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Native Sun News: Retired FBI agent takes on Peltier and AIM





The following story was written and reported by Jesse Abernathy. All content © Native Sun News.


Leonard Peltier has almost incomprehensibly built a steady, loyal troop of backers from all corners of the globe in the years since his double conviction for the murders of FBI special agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams during the ‘70s heyday of the American Indian Movement on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Photo courtesy lpdoc.blogspot.com

PINE RIDGE RESERVATION, SOUTH DAKOTA –– Almost 37 years after the execution-style murders of two young FBI special agents on this sprawling reservation, the man convicted of pulling the trigger continues to proclaim his innocence.

The murders of 28-year-old Jack Coler and 27-year-old Ronald Williams were perpetrated on June 26, 1975 – during the height of the militant American Indian Movement. Leonard Peltier, who is of Oglala Lakota and Anishinaabe, or Ojibwe, heritage, was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder for the killings in April of 1977. He was subsequently sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison in June of that same year.

Peltier’s dual-conviction is believed to be a travesty of justice by his supporters from around the globe. This belief is founded in Peltier’s widely-publicized decrial from behind prison walls of the FBI and its handling of the investigation of the agents’ slayings and in the ethnically-based self-pronouncement of his status as a so-called political prisoner, as well.

From family and friends to Hollywood celebrities to national and international politicians, the 67-year-old Peltier has amassed a plethora of followers in the wake of his legally-grounded convictions.

In a 1981 interview with People magazine, Peltier admitted to being involved in a “shoot-out” with agents Coler and Williams on that fateful day in June of 1975. However, “I didn’t kill them,” he said in the interview.

Peltier has, in successive interviews with other media outlets, at least admitted that he did fire at the agents.

Also throughout the clouded and convoluted aftermath of the tragedy, Peltier has proffered several inconsistent and borderline bizarre alibis to various media outlets in a seeming effort to deflect attention away from his intimate involvement in the slayings of Coler and Williams.

For nearly 35 years, protests, symposiums, treatises and more have been staged on Peltier’s behalf, based almost solely on his vociferous denial of wrongdoing rather than on the myriad facts surrounding his case.

“ … Leonard Peltier is not simply a victim – he is a fighter, writer, activist, grandfather, Nobel Peace Prize nominee and was the presidential candidate for the Peace and Freedom Party (California) in 2004,” said Michele Bollinger, activist and member of the Washington, D.C.-based International Socialist Organization, in a speech delivered at a June Socialism 2009 convention in Chicago. Bollinger is an ardent Peltier supporter.

“Leonard, his friends, family and comrades have fought for real justice to be done. In the years since his conviction, millions upon millions of people around the world have come to learn of his case, agree that he is innocent and demand his freedom. This is in part due to the famous documentary, ‘Incident at Oglala,’ directed by Michael Apted and narrated by Robert Redford and the national bestselling book that everyone from the FBI to former South Dakota Governor Bill Janklow tried to block from publication – Peter Matthiessen’s ‘In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,’” she said.

Peltier’s projected release date is Oct. 11, 2040, one month after what will be his 96th birthday. His last parole hearing was in July 2009, at which time his request for parole was summarily denied. His next parole hearing is scheduled for July 2024. At that time, Peltier will be almost 80.

He is currently incarcerated at U.S. Penitentiary Coleman I in Florida, which is a high security division of the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex.

During former President Bill Clinton’s administration, Peltier made an unsuccessful bid for executive clemency. In January of 2009, Peltier filed another plea for clemency with then-President-elect Barack Obama.

Additionally, supporters have virtually inundated the White House with letters and petitions seeking executive clemency for Peltier.

Obama has yet to act on Peltier and his advocates’ requests.

In 2007, retired FBI Special Agent in Charge Joseph Trimbach and his son, John Trimbach, wrote and independently published a book that they refer to as the “true history of the American Indian Movement.” The landmark work is entitled “American Indian Mafia” and seeks to dispel the myths surrounding the 1970s era of AIM and, in particular, reveal to the general public the truth about Leonard Peltier’s overall role within the movement and primary role in the homicides he is connected to.

As the lead FBI agent, Joseph Trimbach was initially responsible for containing and bringing to an end AIM’s 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee in early 1973.

