LEONARD: Political Prisoner


December 02, 2021 Man Bites Dog Films Season 2 Episode 4
LEONARD: Political Prisoner
Show Notes Transcript

The FBI transferred Special Agents Jack Kohler and Ronald Williams to Pine Ridge to help with a backlog of cases despite neither having any training, experience, or special preparation for the civil war raging on the reservation. On June 25th, the day before the shootout, a colleague advised the pair not to return to the Jumping Bulls on their own, but the G-men ignored the warning with deadly results. In “Sacrificed” we examine the Bureau’s motivations and the beginnings of their ResMurs investigation.



Calvin Jumping Bull

There’s quite a number of Indian people, district people, were killed, not just this district alone but other districts in the last three or four years, you know, but nobody cares because it’s an Indian so nobody ever said anything. 


That was the son of Grandma and Grandpa Jumping Bull and the principal of the Red Cloud Elementary School, Calvin Jumping Bull, in remarks made to journalist Kevin McKiernan just a few days after the shootout at Oglala. 

Calvin Jumping Bull
Now two FBI agents were killed so everybody is concerned, even the President of the United States. But they never said anything about that Indian boy that was killed at the same place, same site. So I think what they did there is illegal trespassing. And they don’t have any search warrant in the first place to go there to look for anyone. Like it’s kind of unfortunate to have two FBI men killed, but you know, I think they start the whole problem, and I hate to say this, but I think they deserve what they got. 

You’re listening to LEONARD—a podcast series about Leonard Peltier, one of the longest-serving political prisoners in American history. I’m Andrew Fuller. 

And I’m Rory Owen Delaney. We’ve spent the last three years working to share Leonard’s story with a new generation of people: who he is, how he ended up behind bars, and why we believe he deserves to go free.

This is Season 2, Episode 4, Sacrificed. In this installment Edgar Bear Runner takes us to Leonard’s hideout, Dave Tilsen and Bruce Ellison recall FBI raids, and we recreate interviews with the BIA’s Robert Ecoffey and the FBI’s Norman Zigrossi from the Michael Apted archives. 

99 years after General Custer was defeated in what Americans refer to as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, but the Lakota call the Battle of Greasy Grass, the FBI lost two of their own in a firefight on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. 

In response the Bureau launched its ResMurs investigation. ResMurs, short for Reservation Murders, was the code name assigned to the FBI operation to apprehend the killers of Special Agents Jack Kohler and Ronald Williams.  

AIM activist Joseph Killsright Stuntz was also killed that day, but his death was excluded from the ResMurs investigation, as were the 60 plus murders and suspicious deaths attributed to the Reign of Terror on the Pine Ridge reservation over the previous two years. 

As the ResMurs operation kicked into high gear, Leonard Peltier, Dino Butler, Bob Robideau, Jean Roach and the rest of the AIMsters were hiding out at the Bear Runners’ ancestral home in Porcupine, South Dakota.

Lou Bean brought all the people from Oglala that were fortunate to get away. People I really feel proud that I saved. I saved them. I say it with pride.

Edgar is wearing a ponytail, jeans, and a blue button-up. A black mesh trucker cap covers the small bald spot on top of his head. 

It’s the summer of 2019 and we’re en route to the Bear Runner’s property in Porcupine with Edgar and his granddaughter Marlee.

Porcupine is a hamlet located 10 miles north of the village of Wounded Knee where the longest civil disorder in American history took place over the course of 71 days in 1973. 

This was an old road before. Looks nice now. New. There was a little skinny bridge here, old time bridge. At Wounded Knee we used nitroglycerin to blow it up.

Andrew (01:22):
[LAUGHS] Cool.

That’s not what I thought he was gonna say!

Rory (08:48):
So how far away is this from where we were earlier? The Jumping Bulls, like in miles.

In miles from the Jumping Bulls to Pine Ridge is 11 miles and from Pine Ridge to here is 20, 25 miles.

Rory (09:07):
Wow. So they did that all at nighttime.

Yeah. Marlee, sit still, sit back.

It was hard to imagine how Leonard had traversed this wild country three times without getting caught by the hundreds of law enforcement officials swarming Pine Ridge. But that’s what happened. 

