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.”