In a December 2009 letter to the California-based RedNation, a Native American cultural and spiritual organization, regarding the organization’s decision to present its first-ever humanitarian award to Peltier, Joseph Trimbach said, in part, “My book … sets the record straight regarding Peltier’s made-up persona as a political prisoner and exposes the true legacy of Peltier’s crime bosses, leaders of the American Indian Movement. I was there (on June 26,1975), responding to frantic radio calls from 27-year-old Ron Williams after he and his partner, 28-year-old Jack Coler, came under fire from shooters well outside the range of their service revolvers."

Trimbach continued: "Exposed in an open field, the men were caught virtually defenseless. Peltier, at the time a wanted fugitive, later admitted that he mistakenly believed the agents were there to arrest him. The evidence shows that Peltier fired from a distance of over 200 yards from the cover of a large elm tree. At least a hundred shell casings matching Peltier’s assault rifle were found at the scene. Other shooters joined in, all aiming at Ron and Jack as they sought cover behind their vehicles."

"Over 125 bullet holes were found in their bureau cars. After both men were wounded, Peltier and two of his accomplices went down to the injured agents and shot them both at point-blank range. We know this because of the evidence presented at Peltier’s trial and because Peltier later bragged about shooting Ron Williams in the face as he sat pleading for his life. The autopsy report confirms that Ron died with his right hand raised in front of his face to ward off a blast from Peltier’s weapon.” Peltier’s accomplices were his cousin, Robert “Bob” Robideau, and Darrelle “Dino” Butler. Both men were also members of AIM and, in the summer of 1976, were tried for and acquitted of the agents’ murders," Trimbach said.

Robideau died in February of 2009. He was 62.

Peltier subsequently fled to Canada, where he remained until his extradition in February of 1976.

“Ron Williams was assigned out there by the FBI in Rapid City, (it was) a sub-office, a ‘resident agency’ they call it,” Joseph Trimbach told Native Sun News. “There were about nine or ten agents out there and Coler was on temporary loan to us – or maybe there were like 12 agents – but the point is, they were a close-knit group,” he said.

“They socialized with each other and helped each other on a daily basis, so the murders of Williams and Coler had a very shocking effect. I know one agent, many years later, told me that he would carry his grief with him over Ron Williams’ killing to his grave.”

There’s just a lot of emotional baggage that results from this type of murderous activity, said Trimbach.

The violent incident involving the agents and Peltier “was not a shoot-out as the media calls it, but an execution,” he said.

“The agents were totally defenseless when they had an AR-15 rifle shooting at them and all they had were their pistols. Of course, they had rifles in their trunk, but they never got a chance to use them.”

Both Williams and Coler reported to this area at the outset of the occupation of Wounded Knee, according to Trimbach.

“Jack Coler was the father of two young boys at the time of his death, so that made it particularly sad,” he said.

Trimbach said he is most bothered by the fact that the people who know for certain that Peltier murdered agents Williams and Coler have never come forward with the truth, instead allowing the lies about Peltier to be told and retold.

“I never met (Peltier) or saw him in person until I testified at his parole hearing in 2009 in Pennsylvania,” said Trimbach. “I testified against giving him pardon, or parole,” he said.

"If Peltier would show remorse or regret for his actions, then, I think – we are a very forgiving nation – he could be considered for parole or probation or pardon," Trimbach said.

“Peltier is a vicious killer,” he said. “But he is very defiant and doesn’t admit his guilt or show any contrition for his actions.”

During AIM’s reign of terror, fear of Peltier and his fellow AIM members was the common mood among the uninvolved Pine Ridge Reservation community, especially after the slayings of Williams and Coler, according to Trimbach.

“People were afraid to talk to us because they were afraid of retaliation from AIM,” said Trimbach. Trimbach said that the dozens of so-called unsolved murders on the reservation were mostly fabricated by AIM’s top leaders in an attempt to discredit the FBI.

“Many of the murders that did actually occur were solved and were attributed to things like accidents, the weather and fights and alcohol-related causes, not the FBI,” he said. “And some of the murders were attributed to AIM.”