Rory (09:11):
And then he went to Rosebud for the Raindance. 

[Edgar Laughs]

Sundance, I mean. Not Raindance.

Yeah. Sundance. 

Edgar had a heart of gold and a hell of a lot of patience with us. It was our first time on the res and it showed.

Take a right here. When I put my house out here, there was no homes out here, so I had to do paperwork and get this gravel road made here. It was a good gravel road, one of the best gravel roads, but over time guys come out here with a grater. They hit the middle, side of the road, all that gravel on the sides, both sides, you know. Now it's all dirt and the four wheel drivers have been popping up since I made this road. 

Rory (11:19):
Don't get stuck in that rut. 

Yeah, you want to stay away from that rut.


You got to stay high center, yeah.

You didn't know you were going four wheeling today, did you, Andrew?

Andrew (11:29):
Neither did our rental car company. [laughter]


The gravel is all gone now, and this dirt road is an uneven rutty mess. It would’ve been a lot of fun on a 4 wheeler. But we were in a Nissan Sentra. One wrong move and our little hatchback would be stuck, leaving us stranded in what felt like pretty much the middle of nowhere to a couple of wašíču city slickers like us.

I see the -- I see the trees. Outside.

So my kids, my children are all grown up now. They gave us 39 grandchildren and three great grandchildren.

Rory (11:04):
That's a lot of birthdays to keep track of. 

Lotta cake and ice cream all the time.


I just want to show the home that this was the sanctuary place for Peltier when they relocated from Oglala. They were here for two weeks. No cops, no nothing. Then they decided to go to Rosebud. So we took them there. Shit, they got arrested right away. Cops waiting for them.

Somebody tipped them off?

There's Indians that are informants that are the worst enemies. Straight ahead all the way. That house wasn't there. These other houses wasn't here. I was the only one out here. This was a wagon road before. My grandma and grandpa were the last ones around here to go around in a team and wagon. A horse drawn wagon. 

RORY (12:52):
The FBI came to your grandma's house, right? 

Right here. Yeah. They hated us so bad. The family. When it was a Bear Runner boy, they're ready to kill. 

The FBI weren’t Edgar’s biggest fans. Because of his meddling, the Bureau had a lot of explaining to do. 

They stopped their helicopter up here on the hill, about nine FBI agents in military gear and helmets get off that plane -- I mean, the helicopter -- and they all hit the ground. Get up and run and hit the ground. They tear gassed this house, almost burnt it up.

That’s the sound of our Sentra macheting through high weeds in the middle of the dirt road. The Sentra’s not prized for its off-roading capabilities, so please do not try this at home, folks.

Edgar Bear Runner
I walked from the road -- we turned off the road -- I walked through here with soup and bread and coffee.

Oh man... This is the house?

Yeah, this is the house.

So here it was, the legendary hideout Edgar had been talking about since we met him.

Just pull up a little bit, stop here, and we’ll get out.

A dilapidated house around 800 square feet or so sits in the middle of an overgrown field of beautiful yellow clover. There are no neighbors in sight. 

This property is a property of my mom's mom. My grandma. Everybody was given 140 acres, 160 acres of land. This land here was divided up. My grandma got 40 acres, her brothers got 40 and another brother got 40, you know. 

The Bear Runner land was parceled out as a result of the Dawes Act of 1887. The Act authorized the President of the United States to subdivide tribal landholdings into allotments for Native American heads of families and individuals. Lands that were leftover could be sold to the federal government by tribes. 

Between 1887 and 1934, Native Americans lost about 100 million acres of property. The Dawes Act caused this loss, which some historians say was the real purpose. 

Edgar Bear Runner
So my grandma stayed in this 40 acres here. Never leased that. We ran our own horses in here.

Grandpa, can we go? 

No, sweetheart. My grandma and them had a roots cellar here so all summer long they'd can all the fruits that grew around here. Plums, chokecherries, buffalo berries. We'd have them all winter long and all the potatoes that we raised here we'd eat them. Move off the snow and get a bunch of potatoes and then come back ove lol r here. Fresh too. Like they just got out of the ground.

It was clear how much the land meant to Edgar, the way he reminisced. Every day for roughly two weeks Edgar walked in supplies for Leonard and the others. 

