Part 1: Co-conspirator
(1) Any attorney who feels compelled to plead the “Fifth” against potential criminal self-incrimination unquestionably has something to hide. (2) Any attorney who is incapable of understanding a straightforward government memorandum, and turns it into something it clearly is not, promotes a fraudulent agenda. Former Peltier attorney Bruce Ellison is the perfect example of both.
Occasionally, old news is good news and life sometimes provides these little gifts.
Recently added to Peltier’s website is a somewhat dated, bargain-basement film entitled, WARRIOR The Life of Leonard Peltier.[i] There is much to criticize here, but a good place to start, and end, is with the appearance of Bruce Ellison.[ii]
The timing of the offering of this film is odd, and like other Peltier flagging efforts to bolster his vaporizing folklore, it’s not unexpected Peltier is incapable of recognizing that the film’s credibility is destroyed within the first three minutes.[iii]
To place Ellison’s shameful intimacy with Leonard Peltier and the American Indian Movement (AIM) in its proper context, and to what degree his actions as in-house counsel to the corrupt and dangerous organization AIM was during the 1970s, we need to briefly review some AIM history that the vast majority of Native America would just as soon forget. Woven throughout its sordid past, Ellison’s presence was less as a defense attorney than the consigliere to the American Indian Mafia.[iv]
AIM as a Revolutionary Organization: It is a frankly revolutionary organization which is committed to violence, calls for arming American Indians, has cached explosives and illegally purchased arms, plans kidnappings, and whose opponents have been eliminated in the manner of the Mafia. Some of AIM’s leaders and associates have visited Castro Cuba and/or openly consider themselves Marxist-Leninist. (Congressional Report, 1976)[v]
This is the group that Ellison chose to launch his legal career and get in bed with.
Background: Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, a vibrant thirty-year-old Mi’kmaq from Nova Scotia dedicated herself as an activist for native rights, joined the American Indian Movement and participated in a number of AIM led incidents including the takeover/destruction of the hamlet of Wounded Knee in 1973, the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties and the occupation and ransacking of the Department of Interior headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Anna Mae was well known and respected and intimately familiar with the founders and leaders of AIM, namely Russell Means, Dennis Banks, the Bellecourts’ (Vernon and Clyde) and U.S. Penitentiary inmate #89637-132 as well as many others.
Within the convoluted, greed-filled, conflicted and power-hungry AIM leadership, all was going as well as could be expected until raging paranoia and infighting created an atmosphere of suspicion that some among their ranks were disloyal. There were other reasons—some based on more interpersonal relationships and jealousies, that AIM leadership began to suspect everyone as a collaborator, or provocateur as they were fond of branding those even superficially suspect, and unfortunately, Anna Mae was high on the hit list.
This led to a well documented incident where AIM bodyguard, Leonard Peltier, did what he did best, certainly not a leader but just a cowardly thug, who, while at the AIM National Convention in Farmington, New Mexico in June 1975 confronted Anna Mae to make her confess she was an FBI informant, punctuating his interrogation by putting a gun her mouth.[vi] This occurred mere days before Peltier would attack, wound and murder FBI Agents Coler and Williams at Pine Ridge, SD,
In quasi-legal terms and AIM’s version of vigilante justice, this was akin to Anna Mae’s preliminary hearing.
Added to this was Anna Mae’s misfortune: While escaping with Peltier and others from Pine Ridge after the agents’ deaths, she heard Peltier’s description (his confession actually) for the slaughter of the wounded agents. “The M…F… begged for his life but I shot him anyway.”[vii] As suspicions persisted, this was even more dangerous knowledge for Anna Mae to possess.
