’d grown up. After the three malnourished kids wound up in a hospital, his father brought them back home. In the summer of 1983, Richard’s half-sister Patty Big Track told him he might soon be getting a “percap,” or a distribution of money from the tribe to its members, of as much as $12,000. He thought if he drove up to the rez and asked for it in person, it might come quicker. He promised John, who was out of work, that if he rode with him, he would loan him some money from his windfall. They thought it would take a week at the most, so they packed a couple of shirts and pairs of pants and headed north.
Richard had visited Fort Totten in 1979, after his mother had died, and gotten two smaller percaps totaling $7,000. He had become a member of the Devils Lake Sioux tribe then and had met some of his extended family, like his mother’s sister Angeline Dunn, with whom he had stayed. On this trip he and John went to see her again, and she put them up in her living room. “He was the cousin from Texas,” remembers his cousin Maynard Dunn, a co-defendant in the Peltier case. “Everybody knew he was Spanish.”
But it turned out that there was no percap, and by the time Richard figured it out, he and John were broke. He tried to borrow some money, but no one had any to spare. He went into the nearby town of Devils Lake but couldn’t find a job. Nearly a thousand miles from home, he and John spent their time playing cards, watching TV, and driving around the rez in the El Camino. He visited other cousins and aunts and uncles, such as the Whitetails and the Spottedtails, and saw his half-sister Patty and his half-brother, Wesley. But he wasn’t happy. “We’d drink, have beer, go to the park,” he said. “There’s nothing to do on the rez. I didn’t like the way they were living. It was like they were in a prison. People are born and raised there. There’s no jobs—nothing but drinking and alcoholism.” He called his wife several times a week but also had a fling with an eighteen-year-old girl, whose ex-boyfriend punched him and broke one of his teeth. He opened his mouth and showed me the cap that was put on 23 years ago.
Around midnight on August 27, after he and the others at the Dunn house had watched An Officer and a Gentleman, Richard called his wife and went to sleep. The next day he heard that a body had been found out on Highway 57 and that the police were looking for a yellow car spotted at the scene. Neither he nor John had ever met Eddie, but the Dunns knew him, so they all went to the wake. “I’d never been to an Indian wake,” Richard told me. “They put the casket on a wagon pulled by a horse, and we walked to the cemetery. Afterward we went to his mother’s house and had stew.” John, who today lives in the North Texas town of Vernon, remembers meeting Gladys Peltier, Eddie’s mom. “She served us dinner,” he says. “She was kidding with me. She said it was dog stew.”
Eventually, Richard took out a bank loan, bought John a bus ticket home, and set about trying to sell the El Camino, which needed repairs. At the end of September, he left the car at a Devils Lake service station and hitched back to Texas, promising to return for it. He went back to work in Plainview, driving trucks for Mrs Baird’s Bread and Dolly Madison Bakery and taking care of his wife and two young daughters. On January 2, 1986, the police called and asked him to come to the sheriff’s office, where he and John were arrested by federal marshals on murder charges. Both men were released on bond and given a week to return to North Dakota. They drove up in Richard’s pickup and were arrested again.
Richard has been behind bars ever since. “Everything that was said to have happened at trial—none of it happened,” Richard told me, his voice surging with anger. “I’m in here for a story James Yankton made up. He got those girls to say it, and then I got indicted for murder.” When I told him I was going to the rez to talk to some of his old acquaintances, he smiled and said, “Be careful up there. The Yanktons ain’t no joke.”
Coffee and a Prayer
FORT TOTTEN IS SEPARATED from the bustling town of Devils Lake—where you can shop at a Wal-Mart, eat at a McDonald’s, or sleep at a Comfort Inn—by only thirteen miles, but it might as well be in a different country. In a sense, it is. Fort Totten is the largest of several towns on the Spirit Lake Nation (formerly the Devils Lake Sioux reservation), which is just that: a sovereign nation, subject to U.S. rather than state law, since Indian reservations are federal land. Most reservations are poor, and this one is no exception: The unemployment rate is 70 percent, and one third of the 6,339 people live below the poverty line. Most Fort Totten residents live in trailers or small government housing units that are usually only a couple of blocks apart. Here on the “moccasin telegraph,” word travels fast. “Within an hour of something happening,” a defense attorney told me, “it’s all over the rez.” Family members crowd into the homes, whose yards are often overgrown with grass and weeds. Dogs run free.
In June I spent three days on the rez, following three days reading court transcripts and talking with lawyers in Fargo and Grand Forks. The Indian way is, to put it mildly, different from the white one of urban North Dakota, especially when it comes to the law. “The Indians have a problem with the adversarial system,” one of the defense attorneys in the Peltier case told me. “They don’t like confrontation. It’s not part of their makeup at all.” In one transcript, a judge had spoken of a particularly frustrating cultural difference: the Indians’ “softness of expression and unwillingness to be assertive.” Several attorneys told me that, in essence, you can get Indians to go along with whatever you want them to say.