So we had ‘em staying here. They were fed. They were well taken care of. We brought ‘em tobacco. We smoked cigarettes, carried the coffee. We told ‘em not to have smoke going up by the road, run a fire outside here. Helicopter, planes all over looking for ‘em all over the place. Really close. Getting closer and closer. Pretty soon they were in Evergreen kicking doors in like that. 

Looking at the house, we realized that without Edgar, the Indians who’d escaped the notorious shootout might have starved, been arrested or even killed.

Until meeting us, Edgar had never talked publicly about his part in the escape. When the acclaimed English director Michael Apted interviewed him for the documentary “Incident at Oglala,” Edgar kept his cards close to the vest.

When the other guys come around, I didn't want to talk to them. I was afraid they might charge me. But I don't care anymore. I'm 68 and have prostate cancer and what more could go wrong. I don't care if I die in jail. If I ever go to jail. But some of the things I did are criminal. I didn't perform no acts, but assisted, you know. 

This is the land where my mother and father authorized or allowed Peltier and all them -- they didn’t know them. My mom and dad didn't even know hardly any of them: Bob Robideau, Dino Butler and all them. But they had a heart. They had a heart and they said they can stay out here at this house. So--

Sometimes you have to do the right thing, right?

Sometimes you gotta do the right thing to save your brother. Uhm. Oh man, I really must be tired or something. I’m losing my train of thought.

Rory (29:18):
Well, you remember a lot.

Andrew (29:20):
Well, it’s emotional too. Going through all these experiences again.

Yeah. It's really sad. Uh, but I'm happy, on this land here, we grew up. On this land, my grandma, aunties, parents never spoke English. They all talk Lakota, talk our language.

Edgar’s plan was to fix up the place and move the whole family back from Rapid City. We don’t know if that ever happened, but we do know he died there on July 4th, 2021.

Back in 1975, though, after the FBI and GOONS learned of Edgar’s role in events, neither he nor his family could find a moment’s peace in Pine Ridge. 

Dick Wilson’s son Manny attacked Edgar in the local supermarket with the help of two thugs. Edgar’s brother, Dennis Bear Runner, a decorated Vietnam vet, was run off the road in his car by Goons. They even assaulted Edgar’s sister, Grace Bear Runner. 

No one was safe.

After the break, we go back to the future with Dave Tilsen, who was living in the Jumping Bulls’ shot-up cabin days after the firefight as part of his work as a paralegal for the Wounded Knee Legal Defense Offense Committee. 


For Ken Tilsen, a prominent civil rights attorney from the Twin Cities, the dramatic events in Indian Country during the 1970s paralleled a lot of what had taken place 100 years earlier.    

Ken Tilsen
I was struck with the fact that what we were having here was a repeat, in some ways, of the Indian Wars of the last century. That there was a tremendous amount of racism, of fascist like behavior on the part of the various military forces. 


This is a recreation of Ken Tilsen’s interview with Michael Apted, read by his son Dave. The Tilsen’s involvement in the Oglala community stretched back to the first days of the Wounded Knee occupation.

Ken Tilsen
I was also struck immediately with some of the similarities in the attitudes toward the Indian people and the similarities that came out of the civil rights struggle, and the attitude of the southern sheriffs and police officers. I was struck with the tremendous level of armament in the community at large. We were walking into a war zone. Things had to be done. I was not going to stand by and watch a slaughter of an entire community take place. And I think that if it weren’t for all of the people who came there, including the media, of course, we would have seen a mass slaughter of the Native American people at Wounded Knee.

Ken Tilsen was instrumental in the foundation and operation of the Wounded Knee Legal Defense / Offense Committee, known as WKLDOC for short. 

WKLDOC was established to provide legal defense support and some civil offense support for Indian activists. 

After the Wounded Knee Occupation in 1973, the government charged hundreds of Indian activists with low level crimes. Only a handful were ever convicted. But convictions were immaterial. 

Dino Butler
When our people get arrested, the government has a tactic, one of their tactics is that they -- they go in and they start a bunch of trouble, and then anybody that survives, they arrest them and run them through the court system for two or three or four years, knowing maybe they’re probably not going to get no convictions, but they don’t lose nothing. They don’t have nothing to lose.