Ray Robinson, a black civil rights activist who joined the Wounded Knee takeover in April of 1973, disappeared during the siege and is believed to have been murdered by a member of AIM. The specific circumstances surrounding Robinson’s death remain unsolved, however.

In a synopsis for the book contained on its accompanying website, americanindianmafia.com, the authors said, “The 1970s legacy of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is haunted by the forgotten suffering of innocent victims and a falsified history found in almost every library in America. Sadly, what could have been a needed voice for Native American interests became a criminal enterprise on the reservation, where property was destroyed and lives were lost. A record found in falsehoods and distortions completed the betrayal and denied the reality of lost opportunities, shattered lives and a movement hijacked by its leadership. Today, the perpetrators are known as ‘brave warriors’ and ‘selfless activists,’ while many of their crimes against (other) Indians are minimized or not mentioned at all.”

“American Indian Mafia” evolved out of a letter written to Joseph Trimbach by one of his granddaughters. She was enrolled in a Native American history course that disparaged and inaccurately portrayed her grandfather and his role as FBI special agent in charge at the time of the Williams and Coler killings. Trimbach vowed to write an accurate historical account for his granddaughter about AIM and his subsequent involvement in staying the radical group during the early to mid-1970s, and even beyond that time frame.

According to John Trimbach, all the evidence from the murders of Coler and Williams pointed to Peltier.

The evidence alone, however, might not have been enough to tie Peltier to the crimes. This possible lack of sufficient evidence led to the federal government’s somewhat befuddling trying of Peltier on the alternate theories that he either committed the murders himself or aided and abetted in the killings.

In explicating the government’s dual theory, Trimbach said, “It’s much harder to prove that someone actually pulled the trigger than it is to prove that they aided and abetted – that is, they actually participated in the murders by helping.”

“So in this case, as in many failed cases, the prosecutors (found it) much easier to try him for aiding and abetting the murders and to prove, which they did, because Peltier was convicted by a jury trial,” said Trimbach. “And, of course, aiding and abetting carries the same penalty as if he was the principal (murderer),” he said.

As later evidence came to light following Peltier’s trial in 1977, it further corroborated the jury verdict of guilty and confirmed that not only did he aid and abet the murders, but he also pulled the trigger, according to Trimbach.

Trimbach said that subsequent court testimony at the murder trials of other early AIM members from the former common-law wife of one-time prominent AIM leader Dennis Banks, Darlene “Ka-Mook” Nichols Ecoffey, further incriminated Peltier.

“(Ecoffey) testified more than once – at the Arlo Looking Cloud trial, the Dick Marshall trial and the John Graham trial,” he said. “Under oath, she recalled Peltier boasting about shooting agent Ron Williams in the face at point-blank range.”

According to Ecoffey’s testimony, Peltier’s exact words were, “The motherf—ker was begging for his life, but I shot him anyway.”

Trimbach recalled being overcome with emotion when he heard Ecoffey’s testimony about Peltier’s statement for the first time.

“Of course, (Ecoffey) was very emotional when she provided the testimony about Leonard Peltier, also,” he said.

Ecoffey declined to be interviewed for this article, saying only that anything she could say about Peltier has already been said in her testimony and that she wants to put her days with AIM behind her.

Peltier reportedly referred to Ecoffey’s sworn testimony about him as “lies,” calling her a “sellout.” In separate trials, both Fritz Arlo Looking Cloud and John “John-Boy” Graham were found guilty of the December 1975 murder on the Pine Ridge Reservation of high-profile AIM member Anna Mae Pictou Aquash. Looking Cloud’s conviction came in February of 2004; Graham’s conviction followed almost seven years later, in December of 2010.

Vine Richard “Dickie” Marshall was acquitted in April 2010 of murder in connection with Aquash’s slaying, which came just six months after the murders of Williams and Coler.

Aquash’s body was discovered at the bottom of a ravine in the Badlands in February of 1976. She had been shot in the head.

The paranoia of the cabal that was AIM led to Aquash’s murder as many within the movement, including Peltier, mistakenly believed her to be an FBI informant.

“(Peltier) was at least involved to this extent – he put a loaded gun to (Aquash’s) mouth about six months before they killed her, but his whereabouts when the murder occurred has never really been pinned down so it’s really hard to prove” he had any involvement in Aquash’s untimely and senseless demise.