My first morning on the rez, I went to the Spirit Lake Casino and Resort, which sits, brown and windowless, high on a hill over the lake. I’d hoped to talk to James Yankton. The former Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officer, who left the rez police force in 1993, is now the casino’s head of security. Twice the week before, I had called his office, identified myself, and asked to speak to him. Each time the man who answered the phone relayed what I said to someone else in the room and then told me that Yankton was, respectively, “in a telephone conference” and “in a meeting.” Now, at eight-fifteen, humming along with Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds,” which was blaring on the speakers out front, I walked past the dozen retirees playing slots and asked the man at the security desk if Yankton was there. He picked up his phone and called someone else, who—after asking me who I was—said, “He’s busy right now.”
So I drove to meet my guide. I’d known how hard it would be to get anyone to talk to an outsider from Texas; reporter Pat Springer, of the Forum, in Fargo, who’d covered the trial, told me that without help, I’d be “chasing shadows.” I had interviewed Dwayne Charboneau, one of the eleven defendants, on the phone, and he’d agreed to take me around the rez. I had liked Dwayne immediately; he was matter-of-fact and not bitter about his experiences. I was surprised when I met him. He’s 47, one quarter Chippewa and the rest French, with light skin and short, frizzy hair; he looks like Claude Rains in Casablanca. (The rez is Sioux, but there are plenty of Chippewa and mixed bloods.) Dwayne lives in a trailer on the southern edge of Devils Lake and drives trucks for a living. Like many Indians, he’s a young grandfather; his ex-wife, Edith, is Eddie Peltier’s sister. I had e-mailed him a list of people I wanted to talk to: the two witnesses who had recanted, some of the other defendants, and various people who might know something about the case. Now, with our cell phones, we set out across the rez.
We drove west through Fort Totten, toward the small town of Oberon (population: 81), about fifteen miles away. It was beautiful out there: long, rolling hills with large ponds and lone farmhouses or trailers out past the fields. Dwayne explained that one third of the land was owned by the tribe and the rest by the government or private citizens. “It’s a checkerboard,” he said. Like many people I would meet on the rez, Dwayne is calm and low-key; he speaks slowly, pausing often. We talked about some of the cultural differences between Indians and the outside world. I asked about the concept of “Indian time,” for instance. “Apparently,” I said, “Indians have less ambition to be—”
“At a certain place at a certain time?” Dwayne finished the sentence for me, laughing. “Yes. The casino has a problem with that as far as employees getting to work on time.”
One of the people I wanted to talk to the most was Shirley Greywater, also known as Beasley, the first witness to recant and say openly that James Yankton had intimidated her into lying on the stand. We called her father- and mother-in-law, Paul and Loretta Stensland, who live down the street from her, and they told us to drop by. But when we arrived, they said Beasley didn’t want to talk. Her high-school-aged daughters had recently had a scare. “Somebody chased those girls through Crow Hill,” said Loretta, “and tried to run them off the road.” Beasley had been threatened by Yankton family members for years after recanting, Loretta told me; now, her husband theorized, “I think she thinks those Yanktons are finally leaving her alone.”
We sat around the kitchen table drinking coffee, hoping Beasley would change her mind. The Stenslands are in their sixties: She’s a light-skinned Sioux, he’s a light-skinned Norwegian. Their trailer was decorated with American flags and an autographed photo of George W. and Laura Bush. We talked about that night in 1983. Initially, Loretta said, everyone thought it was a hit-and-run accident, but soon there were stories that Eddie had been killed by human hands—maybe accidentally, maybe not.
Their friend Tom Jetty, a large man with a tattoo of a heart on his right forearm, came in and joined us at the table. “I knew there was more to it than what people were saying. Hearing people talk—there was no party at Bernice’s.”
We lingered over our coffee, listening to the birds outside. “Let’s just pray that the truth comes out,” Loretta said. Paul and Tom took off their hats and put them on the table, and we all bowed our heads as she prayed for Dwayne and me. “Let every jaw be unlocked,” she said. “Give them the wisdom, knowledge, and discernment they need.”
The Big Break
JEROME EDWARD “EDDIE” PELTIER WAS 24, handsome, and popular. He loved to shoot baskets and play guitar and sing with his band. He was, several people told me, a cousin of Leonard Peltier’s, who was famously convicted in 1977 of killing two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation, in South Dakota. He and his wife had two children. Unlike a lot of Indian men, his mother told a reporter, Eddie was goal oriented. He had served in the Army and had also been a policeman in Devils Lake; at the time of his death, he had just been accepted by the North Dakota Highway Patrol, a job he had always dreamed about.
His body was discovered on state highway 57 just before six a.m. on Sunday, August 28, by four people driving by. Two of them were James Yankton, then a BIA cop, and his brother Roger, and both had been drinking all night at various bars and parties. The corpse was unrecognizable. James held it and cried, later explaining that he’d thought it was his brother Quentin.