This is a recreation of Dino Butler’s interview for “Incident at Oglala.”  

Dino Butler
After Wounded Knee they just arrested a whole bunch of people, and started running our people through the courts. After a while the so-called leaders, when they would get arrested, they would make deals with the court. The court would tell them, well, you know, I’ll release you if you don’t represent AIM. Don’t speak out on behalf of AIM anymore. 

And then they would agree to that, and the judge would let them out of jail. I couldn’t do that. When I went to jail, you know, to me, AIM is, AIM is the pipe to me, it’s the sacred pipe. It’s like the pipe represents to me probably what the Bible represents to some people.

Divide and conquer, you know. That’s what they wanted. 


The government was using the criminal justice system as a means to destroy the American Indian Movement. 

WKLDOC was devised to counter the Feds’ strategy. And back in the winter of 1973, Dave Tilsen was on the ground in Pine Ridge working for the organization during the Wounded Knee Standoff. 

Dave (00:50:29):
My main role was to drive the lawyers around, you know, and to wait for them. So I would drive to the first roadblock and let the lawyers out. Now it was cold, right? You gotta realize that the first day of Wounded Knee was February 27th. So this was the dead of winter in South Dakota. It was really cold. And people were not intending to have a long siege. They were intending to have a meeting, and it became, you know, an occupation when the government overreacted to a bunch of AIM people having a meeting in the church at Wounded Knee and they ended up having to stay there to avoid getting killed or arrested or, or something. 

Dave (00:53:47):
So we would go to Target during the day. And we would buy sweaters and underwear and socks and jackets and everything. And the lawyers would put on like four pairs of underwear, five pairs of socks and three pairs of pants and two tee shirts and an over shirt and a sweater and two jackets. Each one of the lawyers. And we would drive to the first FBI roadblock. They would get out of our car, get into the FBI car ‘cause they would shuttle them into Wounded Knee. And then we would hang around in Pine Ridge or somewhere waiting for them to come back out and then we'd pick them up. 

This was all of course after the Indians were permitted lawyers. Initially, a local judge refused them representation. Ken Tilsen appealed the decision.

Dave (00:50:55):
By going to the eighth circuit on appeal, they got the judge to order that the people inside Wounded Knee were essentially in federal custody since they were surrounded by federal marshals and the FBI with military equipment and weapons and that they were entitled to lawyers. The local federal judge, Judge Bogue, would not order these things on his own. And they had to appeal with a process called a Writ of Mandamus. And Mandamus comes from the same root as mandate. So Writ of Mandamus is you're asking a higher authority to mandate that a lower authority do something. So they did a Writ of Mandamus to the eighth circuit court of appeals asking them to order the local judge to order the FBI and the federal marshals to allow lawyers in or to allow food in or to allow a telephone to be installed. 

They did many, many Writs of Mandamus. And in fact, a lot of the Indian people started to call my dad Mandamus. And the joke was his Indian name was Mandamus ‘cause a lot of the Indians called him Mandamus. It was funny. 

Dave was a long-haired hippie from Minneapolis, a WKLDOCer and a son of Mandamus to boot. He was a ripe target. 

Dave (01:08:19):
There was what they called GOONS, Guardians of the Oglala Nation, that were around working for Dick Wilson, the tribal chair at the time. And they did not like these WKLDOC people and the supporters of AIM being around. And a few times I walked into ambushes, which was scary.

Dave (01:09:30):
You know, there's a church, Red Cloud Indian Church, which is a Catholic missionary on a Hill overlooking Pine Ridge. So I pulled the car in the parking lot and I go to that outbuilding and when I look behind the outbuilding there's three guys there. And one of them punches me. And I, I duck. I start to run back to the car and there was another guy in the car and I said, “Start the car and open the door!” And I'm running. And he saw the guy grab my hair and I kept running. He ended up with a handful of hair. But I just didn't stop. And I jumped in the car and we took off. And my scalp was bleeding. And, you know, the other guy in the car told everyone that I had my hair pulled out. So it became kind of a story that people tell, but, you know, Frank Clearwater and Buddy Lamont were killed. I don't think me getting a little bit of hair pulled out is significant.