According to additional sworn witness testimony from Ecoffey, Peltier referred to the placing of the gun in Aquash’s mouth as the administration of “truth serum” on his part.

“I personally don’t think he was directly involved in the murder. I don’t think he was in Bill Means’ house the night they brought her there and basically decided to end her life, but I do think Peltier was aware of it and he has been caught lying about it and that’s in our book, as well,” said Trimbach. According to Looking Cloud’s testimony at Graham’s trial, he and Graham forcibly dragged Aquash to the craggy Badlands overhang off of which she was pushed following being shot and presumably killed by Graham.

“(Looking Cloud) said that she didn’t die right away, either. She fell some 30 feet to the bottom of the cliff and was still moving for a few moments. The bullet entered the right rear side of her head and became lodged in her left temple – it never exited, which might be why she didn’t die right away.” For many years, key players within AIM spun the story that the FBI was responsible for Aquash’s murder, indicated Trimbach.

“But it’s getting harder to spin that story because we now have two convictions – Arlo Looking Cloud and John Graham.”

Trimbach praised both Ecoffey and Looking Cloud for coming forward and telling the truth. “I really believe, at this point in time, really the only person telling the truth about the (Aquash) murder is (Looking Cloud),” he said.

Trimbach recounted what the FBI’s investigative team had discovered about the last moments of special agents Williams and Coler.

“Either before or after (Peltier) shot Ron Williams (in the head) … Jack Coler suffered two head shots, as well, the first one was a glancing blow, the second one entered just below his nose – again fired at point-blank range. So very vicious, vicious crimes,” he said.

Williams then fashioned a tourniquet out of his shirt for Coler, even though he was also mortally wounded by a slug that slammed through the open trunk of his bureau car, said Trimbach. The round struck Coler in the right arm and severed it, that’s why Williams tore his shirt off and made the tourniquet.

“There was a bullet hole in Ron’s shirt, so the investigators reasoned that Ron was in a great deal of pain when he tried to help Jack Coler, and there’s a lot more evidence in our book and we go through it all.”

A high school acquaintance described Williams as a “very kind person.”

Ed Woods, administrator and editorialist for the No Parole Peltier Association website, said he has had limited contact with both Coler and Williams’ families in the years since their untimely deaths in the line of duty.

“I believe that (Williams’) parents are deceased and, at the moment, I do not know if he had any siblings or where they may be,” Woods said in an email to Native Sun News. “I last saw (Coler’s) sons at (Peltier’s) parole hearing at Lewisburg in July 2009,” he said.

Located in Pennsylvania, Lewisburg is the federal penitentiary that once housed Peltier.

“I know that the Coler family does not entertain interviews or media contact. I believe they prefer not to relive their loss,” said Woods.

Throughout the criminal history of this country, Trimbach indicated, there is probably no convicted killer who has had as many legal appeals as Peltier.

“I guess he’s been to court in various forms and venues maybe 20 times. He’s lost every single appeal. Not one judge has found merit in retrying his case or overturning his conviction,” said Trimbach.

“Most judges believe that Peltier has received a fair trial and a fair conviction, but that’s not something Peltier or his supporters like to bring up. Instead, his supporters believe a whole host of legends and myths and propaganda that they can’t possibly support with the facts.” On the back cover of “American Indian Mafia,” emboldened letters loudly proclaim, “The History Book They Do Not Want You To Read!”

“By ‘They,’ we mean certain members of academia, the media, the Peltier supporters,” Trimbach said.

“And this is my problem with some of the Indian leaders: Where is the outrage? Why hasn’t (Peltier) been criticized for the way he manipulates and exploits Indian heritage and history? By any measure, what he’s done by putting himself on a pedestal next to Chief Crazy Horse and other Indian warriors … to me, should be viewed as extreme denigration to general Indian heroes, truthful Indian history and, to a large extent, Indian spirituality.”

And this duplicity on the part of Peltier makes some of his followers feel better because of the history of Indians – how the government screwed the Indians out of their land and violated virtually every treaty that they ever signed, and so it’s an easy leap in logic to come to Peltier’s defense but I wish people would consider the facts because all these falsehoods get spread around, said Trimbach.