Since Eddie’s death occurred on an Indian reservation, it became a federal case, and the FBI was called in. Special Agent Spencer Hellekson worked closely with the BIA as well as the Devils Lake police force and the state highway patrol. Except for tire marks on either side of the body, investigators found no evidence at the scene of anything out of the ordinary—in particular, no clutter of empty beer cans on the road, in the nearby driveway leading up to Bernice’s house, or at the house itself. Police interviewed dozens of people who talked about assorted parties that Saturday night, though none at Bernice’s. Eddie had been seen at a couple of the parties and had gone from one, at the home of James Yankton’s sister Celeste Herman, to another, at his own sister Flo’s house, at around four a.m. He had left there not long after, walking home to Devils Lake. The person who’d driven him to Flo’s—one of the last to see him alive—was Quentin Yankton. The FBI questioned Quentin, who took and passed a polygraph. After a month, the case was closed and ruled a hit-and-run.
Two years later, in June 1985, James Yankton delivered the big break the case needed. Patty DeMarce (formerly Patty Big Track) had suddenly started to remember some things about that night. Her new husband had just spent time in police custody, drunk and injured from a fall; at some point while Yankton was chauffeuring him between the hospital and the jail, he had said that his wife knew something about Eddie’s death. When Yankton questioned Patty, her initial story was that her sister had told her that Richard LaFuente claimed he’d been at a party at Bernice’s house. In her next version, Richard had told her about a fight. In her third version, she herself had seen the fight, along with some two dozen revelers.
Yankton, by then the head of the local BIA office and the FBI’s go-to guy on the rez, took the information to Hellekson; soon he was driving Patty to the agent’s office, where she remembered more and more. Hellekson liked what he heard, and it was here that the investigation took a crucial turn. “In any case on a reservation,” says Ross Rolshoven, an investigator who worked this case and many others on rezes all over the state, “the FBI has to decide who to believe, then it goes along with them.”
The FBI chose to believe Patty. It reopened the case later that summer, and a grand jury was seated in October. Called to testify, Patty told of the beating. Others testified too, including Eddie’s brother Fred, Beasley Greywater, and a man named Billy Fox, all of whom said they didn’t know anything about Eddie’s death. Still, the grand jury handed down indictments for nineteen people it thought were at Bernice’s party—thirteen were charged with murder, assault, witness tampering, and perjury (two died before trial), and the rest were charged with perjury or other lesser crimes, including Fred, Beasley, and Billy. On New Year’s Eve, 1985, federal agents descended on Fort Totten and made arrests; two days later, Richard and John were nabbed in Texas. A new grand jury was impaneled, and this time Beasley said she had been at the party, had watched the beating, and—although she hadn’t seen Richard kill Eddie—had heard the tires squeal as he was run over. Fred said the same thing. So did Billy.
To the FBI, Yankton was a hero. But even as late as February 1986, two months before the trial, the bureau still seemed to have some doubts about the case. According to the Forum, two agents took shovels into Yankton’s backyard and began digging, looking for a piece of carpet from his Blazer. After 45 minutes they gave up.
FROM THE BEGINNING, nothing went well for the eleven defendants: Richard, John, Dwayne, Dwayne’s uncle Roger Charboneau, Leonard Fox, Loren Grey Bear, Tim Longie Jr., Maynard Dunn and his brother Terry, and brothers Jesse and Paul Cavanaugh. The trial was moved from the Northeastern Division of the state, where many residents are Indians, to the Southeastern Division in Fargo, a much whiter area. The rationale was that the courthouse in Grand Forks wasn’t big enough for a trial like this, but the end result was that no Indians sat on the jury. Then there was the no-nonsense judge: Paul Benson, who’d presided over Leonard Peltier’s trial in 1977, which may have resulted in an innocent man’s going to prison and, at the very least, made him the most famous political prisoner in the country.
The trial began in April and went on for six weeks. The prosecution had no fingerprints, blood, or hair to connect any of the accused to Eddie Peltier’s death. In fact, the evidence tended to favor the defense. For example, the tire marks didn’t match those of the El Camino. And though it had rained heavily two days before, and though Peltier had supposedly fought a gang of men for fifteen minutes on the side of a road, his pants weren’t muddy. Two doctors testified that his body showed no signs of a beating that severe; all they knew was that he had died as a result of being run over by a car. His legs weren’t broken, indicating he was probably lying down when it happened.
But the prosecution had witnesses: Patty, Beasley, Fred, and a teenager named Mary McDonald, whom the government had found after all the arrests had been made. They were all young—ages nineteen or twenty—and all wildly inconsistent. Patty was, to say the least, nervous and timid, often answering questions with one word. She spoke so quietly that defense lawyers complained repeatedly about not being able to hear her; sometimes she sat mute or took several minutes to answer questions. At one point a defense lawyer accused one of the prosecutors of discreetly nodding and shaking his head at her to help her answer (he denied it). Defense attorneys focused on the eight different statements she had given and the person she had given them to. “Your recollection gets better, particularly after you have had a chance to talk to Mr. Yankton or the other law enforcement officers, isn’t that right?” asked one. “Yes,” she replied. Then she changed her story again, adding a “shadowy figure” in Richard’s car.
A defense attorney suggested that this was because, between her last statement and the trial, the prosecutors had discovered Mary, who would testify that she had been in the car that had run over Eddie. But Mary also said she had been driving around and drinking with Richard and John for five hours and that when they showed up at Bernice’s party at five a.m., the fight was already in progress. She also said Richard ran over Eddie only once.