But it wasn’t just Dave and Ken who were invested in the Lakotas’ struggle for civil rights and economic justice. For the Tilsens this was a family affair. 

Dave (01:01:13):
My mother was a great organizer and she became very close to a lot of the women her age on the reservation. The elderly women were really very key to me being trusted and my father being trusted and my brother Mark being trusted because we were Rachel's kids or Rachel's husband. And Rachel really clicked with these elderly women who play a huge role in the society. It's not out in public speaking the way the men did but certainly a very important role in people looking to them for guidance. 

On June 26th it was Rachel Tilsen who got the first call. 

Dave (00:03:39):
Her phone started ringing off the hook. She was getting phone calls from the Res saying the FBI is all over the place. They're going crazy. It looks like there's been a shooting. Some people are dead, you know. Information was spotty, but it obviously was a crisis. And she called me and she said can you get out to the Res? 

Dave (00:07:55):
So I went out there, went down to the Res, got there on the evening of June 28th. And I checked in with the Little family who lived in Oglala. 

The Littles’ property bordered the Jumping Bulls, so they had witnessed a lot of the action. Brothers Beau and June Little broke down for Dave what had happened on the 26th. 
How Dennis Banks had left the Jumping Bulls’ earlier that morning and caravanned to Custer, where he was standing trial for his role in the Custer Courthouse Riots. 

Leonard, Dino, and Bob stayed behind as part of a skeleton crew to provide security for the women and children camping on site.

A couple days later, attorney Bruce Ellison flew in to join the WKLDOC legal team. His connecting flight to Rapid City was a memorable one.

Bruce Ellison (03:27):
You can only get to Rapid City by air from very few places. I was coming from New York, so I had to switch planes. 

We interviewed Bruce outside of his home in South Dakota just steps from Rapid Creek. That’s the gushing sound in the background.

Bruce Ellison
Switched planes in Minneapolis and the plane was full and they got a bunch of people off the plane and then those people were substituted by FBI agents who were coming out. So I came out about the 30th of June. We stayed in a cabin in Oglala. And actually it was with Dave Tilsen. 

This was no ordinary cabin. This was one of the Jumping Bulls cabins. Specifically the cabin where their grandson Ivis Long Visitor was living with his wife Angie and their three small children. 

Grandpa Jumping Bull didn’t want the place sitting empty, so he asked Bruce and Dave to stay there. One image has haunted Bruce for over 46 years. 

Bruce Ellison (10:14):
The FBI, when they assaulted the homes, they literally ripped that entire little cabin with automatic weapons fire. I found a doll that was inside. It must've been one of Angie and Ivis's kids dolls, and it had a bullet hole in each breast, one in the pubic area and one in the head. Forehead. And it just kind of reflected the attitude of what we were dealing with. The lethal attitude.

Before they could move in, Bruce and Dave fixed up the place. 

Dave (00:12:29):
We patched up bullet holes and painted the place and cleaned things up. And we put in a phone which was a big hassle. There weren't a lot of phones down on Pine Ridge in those days. In fact, one of the really important tasks we performed was kind of going around to all of the different communities and keeping track of who among our supporters had phones so that we could call, you know, if we heard something was going on in Manderson and we heard something was going on in Kyle, or we heard something was going on in Eagle Butte or Porcupine or wherever, we at least had somebody who we could call in those areas. 

It wasn't easy because the phones were expensive. And then if one person had a phone, a lot of other people in the community wanted to come and use it. And that often led to significant long distance bills that people couldn't pay. So phones then got cut off. So the list needed to be constantly updated and we needed it a lot because the FBI, they were going all over.

It was crazy what they were doing and what they were doing of course was looking for the people who had been at the Jumping Bulls because everybody fled. Several times we were called. Said, “Oh, there's helicopters landing at so and so's house,” you know, at Edgar Bear Runner's house in Porcupine or other people's houses. And we'd go there and there'd be lots of FBI agents with weapons, and sometimes they had a search warrant, most of the time they didn't but searched anyway.

It was really a siege and it was really a reign of terror. And our role was pretty much to go in and hope we didn't get shot by anybody and talk to the people. Tell people their rights. That they didn't have to talk to the FBI agents. In fact, since FBI agents often lied about the content of any interview, we advised them not to talk to their FBI agents.  