“I think we need to hold Indian leaders accountable,” he said.

For many years, Peltier claimed that a mysterious figure, known only as “Mr. X,” killed special agents Coler and Williams. This outlandish claim led to an “exclusive” feature being done on the disturbingly disguised Mr. X by CBS’s 60 Minutes in 1991.

By 1995, one of Peltier’s accomplices at the Jumping Bull family compound on June 26, 1975, was apparently weary of the lies. Butler exposed Mr. X as a hoax, depriving Peltier of what was perhaps his most bizarre alibi.

“The whole Mr. X scam involved ‘In the Spirit of Crazy Horse’ author Peter Matthiessen, who was completely taken in by Leonard Peltier,” Trimbach said. “He was the guy who first bought into the story of Peltier’s innocence and who met him in prison and proceeded to write the book.” The true identity of Mr. X has apparently never been revealed.

When Matthiessen’s book came out, it was showered with praise and largely regarded as all factual history, said Trimbach. In fact, that book became the bible for the people who support Leonard Peltier – to this day they cite chapter and verse from this book, he said.

“In our book, ‘American Indian Mafia,’ as Tim Giago wrote, we take ‘In the Spirit of Crazy Horse’ apart – we shred it with the facts. No one has ever done that before. There’s a lot of people, not just Peter Matthiessen, who invested their time, their money and their reputation on the innocence of this guy, and it makes it even more difficult for them to backtrack and say, ‘Wait a minute, maybe we got this whole thing wrong.’ It takes a lot of courage to do that, but it does happen. We get emails from people who tell us how much they appreciate the book and how much it opened their eyes.” Trimbach said the 1992 documentary “Incident at Oglala” is almost laughable.

“I think (producer and narrator) Robert Redford was just about as well-intentioned as anybody else. He was conned into believing the myth, but you have to question the guy’s judgment. He made this documentary in which he allows Peltier’s attorneys to spin the whole thing with all sorts of conspiracy theories – no proof, they just have to say it and it sounds believable on camera,” he said. Michael Apted directed “Incident at Oglala.”

According to Trimbach, he continually receives emails from former AIM insiders who tell him that much of the story of Leonard Peltier and AIM still remains to be told.

“Wounded Knee 1973 was a media event, driven by the media from the angle of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre,” said Trimbach. “You know, the whole romanticized story of Indians bravely holding off the modern-day equivalent of the U.S. Cavalry,” he said.

“(American Indian Mafia) has withstood the test of time since it came out in late 2007. No one has been able to refute the evidence that we put in the book, and it’s interesting how the powers that be still choose to ignore it. But it’s getting harder for them.”

The book demolishes the conspiracy theories, the legends and the myths and gives people a much different perspective than what they might currently find in the history books, in Indian encyclopedias, in Indian histories and certainly books like “In the Spirit of Crazy Horse,” Trimbach said.

“It sort of grew into this expose because it was connected by virtue of all of these murders that took place – the secret murders at Wounded Knee, the murders of the agents and the murder of (Aquash). And it just gets worse. You keep finding out about all of these murders that took place, and you finally get the big picture that these guys were just downright evil and they basically got away with it,” he said.

In accord with his father, Trimbach has faith that the justice system will hold steadfast and not grant an unrepentant Peltier freedom before his scheduled release date in 2040.

“(Peltier) will never be paroled because the parole board, all the parole boards he’s met, the most recent one was 2009, they all reached the same conclusion – it was the same conclusion reached by the 1993 parole board in which they said, basically, ‘ … we think you pulled the trigger and to release you would not show justice in the least, especially someone who does not show one single bit of remorse.’ In fact, he’s on record as saying he would do it all over again if he had the chance. Why would you ever even think about releasing somebody like that from prison?”

There will be outrage among the nation’s law enforcement community if Peltier, a notorious “cop-killer,” succeeds in being paroled or pardoned, according to Trimbach.

“His only hope is for President Obama to grant him executive clemency. But I have to think President Obama would never make such a horrible decision,” he said.

In this presidential election year, only time will tell.

“I just have to believe that, in the end, the truth will win out,” said Trimbach.

(Contact Jesse Abernathy at staffwriter@nsweekly.com)

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