Both Beasley and Fred corroborated the party line, but Billy, who had also been charged with perjury, surprised prosecutors and went back to the story he had told the grand jury—that he knew nothing about a party—and then testified that Yankton had threatened to send him and his parents to prison if he didn’t play along.
The defense did its best to highlight all the things that didn’t make sense. Fred had said he’d watched Tim Longie help beat his brother bloody, then told how he and some friends all crashed at Tim’s house. Eddie was plastered—his blood alcohol level was .24—yet he had held off a dozen armed men. Maybe strangest of all, on the rez, where there is no such thing as a secret, four witnesses had kept quiet about an almost unbelievable act of violence.
To say nothing of the eleven defendants. Each denied having anything to do with the crime, each rejected efforts to get him to tell the state’s version of events for a lesser sentence, and there was not one bit of evidence offered that any of them had ever said a word about beating a man that night. All but one—Maynard, who said he couldn’t remember what he’d done that night—had an alibi. In addition, Bernice Juarez, a born-again Christian who had twice that summer called the cops on her sons Jesse and Paul Cavanaugh for drinking in her yard, said emphatically that there was no party at her house. So did her husband, Domingo. They had gone to sleep at eight or nine that night with the windows open and would have heard two dozen people drinking, yelling, and fighting outside. The defense theory was that Eddie had left Flo’s house after four a.m., walking or hitching to Devils Lake. He was drunk, probably lay down to sleep it off, and was run over. It was an accident.
Judge Benson (who died in 2004) was often disdainful of the defense, overruling almost every objection it raised, sustaining almost every one made by the prosecution, and allowing prosecutors to ask leading questions of Patty, their star witness. “The tone of his voice, his demeanor—the message the jury got was, the judge thinks they’re guilty,” says David Thompson, the attorney for Loren Grey Bear. “He was probably the meanest, most bitter, most anti—Native American judge I ever practiced in front of—a vicious man who presided over a terribly unfair trial.” The jury took three days to convict Richard of first-degree murder, Maynard of assault, and everyone else of second-degree murder; it also handed down several counts of perjury and witness tampering.
A year and a half later, in September 1987, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit threw out the cases against Dwayne and five others for insufficient evidence (they were freed shortly thereafter) and ordered new trials for Richard, John, and three others charged with perjury and/or witness tampering on the grounds of prejudicial misjoinder: Trying defendants on murder and lesser charges at the same time, in an all-or-nothing fashion, had been unfair. A year later the full court split 5—5 over whether the joinder was proper; since the vote was a tie, the original trial judgment stood. There would be no new trials for the last five defendants. One of the judges called the decision a “gross miscarriage of justice.”
I HAD MET OR TALKED WITH RICHARD, John, and Maynard, and now Dwayne took me to meet a couple of other defendants: his uncle Roger and Leonard Fox. One of the weirder things about the prosecution’s case was the makeup of the group of defendants. Some of them didn’t like one another, and others didn’t even know one another. “We just didn’t associate,” Dwayne said. “I’d seen some of the others around, knew who they were, might have said hello, but we weren’t friends. There’s no way we would have been partying together.” Remarkably, none of the eleven ever offered to roll over on their co-defendants, which even prosecutor Lynn Crooks found odd. “Usually in a trial of this nature,” he told me, “at some point one or more of the guys will say, ‘I didn’t murder him, but Charlie did.’ That didn’t happen here.”
Roger was thirty back in 1983, older than the other local boys, and today still has a stricken look on his face. His mother died while he was in prison, he told me, and he couldn’t go to her funeral. He remembers the night the police burst in to arrest him as his children screamed in terror. Later, he says, the prosecution made him an offer. “If I went along with the government’s theory, they’d release me, give me some money, a place to stay. Change my name if I wanted. I refused. I said, ‘I don’t know what those boys did.’”
Leonard shares Dwayne’s sense of bemusement about the past. Sitting in his trailer with his grandson on his lap, he shook his head at the memory of his six-hour interrogation at the hands of several men, including Yankton. “The stuff they wanted me to say was stupid and crazy. They threatened me with a murder charge if I didn’t become a witness. But I refused.” I asked how they did the questioning. “We were in a little room,” he said, “and they would say, ‘So-and-so said this happened.’ I’d say, ‘Well, no.’ They’d say it again, and I’d repeat my answer. It was a psychological game: They give you the story over and over, so when you’ve heard enough or you want to go home, you tell it the way they told it to you and you sign it.” But why would Yankton frame so many people? Why not just one or two? Leonard theorizes that Yankton never had an elaborate plan for bringing so many people into the story; the numbers just kept expanding. Leonard was Loren Grey Bear’s alibi, so they charged him. Beasley was an alibi for both men, so she was arrested. On it went.
I was struck by how placid the defendants were; they didn’t beat their breasts or get hysterical. Talk to them long enough, though, and you see that they still mourn the things they lost. “Before this happened to me,” Leonard said, “I believed the federal government was good. I was going to be a North Dakota highway patrolman; I even went to the law enforcement training program. But I saw one guy turn the justice system into a shambles.”