Bruce Ellison (06:55):
Sometimes the FBI considered that we were breaking up their interviews and interfering with them doing their stuff, which we were, but we were just legally providing people of their rights that they didn't have to talk because that was obviously the opposite of the government's position. You had to talk or you'd be in a lot of trouble or who knows, you know, other things that would happen. 

While the Bureau was busy tearing apart the reservation, Special Agents Ron Williams and Jack Kohler were buried amid pomp and circumstance on July 1st in Los Angeles. 

Around the same time AIM activist Joe Killsright Stuntz was due to be buried at the Little Family Cemetery in Oglala. Before the ceremony, the FBI paid a visit to Wallace Little Sr, Beau and June Little’s dad. The patriarch of the family.

Wallace Little 
They came up here in a dozen police cars and vans. They surrounded my place. About 60 of them. They all lined each other up along west of my place across the creek. We’re just me and my son and my grandson and my daughter-in-laws and little kids. And we didn’t have nothing. No protection, no guns. So we just stayed out in the open so they could shoot us.

Kevin McKiernan
Were they armed?

That’s Kevin McKiernan interviewing Wallace Little Senior as part of his Pulitzer Prize nominated coverage for NPR.

Wallace Little

Yeah, all of them were armed. Hard powerful guns. Some had machine guns. Cut us in two. [Chuckles] So I gets out of my pickup and goes sees them policemen. Both of them had guns. One had a six shooter. And one had a high powered rifle. Ready to shoot. So I goes and tells them. “You boys, you hurt my feelings today. What did I do?” I’m an old man, 75, going on 75 years old now, and I can’t do nothing. But I can at least protect my granddaughters and my grandchildren. So I shows myself up on the pickup, let them shoot me.

Kevin McKiernan

Do you feel that you were harassed?

Wallace Little

Yeah, I feel awful bad. Put my name down, gave me a black eye. How can I get my name back up there like, like I had. 

Jean Roach hitchhiked to the Littles from Porcupine where she had been laying low at the Bear Runners with Leonard, Bob, Dino and the others. Joe’s funeral was something she couldn’t miss.  

Jean Roach

Me and Lena, we walked out, you know. And we went to Joe Stunts' funeral. You know, we did our own thing. We were teenagers. Nobody's in charge of us. [laughter]

Lena is Lynn Funston, the 15 year old girl who loaned Leonard her scope on top of the hill in our last episode.

Jean Roach
We went down to the Porcupine store and caught a ride. People used to catch rides all the time. Caught a ride to Oglala to Wallace Little's place where they had him down there in a teepee. So we went down there. And to me, it didn't really look like he got hit, just maybe like a little spot right here that caught the top of his head, but you know.

They put him in that teepee and honored him in a good way, and when they buried him, there was like seven eagles that came as they carried him up to the top of the hill from the bottom.

The FBI stayed away from Joe Stunts’s wake but their harassment of the community continued. The harassment was so intense and widespread that Kevin McKiernan and several other reporters questioned FBI spokesman Tom Call about it. 

Kevin McKiernan

Do you think your posture will be modified here at all because of the feeling of community residents in Oglala?

Tom Call

I couldn’t comment on that. I don’t think so at the present time. 


Isn’t there a way to conceal your weapons a little better or maybe go into different clothing or something like that?

Tom Call
Well, it would be real nice going up in these hills in suits and all that but there’s just no way you can in an operation such as this.

If you haven’t listed individuals, specific individuals for other law enforcement agencies to seek, did you tell them to stop all Indians?

Tom Call
No, we have not. No, ma’am.

How do you hope to catch them?

Tom Call
We’re investigating and we do hope to catch them.

Do you think your mere presence is inflammatory at all? I mean, people seeing people with armed weapons and arms.

Tom Call
I don’t feel that way.


How would you characterize its effect on a community: People walking around with weapons?

Tom Call

Well, it’s hard for me to judge because I have no idea of how the community operated before. 

The FBI had no idea how the community operated. So their tactics, which had been developed to deal with largely urban populations, were counterproductive when deployed on an isolated Indian reservation in South Dakota. 