History has proven that Anna Mae was not an informant, but it mattered little as AIM leadership ordered her execution and the finger pointing as to who gave the final order continues to this day. Although, among the Native community, the list of suspects is very short.[viii]
In late December 1975 Anna Mae was forcefully removed from Denver and taken to Rapid City for further interrogation. Included was a brief stay at the Wounded Knee Legal Defense/Offense Committee (WKLDOC*), of which, Bruce Ellison was an integral member/collaborator. Not long after, an unidentified female body was found on February 24, 1976 in a ravine about ten miles from Wanblee, the most eastern community on the Pine Ridge Reservation and later buried in a pauper’s grave as a Jane Doe.
It would be a little later (early March) that the FBI identified the female remains—Anna Mae Aquash, who had been raped and shot in the head. However, before this announcement, AIM leader Dennis Banks had informed several AIMsters that the (as yet unidentified) body found near Wanblee was actually Anna Mae and that she had been shot in the head. Present during one of these admissions were the Bellecourts.
Dennis Banks, and others, have a lot of blood on their hands.[ix]
To further AIM’s obvious culpability; On March 14th, a cold day of blowing snow, Anna Mae was buried with traditional Oglala prayers on the bare ridge above the Wallace Little ranch…it was noticed that no AIM leaders came to honor her.[x]
Enter Candy Hamilton, 1996.
Candy Hamilton, a non-native, self-described reporter from Tennessee, no friend of the government and an activist for native rights, wrote a scathing piece for a Native publication entitled No Results After 20 Years. She criticized the government for grand jury investigations that went nowhere to solve the crime and find justice for Anna Mae and her family. Hamilton wrote of the widespread knowledge that Anna Mae was murdered within about two weeks of her forced removal from Denver and interrogation by AIM members at the WKLDOC office in December.[xi]
Criticism aside, Hamilton would, however, hammer a well-deserved nail in the credibility of Bruce Ellison over his knowledge and possible involvement in the kidnapping, rape and murder of Anna Mae Aquash. Ellison is not being accused of rape, but his knowledge of the kidnapping and eventual murder of Anna Mae Aquash cannot be discounted or ignored.
To be clear, Anna Mae believed she could convince her AIM accusers of her innocence.
Years later, in March 2003, AIM members Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham (aka John Boy Patton) were indicted for Anna Mae’s murder. They were convicted, Looking Cloud in 2004, Graham in 2010, both receiving life sentences.
Re-enter Candy Hamilton, 2004.
At Looking Cloud’s 2004 trial a crucial witness regarding the culpability of Bruce Ellison was none other than Candy Hamilton.
Hamilton’s sworn testimony clearly established that on or about December 11, 1975, at the WKLDOC office in Rapid City, Ellison and other AIM members conducted what can only be described as an interrogation of Anna Mae Aquash. The others included Laurelie Means, Ted Means, Clyde Bellecourt, Madonna Gilbert and Thelma Rios.
Hamilton testified of Anna Mae: there were tears in her eyes, that she had been crying and she appeared very unhappy. Hamilton related that she believed Anne Mae would be safe in Oglala (a hamlet on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation), but Anna Mae replied, I don’t think I will get to, or I don’t think I will, (something to that effect). Anna Mae then said, I have to go back in there now.
(Back-in-there, of course, was to continue her interrogation by Ellison and the other AIM accusers. Since Peltier conducted Anna Mae’s preliminary hearing, this then was Anna Mae’s trial with presiding judge, Attorney Bruce Ellison, and the jury of her peers. Well, her former peers from the American Indian Movement.)
During Hamilton’s cross-examination, in response to the prosecutor’s question, she stated “When, I heard Bruce Ellison at Thelma’s, I heard him say…” This was met with an objection from the defense attorney, Rensch, which was followed by a side-bar (out of the hearing of the jury):
(Assistant U.S. Attorney Mandel) Frankly, my read on this is that this is a co-conspirator statement made in furtherance of the course of the conspiracy. I know we don’t have a conspiracy charge, that’s not the rule of evidence, and in fact I point out that Mr. Ellison, according to Mr. Rensch, said he is going to exercise his 5th Amendment rights and won’t testify here, and we have had the same experience we had with the grand jury regarding this on a number of occasions. Mr Rensch of course has received the transcript through discovery, he’s exercised his 5th Amendment right. He is a co-conspirator, it is a co-conspirator’s statement made in the furtherance and course of the conspiracy. The statement is simply that, you know, she’s here, they have her in town, something like that. (Emphasis added).[xii]
Hamilton continued that she then left WKLDOC with Ted Means, Clyde Bellecourt, Web Poor Bear and another individual heading to Sioux Falls, stopping on the Rosebud Reservation at Ted Means’ brother, Bill Means’ house.