IN 1987 ATTORNEY JONATHAN GARAAS, who had taken over Richard’s case, began hearing things from the rez. Beasley was talking; he should go listen. He and four other attorneys drove to Fort Totten, and under oath, Beasley told them her story: She had lied at the trial because James Yankton had threatened to take away her children. He’d also threatened a ten-year sentence for perjury, since she had originally told the grand jury she knew nothing about Eddie’s death. It was her husband, Faron Stensland, who had persuaded her to tell the truth now—that, plus seeing the families of the men she’d helped send away.
After Beasley began talking, others did too—witnesses who not only undercut the prosecution’s case but also portrayed a government that strong-armed witnesses, kept documents from the defense, and abused its subpoena powers to compel witnesses to meet with cops and prosecutors. In 1993 the Eighth Circuit ordered an evidentiary hearing to look into Richard’s and John’s convictions. Forty-five witnesses testified over four days in front of Judge Patrick Conmy. They told of seeing Eddie wearing white painter pants all night, though he was found in blue jeans. They told of being out on Highway 57 just before dawn that morning and seeing no evidence of a massive fight. They told of seeing both James and Quentin Yankton with Eddie that night and morning, of seeing Quentin quarreling and fighting with Eddie, and of being at Celeste Herman’s party. One man said that when Eddie showed up there in the wee hours, James told his brother Quentin not to start any trouble. This witness later passed out on the sidewalk and woke up to find blood nearby. (He told Patrick Springer, of the Forum, that he didn’t testify because he was afraid of the Yanktons: “I wanted to live, you know, so I just didn’t.”) Another witness, Quentin’s estranged wife, also saw Eddie at Celeste’s party; her husband had told her earlier that night, she testified, that he would “kick the shit out of him.”
Gladys Peltier told how she and her late husband, a former BIA cop, had crawled around on their hands and knees at the spot where their son’s body had been found and discovered evidence—including a blood-smeared box from a twelve-pack of light beer and a bloody piece of carpet—that they turned over to Yankton, but it was never seen again (Yankton claimed he’d given it to his boss at the BIA). Victor Peeples, a trusty at the jail, told of being rousted out of his cot by Yankton before the sun came up that morning and ordered to clean out Yankton’s Blazer, which had fresh blood in the back. Peeples, who had cleaned out the Blazer before, noticed that the carpet was gone. Half an hour later, Yankton drove Peeples and another inmate to the crime scene and had them search the area for a pair of glasses and a wallet. Peeples said Yankton had later told him that the blood had come from a deer, though the inmate testified that he’d seen no other evidence of a deer, such as hair or guts.
After Beasley recanted, so did Fred Peltier, who testified that Yankton had previously beaten him up and maced him while he was in jail. Now, he said, Yankton had “threatened that he could get at my parents and my sisters or any member of my family.” He also said Yankton would visit him in Fargo—where he, like Patty and her husband, was being kept in “protective custody” for five months before and during the trial—and give him names of those involved in the fight or other details. After these visits with Yankton, Fred would give the FBI an updated version of his story.
When an attorney asked why the court should believe Fred now, he said, “I realize now that I have to pay whatever price I have to pay, but I want to get the people that actually killed my brother.” Who was that? he was asked. “I believe it’s James Yankton and other people,” he responded.
Conmy had heard enough: Richard and John deserved new trials. The judge hadn’t been too impressed with the recanters; courts are usually skeptical of witnesses who take back testimony. (Prosecutor Crooks still believes they were telling the truth at trial: “I’m a thirty-year prosecutor. I can spot coached, perjured testimony a mile off.”) But Conmy granted the new trials because of the government’s tactics, such as charging witnesses with perjury and then dropping those charges after they had testified for the prosecution. Richard and John, he wrote, “did not, under all the circumstances, receive a fair trial. I believe the government created the very same climate of coercion and fear through its tactics that it thought it was combatting.” It was at this point that the prosecution called Garaas with the plea bargain deal. Richard and John, who had each served eight years in prison, could go free if they confessed. They refused.
More than a year later, the full Eighth Circuit overturned the order for new trials. “Although the government’s tactics may have been heavy-handed,” the court wrote, “they also were above-board . . . The government would have been remiss in failing to bend every effort to vindicate the law by seeking out those responsible for Eddie Peltier’s death.”
Fear and Loathing
DWAYNE AND I DROVE TO FRED’S house and knocked on the door, but there was no answer. On the way back to the car, Dwayne spied a fresh, empty Budweiser can in the grass. “Maybe he’s drinking,” he said. “Some people like to party all the time,” he added, when we were driving again. “Drinking helps them escape from the reality of life on the rez.”
We knocked on more doors. At several places we heard powwow music: drumming and high-pitched singing that sounds like wailing. Some people were hesitant to talk, but all did; a few were terrified that their names would be used. “I’m scared for my family,” said one elderly resident, who watched Victor Peeples clean blood out of James Yankton’s Blazer with a mop and Pine Sol and burn a carpet in a barrel. This person, like many I talked with, asked not to be identified in deference to relatives who are employed at the casino or in offices where other Yanktons work. “It’s their turf, their fiefdom,” said an investigator on the case. “People are afraid of James Yankton, and rightfully so.”