Dino Butler
After the shootout the local people really got behind us and helped us. 

Dino Butler recreated from the Apted archives again.

Dino Butler
I mean, if we were criminals, you know, the cold-blooded killers that the government tried to portray us as, these people around here, they’re good honest people. They’re truthful people. They’re humble people. And if they felt that we had done something wrong, I know that they wouldn’t have helped us. But in their hearts and in their minds, we didn’t do nothing wrong. It wasn’t us that they refused to cooperate with.

After the break we hear from BIA Agent Robert Ecoffey and the FBI’s Norman Zigrossi. 


In 1983, Robert Ecoffey became the first American Indian to serve as a U.S. Marshall in the 204-year history of the Service. Back in the summer of 1975, though, he was just a BIA agent trainee. 

In the section that follows we have recreated Michael Apted’s interviews with Robert Ecoffey and the FBI’s Norman Zigrossi. None of this featured in the final edit of the documentary “Incident at Oglala”, so we hired actors to bring their transcribed conversations to life.

Robert Ecoffey
I think it, you know, it was -- it was probably pretty difficult for the FBI to come in after this killing because it was two of their own agents that got killed. And, you know, they really wanted to -- find the people responsible and put them in a difficult situation. But they had to -- had to do it. 

Michael Apted
I’ve heard lots of stories of Wood and Price harassing people and coercing witnesses. What do you think about that?

Robert Ecoffey
That type of stuff does go on in everyday law enforcement. You know, just through the intelligence network and stuff. But as far as working with Price and Wood, I never had any problems with them. 

For context we should note that the slain FBI agent Ronald Williams was David Price’s partner. After Williams’ death, Price partnered with Ed Woods, who went on to start the No Parole for Peltier website in the golden years of his retirement. 

Price and Woods were also the dynamic duo behind the controversial affidavits from Myrtle Poor Bear that were used to extradite Leonard from Canada. Ecoffey again.

Robert Ecoffey
Any time I was with them interviewing Indian people and stuff there was no harassment and stuff. It didn’t happen when -- when we were with them. And I don’t know if it -- if it really happened, you know.

Michael Apted
Were the BIA police working very closely with the FBI?

Robert Ecoffey
Oh, yes. Yeah. We worked very closely with them. You know, we were caught up in the middle of it, the BIA police, and it was like, you know, I was, you know, you’re representing the government, so you’d go to one -- one side, or you’d answer a call where it was people affiliated with the American Indian Movement. You know, you’re the government, you know, you’re a BIA pig, you know, and stuff. And then I’d go to the other side, you’d still catch it. You know, you can’t arrest me, ‘cause, you know, who I am and stuff, and it didn’t make any difference to me.

Michael Apted
It was a very divided society.

Robert Ecoffey
Yeah, it -- it was. It was basically. The reservation, I guess, was in like civil war. You had families that were on different sides. Brothers and sisters and stuff that were on different sides. And, you know, it was a difficult time. And to make things worse, the way they built the cluster housings and stuff, as far as police work and dealing with it, you’d have one family on one political side, and one on another side, and they lived right across the street from one another and at times it would be like the Hatfields and McCoys, you know. You’d get into situations like that. 

Michael Apted
And the GOONS and some of the BIA cops were doing some bad things.

Robert Ecoffey
Well, I wouldn’t really say. I didn’t know personally of any bad things or anything, but I’m just saying that, you know, when it happens in any organization, you get some people that for political reasons or something, you know, may get involved. And both these guys, basically, I felt didn’t know what was going on.

They were just kind of put into a situation and said, you know, go do it and stuff. And they were basically helping to look for -- for Jimmy Eagle.

Ecoffey is referring to agents Cohler and Williams here. To help with a backlog of cases on Pine Ridge, the FBI transferred Jack Kohler from Denver and Ron Williams from Rapid City, but neither had any training, experience or special preparation for the civil war raging on the reservation. 

They were fish out of water. With one ostensible mission: find Jimmy Eagle.

Remember it was Eagle who the agents allegedly spotted in a red pickup truck and followed onto the Jumping Bull ranch around noon on June 26th.   

Dino Butler
The biggest thing that they kept using was Jimmy Eagle, they were looking for Jimmy Eagle.