It is widely believed that the stop at Bill Means’ amounted to the final phase of AIM (in)justice, her sentencing. Anna Mae had already been convicted by Ellison and the AIM kangaroo court and now the sentence was handed down. Capital punishment, AIM style, a bullet to the back of the head and the lifeless body dumped unceremoniously into a barren ravine.[xiii]
The last to see Anna Mae alive
This is where Ellison’s culpability becomes evident as he skirmished in typical AIM fashion to divert attention away from himself and the truth.
After the unidentified body was found it wasn’t until March 3rd that the FBI confirmed the abandoned body was Anna Mae and her family was notified on March 5th and made public on March 6th.
Ellison immediately jumped into action “demanding” that the recently buried Anna Mae be exhumed (the FBI had already applied for a court order) and was personally and intimately involved in all the activities that followed, most notably to shed any suspicion of AIM’s involvement while pointing a crooked finger elsewhere.
So brazen and self-effacing were Ellison’s actions that during a March 8,1976 visit to the FBI’s office in Rapid City, when requested by an agent to furnish any information he might receive concerning Anna Mae’s death to the FBI, Ellison replied that it would depend on who they (meaning certainly, he and AIM) determined was responsible for her death and that would dictate whether or not this information would be furnished to the FBI.[xiv]
So what was the secret that Ellison kept so close to the vest? He knew that he and the others at the WKLDOC office, those who also drove off with Anna Mae, were the last to see her alive.
Did Ellison have an attorney-client privilege with everyone in AIM and particularly those who interrogated Anna Mae before she took her last ride, before she wound up dead in a ravine? Perhaps he could lamely try to claim that privilege but nonetheless he had first-hand, personal knowledge of those, including himself, who knew Anna Mae’s exact last known whereabouts; at WKLDOC. A secret he kept, a co-conspirator’s intimate and personal knowledge, around which he wrapped himself in the protection of the 5th Amendment as the crosshairs of the government’s prosecution swung in his direction. Ellison knew all too well his criminal exposure was significant.
One must consider how did those hours with Anna Mae in the WKLDOC office unfold? Odds are the shyster Ellison played the good cop routine (“Annie, we can work through this, It’s simple, we’ll just feed the Feds with a little information, just enough to keep them interested but at a distance. Let them think you’re still cooperating. We can give them some disinformation too, to throw them off the trail, keep them guessing. We can have a little fun with them and even make AIM look positive and successful and cast suspicion on those who are not on board with us.” Or something like that.) While the others played the bad cop, threatening role, maybe just like Peltier, gun-in-her-mouth and all.
Ellison knew of AIM’s suspicions of Anna Mae, said nothing, but continued to work with and represent the very people who were most responsible and suspected of her murder. Ellison is no better than the worst of the AIM leaders, this episode being among the most heinous and reducing whatever existed of Ellison’s character to all the permanence of writing on water.
It was, and is, a damn shame Ellison was not further pursued for his involvement, knowledge and seeming culpability in Anna Mae’s abduction and murder.
But then, there is no statue of limitations on murder. Perhaps Ellison’s day is yet to come, and pleading the 5th will make no difference at all. We can only hope.