Dwayne and I headed into Devils Lake to eat lunch and get some supplies at a supermarket. Leaning against the outside wall was Wesley Big Track, Patty’s brother and Richard’s half-brother. Many people believe Patty would have also eventually recanted her testimony, but she died of a pulmonary embolism in 1992. “She talked to me about everything,” Wesley said, “but she wouldn’t talk to me about this case.”
We went back by Fred’s house and saw that the door was open. Fred seemed happy to see Dwayne and invited us in. It was three in the afternoon, and Fred had a beer buzz on. A bed lay on the floor of the small living room and a fan rattled in the open window. While Fred’s girlfriend swept, we talked. Fred is large, with dark skin, and he had a week’s growth of a trimmed beard and brown-tinted glasses with tape on the horns. The front of his nose was scarred from a fight he had had while in protective custody twenty years ago. He’s unemployed but gets veterans’ disability payments from a car accident he had while he was in the Army.
I asked Fred the obvious question: Why did you say what you said in court? Because, he replied, he was worried that Yankton would beat him up again. So when he was arrested, he gave in. “He broke me down. I mean, Eddie was my older brother. I thought he was Superman. And they killed him. On a subconscious level, I knew. This rez—nobody ever fights for their rights. Everybody pleads guilty.” But why? I asked. Dwayne answered for Fred. “They want to get out of jail right away.”
Fred told how the feds took him and the DeMarces to Fargo. “James would coach us. He told me everything to say.” Fred reached over to Dwayne. “I’m sorry,” he said.
Dwayne shook his hand. “I know it wasn’t your fault.”
Fred slumped in his chair against the wall. The more we talked, the more wiped out he looked. Fred’s parents are dead, and he hasn’t made up with his sisters, who are still angry about his testimony. His eyes began to well up. I asked if he had made peace with his friends. “I tried, but . . .” A tear rolled down his left cheek, then his right.
Dwayne said, “All you have to know is it wasn’t your fault, Fred. You were pushed and pushed and pushed.”
“I just hope you can forgive me, man.”
“I don’t hold it against you.” They shook hands again.
There were long silences. I asked if he had ever talked to Beasley. “No.” He nodded toward his girlfriend, an older woman with graying hair. “I haven’t even told my woman about this. I have to hold it in.”
He got up and got another beer from the refrigerator. “I’ve had to live in hell for how many years? In some way I feel like I deserve it, because I lied.”
“The Yanktons really split the rez up,” said Dwayne.
As we got up to leave, they hugged. “It’s okay,” said Dwayne, and the tears came again.
ANDREA PELTIER ICEMAN LOOKS A LOT like her brother Eddie, with the same handsome eyes and cheekbones. Sitting in her kitchen, she pulled out some family photos; one of them showed her father, John Peltier, and his five sons. Eddie, tall and good-looking, stood behind Fred and had his hands on his kid brother’s shoulders. Andrea was one of the last to see her brother alive—at her sister Flo’s, sometime after four that morning, when he left to walk home. He was wearing white painter pants, she remembers, a fact that led to one of the mysteries in the case. When Andrea and her father went to the morgue to identify the body, Eddie had on blue jeans. “They were too long for him, and they had orange string sewn along the bottom,” she said. “I used to iron his clothes—he would never have worn something like that. His appearance meant a lot to him.”
Andrea says she has also been witness to one of the other big mysteries of her brother’s death: the behavior of Celeste Herman, James Yankton’s sister, who also had a party that night. “In 1990 Celeste walked into my house,” Andrea said. “She was drunk, crying, all pitiful, trying to hold on to me, saying, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘What for?’ ‘Your brother was fighting with my brother and I got scared. I didn’t mean to hit him in the head.’” Andrea says Celeste has confessed to her five times, the last time at a bar. “She freaked out, pointed at me, and said, ‘Every time I look at you I think of Eddie.’ Maybe I do taunt her. I do resemble my brother. She could have told me once and let it be. Why did she have to do it five times? It’s so real—‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,’ tears, spit, snot, drool. She’s told half the rez.”
To those who believe there was a conspiracy to frame Richard and the others for the death of Eddie Peltier, Celeste is the key. I heard firsthand stories about Celeste from three other people, and they all involved drinking, crying, and rueful babbling, including one occasion in which she stood in a hallway of her home at three in the morning, yelling, “Quit peeking at me!” at Eddie’s ghost. A story had even made it into the public record. At the 1994 evidentiary hearing, Quentin Alberts, an uncle of Maynard and Terry Dunn’s, testified that at a party a month before the trial, Celeste had crawled into his lap. “She started to tell me how sorry she was that my nephews were involved in this case, and she started to cry, and she said, ‘I didn’t mean to hit him over the head with that bottle.’ So I asked her who she meant. I said, ‘Who do you mean? Do you mean Eddie Peltier?’ And she jumped off my lap and ran to the bathroom.”
Just as there was absolutely no evidence in court against Richard LaFuente except for some wild stories, there’s absolutely no evidence that any of the Yanktons had anything to do with Eddie’s death—except for some wild stories. I wanted to ask Celeste herself what really happened, so I visited her at the local community college’s child care center, where she works. When I walked into the room, she was playing with a couple of young children. She’s a big woman, with glasses, dark hair, and wide eyes. I introduced myself and asked if I could talk to her about the Peltier case. The phone rang, she answered it, talked for a minute, hung up, and told me, “I don’t have no comment, and I’m not gonna make any statement. As far as I’m concerned, it was settled.”
Later, I was thinking about all these stories I was hearing about Celeste and her brothers. Was it possible so many people could be making up so many things, either out of grief or anger at the Yanktons? How would I, an outlander from Texas, be able to tell? Fargo defense attorney Mark Fraase, who represented Leonard Fox, had told me something that made me wary: “So much of what people say up there is lies. There’s so much confabulation. I’m not sure about the Celeste Herman story. Eddie Peltier could have just been hit by a car while sleeping it off by the side of the road.”
WE’LL NEVER KNOW EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED to Eddie—it’s been too many years, and too many people have told too many stories—just as we’ll never know exactly why the government pushed this case in, as the Eighth Circuit put it, such a “heavy-handed” fashion. As defense attorney David Thompson says, “If it had been eleven young white kids, the case would never have been prosecuted—not with that evidence.”
“The feds don’t know what to do with the rez,” investigator Rolshoven says. In other words, the feds are outlanders too, and the Indians are as mysterious now as they have ever been. When Yankton, a Sioux policeman, strode into the abyss of a notorious unsolved crime and came out with answers for authorities, everyone went along with him: the FBI, U.S. attorneys, and judges. It didn’t matter that Yankton was a man with a violent reputation who had been drunk at the scene of the crime; whose brother was seen in the victim’s presence in his final hours; who would, two witnesses say, order fresh blood cleaned from his own car not long after the victim died and then force jail inmates to search the crime scene; who would, by many accounts, badger and threaten people until they said they saw things his way.
What could Yankton’s motivation possibly have been for striding into that abyss and framing eleven men? Richard’s former attorney Garaas says it’s simple: “On the rez, there was constant talk about the blood in the Blazer and the family members who were with Eddie just before his death. The only way to avoid the accusations was to find another murderer.”
Crooks, the government’s lawyer, doesn’t buy the rogue-cop theory. “You’re talking about three experienced prosecutors as well as FBI agents—we didn’t pick up on Yankton making up stories from whole cloth? I don’t think so.” That’s exactly what the other side thinks. If it’s true, the government didn’t just “bend every effort” to get a conviction—it bent every neck to look away from what was being done in its name. “We implored them to take a look at the inconsistencies,” Garaas says. “The prosecutors all knew this was a bad case. They won’t say it, but they know. Lynn Crooks is my friend, and when I talked to him, I assumed I could appeal to his sense of justice. He said, ‘If you think we’re gonna change our minds, that’s not gonna happen.’”
“Did we feel uneasy about this case?” Crooks asks. “Of course we did. Everyone felt uneasy about who did what. I felt very uneasy asking the jury to convict all those guys: There was no proof they were out to murder Eddie Peltier. But I had no discomfort about the LaFuente case. It was open-and-shut, unless you buy into the argument that Yankton or somebody else did this. Their argument was that none of this ever happened, that there was never a murder. The jury didn’t buy that.”
So it was a fair trial? “As to LaFuente, absolutely,” Crooks told me. “I’m not going to get into arguments about the others.”
Driving on the Rez
ON MY LAST MORNING, WE STOPPED by Bernice Juarez’s house. She sat back in a recliner, surrounded by pictures of her children and grandchildren and paintings of Jesus. Bernice, who has short, curly hair, was born again not long before Eddie died. I had driven by her old house on the hill, just above the crime scene; it was small, with a tiny yard. I told her it didn’t seem possible to have had a party there without waking anyone up inside. “There was never a party,” she said loudly. “It was lies, and the jury went along with it.” Bernice is still angry that her two sons Jesse and Paul were convicted of murder. “They were never given justice,” she said. From the beginning she suspected that the Yanktons had orchestrated the frame-up. “People started telling me they agreed with me, but they were scared.” She says that once, when she was driving from the rez toward Devils Lake, she was pulled over by Yankton in his police car. “He was harassing me,” she said. When another car approached, he hurried back to his and sped off.
Bernice lives down the street from James Yankton. I figured, as it was ten on a Sunday morning and Dwayne had said that Yankton didn’t work Sundays, that this was as good a time as any to try again to talk to him. I’d been hearing nothing but horrible things about him for a week, and perhaps he would like to respond. (In a rare interview with the Forum, in June, Yankton denied any guilt, saying, “I have no idea why they continue to accuse me and my brother and my family of Edward’s death.”) Yankton lives in a small white house set back from the road by a long driveway. There were four cars parked outside, including his blue pickup. A neighbor’s dog yipped incessantly as I walked up the driveway, past the “Welcome Friends” sign and the children’s chalk graffiti on the sidewalk. The blinds were drawn, yet I heard a TV, as well as muffled voices and shuffling around. I knocked and waited, nervously rehearsing my questions. As much as I wanted to talk to him, I really wanted to see what he looked like. I’d never even seen a picture of him. Everyone had told me he was big and mean, but how big and how mean? Like Orson Welles in A Touch of Evil or like Tony Soprano?