“In the Spirit of Coler and Williams”
*WKLDOC: There is no greater example of a despicable group of lawyers that those who defended Peltier and the others. The court records are replete with specific examples of Ellison, Et Al, not just ensuring that the government proved it’s case beyond a reasonable doubt (which was their sworn duties as officers of the court), but making every effort to subvert, impede and obstruct justice. They sought to prevent any Native Americans, whether witnesses, knowledgeable or not, to even talk to the FBI about what they knew of anyone even associated with the murders of Coler and Williams. They overtly hindered the investigation at every turn. They purported to represent all Native Americans involved in any way with the events of June 26, 1975. They engineered witnesses being unavailable, or mysteriously disappearing for trial. Of the most blatant examples was Angie Long Visitor, only a witness to the initial attack on the agents, who later told the government the names of those from WKLDOC who arranged for her “vacation” and absence during the Robideau-Butler trial. Even pressured and spending time in jail for contempt, this critical witness would not cooperate because of pressure from the “friends of Peltier.” At Peltier’s trial, she chose, much to the dismay of Peltier, Ellison and the rest, not expose herself to perjury and testified truthfully. Long Visitor, a totally unimpeachable fact witness corroborated to the letter the testimony of Michael Anderson and Norman Brown as to the position of Leonard Peltier’s red and white suburban when the shooting started; that there were no other vehicles aside from the agents’ present at the time and placing shooters, Joe Stuntz, Norman Charles and Bob Robideau in the same approximate locations they were placed in by Anderson and Brown. Had Long Visitor not appeared at Peltier’s trial, the government would have had no difficulty knowing who to prosecute for obstruction of justice; the corrupt gang of shyster lawyers and others from WKLDOC.[xv]
[ii] Bruce Ellison, 328 E. New York St. Suite 5, Rapid City, SD 57701,
(855) 761-9934, http://bruceellisonlaw.com/
[iii] At just 2:37 into “Warrior” Peltier biographer, Peter Matthiessen (1927-2014), author of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, a book described on Peltier’s website as “The definitive work on the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Peltier case,” makes a definitive statement that dismantles Leonard Peltier and this film. Matthiessen was arguably one of the most well informed writers about AIM, Peltier and the murders of Agents’ Coler and Williams through unfettered access to those who were closest to this critical event. Matthiessen states: “…the plight of a young man spending his life in prison for something he almost certainly did not do.” “Almost certainly?” Through the years of research and involvement with Peltier and AIM and with his intimate knowledge of June 26, 1975, this is the closest Matthiessen can come to even suggesting that Peltier is allegedly innocent. Since Matthiessen, undeniably knew all the dirty little secrets, this is the absolute best he can reach on this subject, “almost.” Even within the pages of ITSOCH Matthiessen casts a very large wet blanket of doubt on Peltier’s version of how it all started at Jumping Bull that fateful day. Late in the book (p.544), Matthiessen had to inject some measure of conscience into his reporting and admitted that the evidence demonstrated that the agents “…had indeed been chasing one or more vehicles…” and “…they heard a warning shot or had been taken under fire; if there is another persuasive explanation of the location and position of their cars, I cannot find it.” He couldn’t find it. There is no better way to destroy Peltier’s version of how the shooting began than from his own biographer, Peter Matthiessen.
[v] Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Ninety-Fourth Congress; Revolutionary Activities within the United States, The American Indian Movement. 76-598 O, September 1976. (Author’s note: This report, although completed prior to, and published in September 1976, did not include the murder of Agents Coler and Williams, June 26, 1975. Peltier would no doubt respond with Cointelpro, however, the response to that can be found here: http://www.noparolepeltier.com/debate.html#unmasked
http://jfamr.org/denise_interview.html (last accessed 1/17/16)
[viii] https://rezinate.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/slithering-out-of-wk2/ (Last accessed 2/1/16)
[ix] http://oneidaeye.com/2013/10/03/dennis-banks-foreknowledge-aims-baggage/ (Last accessed 2/2/16)
[x] Peter Matthiesen, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse (New York: Penguin Books, 1991) 262.
[xiii] https://rezinate.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/slithering-out-of-wk2/ (Last accessed 2/1/16)
[xiv] Matthiessen, 255