The TV droned; the shuffling continued. After a few moments, I knocked again. Nothing. I knocked a third time and called out, “Hello?” The shuffling stopped. I thought I heard a little click at one of the windows but saw nothing. I knocked a fourth time and a fifth, turned around, and walked off.
Dwayne and I drove out on one of the small rez roads to try to find someone who, I had been told, might have seen something that August morning. We cruised past miles and miles of pastures, with the occasional home or trailer in the distance. I asked Dwayne a question that had been on my mind for a couple of days: Why was he spending so much of his time guiding me around? “Eddie was my brother-in-law,” he said, “and I really feel bad about what they did to him. Sometimes it just eats me up.” He paused. “He never had a chance.”
At some point I noticed a car behind us with its headlights on. I turned onto a dirt road, and the car turned too; it was then that I saw the large antenna on its roof. I thought about saying something but didn’t, certain I was just being paranoid. After a minute, Dwayne, looking in the passenger mirror, said, “That sure is a big aerial on that car.” We talked anxiously about what to do—drive faster? pull over?—when the car turned onto another dirt road. We both exhaled.
“So,” I said, laughing. “Life on the rez.”
“Yeah,” Dwayne said, and laughed too.
Fort Worth Blues
RICHARD SAYS HIS MARRIAGE BROKE UP early in his life sentence. “I told my wife, ‘I don’t know how long I’ll be here. Get a divorce. Get on with your life.’” He reestablished contact with his girls, who have children of their own, in 1997. “My daughters come visit at Christmas,” he says. I asked what it was like to see his grandchildren. “Oh, man, I was in tears. I cried the whole time. The biggest problem is, I don’t have no memory of my kids.”
He spends time reading—“a lot of positive-thinking books”—and goes to a sweat lodge at the prison every Thursday and to church on Sundays. He preaches some; Roger Charboneau remembers how, twenty years ago in the lockup, he led the group in prayers. Richard seems hurt that his co-defendants never wrote him. “I guess everyone just went back to their lives,” he says.
He’s picked up some unlikely allies over the years—from Cat West, a Canadian woman who in 1998 put up a Web site called “Restless Spirit: The Murder of Eddie Peltier,” to Pat Springer, who covered the 1986 trial for the Forum. Springer was convinced of the defendants’ guilt, mostly because of Fred’s testimony. Now he’s not so sure, which is why his twentieth-anniversary coverage of the trial focused on the lack of scrutiny given to the Yanktons. “If the things that came to light after the trial had been known to the jury,” he says, “it’s hard to believe those eleven guys would have been convicted.” His paper has come around too, editorializing that Richard’s conviction was “scandalous.”
Then there’s Gladys Peltier, Eddie’s mother, who cursed the defendants every day in court. After Fred recanted, she too changed her mind. Before she died in 2002, she even campaigned for Richard’s release, writing to the parole board and videotaping a statement. “Richard LaFuente has been in jail too long for something he did not do,” she wrote. “The Yanktons are trying to hide their involvement in my son’s death.” The letter was read at Richard’s 1999 parole hearing, but it made no difference. Neither did the video, which she sent to the parole board in 2001.
Richard gets a hearing every two years, but it’s almost impossible to get parole in the federal system. There are two ways, according to Julie Jonas, of the Innocence Project: “You can ask for a pardon based on actual innocence, or you can say, ‘Mea culpa, I’ve truly reformed.’” In other words, show you didn’t do it or show remorse. Richard’s best chances to prove his innocence are through DNA testing, which wasn’t available in 1986, or a new witness’s coming forward. Jonas is focusing on the former, and she and investigator Rolshoven have been searching everywhere for Yankton’s old Blazer, hoping it might still have some of that blood in the back. Garaas has never given up trying to get the right person to come forward and talk. Celeste Herman would be ideal, but he’s tried and failed with her; Mary McDonald also refuses to be interviewed (“I don’t wish to discuss it,” she told me. “I’m trying to move on with my life and keep that in my past”).
As for the mea culpa: Richard keeps running up against the mea part. “Look at my progress report,” he says. “No trouble in twenty years. I abide by their rules. I don’t get involved with gangs, drugs, homosexuals. Each time, the parole officer reads the facts of the case, and I sit and look at her. She asks, ‘What do you have to say?’ I say, ‘I can’t show remorse and I won’t show remorse. I won’t ask forgiveness for a crime I didn’t do.’ Then the officer says, basically, ‘See you in two years.’”
Richard is up for parole again in April 2007. Approaching fifty, his life is well more than half over. He never had a fair trial—the courts have said so twice. The truth is, like Eddie, Richard never had a chance. It would be a grand gesture if the government, which bent every effort to convict him, finally gave him one.