Dino Butler again.

Dino Butler
The FBI agents were coming out here to Oglala looking and talking to different people, but they -- I mean, they were just -- it just seemed like they were using that for an excuse to get to certain places, you know, to confront certain people.

And when they would confront people, there wouldn’t be so much about Jimmy Eagle but about AIM or something, you know. They wanted to know this or that, you know, and maybe one or two questions about Jimmy is all, you know. Just using it like a cover is all, you know. 

Dennis, Dennis was living right there in that log cabin at the time. He was going to trial in Custer. And they knew that probably this was where everybody was. The AIM camp. They knew there was an AIM camp around, but they weren’t sure where it was at. We kept moving.

The government wanted us out of here because we had a couple of meetings that summer in the Jumping Bull Hall with the landowners in this area to consolidate all their land into one plot and break away from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and tribe and try to seek help from other countries, other people, and start trying to help themselves that way. And we were the security force to make sure that nobody interfered with their meetings.

So they knew that there was a pocket of resistance here on the reservation, and they came in here, started a fire fight, and after it’s all over they take the rest of us to jail, and they broke up the resistance. 

Michael Apted
Do you think the government was ready for this?

Dino Butler
I believe very strongly that they were, because we were just surrounded too quickly for it to be something that just happened on the spur of a moment. Nilak and them explored the whole back end trying to get out. And they said everywhere they went there was people there already. We were surrounded. That’s within minutes after the shooting started.

So they picked Pine Ridge to draw us here, you know. I didn’t know at that time, you know, about all the resources here on the reservation, the oil fields and stuff, the uranium and coal and things like that, you know. It wasn’t until years later when we began to understand all these things that, you know, that’s -- that was why they wanted all these things, you know.

I always felt that those two guys that came in here, they -- they could have been saved if they wanted them to be saved. I mean, there was a plane flying up there, it’s not like they didn’t know where they were at. The plane was up there, the plane spotted their cars there. You could see us right in plain sight, plain open, from up in the air.

So they had to know where the agents’ cars were and everything and they could have came. They were all around us then. I always felt they were sacrificed like Joe Stunts was sacrificed. 

Robert Ecoffey remembered looking for Jimmy Eagle with Agents Cohler and Williams on June 25th, the day before the shootout, and making a special warning.

Robert Ecoffey
The night before I told ‘em, I said, “Don’t” you know, “don’t go back out there unless we’re with you.” You know. “Don’t go back to the Jumping Bulls.”  

Ecoffey was a BIA agent but he was also a local. He grew up on Pine Ridge. People knew him, and if they didn’t know him, they could at least recognize him. Nobody knew Ron or Jack. Ecoffey recalled their death scene.

Robert Ecoffey
Some point in time I met up with Glen Little Bird and -- and Eastman and stuff.

Glen Little Bird and Dale Eastman were colleagues at the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Robert Ecoffey
And we went down below to the bottom where Jack Kohler’s car was sitting and the two bodies were laying. And I walked up there, and there was a younger agent sitting by one of the cars on the ground crying. And I walked up there and just basically looked and seen that they were both dead and that they had been shot -- in the head -- and the back of their heads were basically blown out.

The agent that was sitting there -- I don’t know -- I can’t remember who he was but he -- he was crying and -- it was pretty gloomy. And -- and I walked up, and seen how they looked, and stuff. And, I basically looked at ‘em, and then I don’t know, I guess my first impression was, like, I was pretty young, and I just wanted to throw my gun down and just say, “Hell with it, that ain’t -- that ain’t worth it.” That was the first thought that come to my mind.

It was a heavy scene. And one that is probably burned into the brains of everyone who witnessed it. 

The man tasked with the cleanup was Richard Held, the second in line to FBI Director Clarence Kelly. But the public face of the ResMurs investigation was Norman Zigrossi. 

Norman’s the guy who told Rolling Stone Magazine back in 1977 that Indians are a conquered people. When Norman was interviewed for “Incident at Oglala,” he spoke frankly about the difficulties of the FBI investigation with filmmaker Michael Apted.

Norman Zigrossi
It was very difficult. It was -- it was difficult because of the fact that two of your own were murdered. 

It was difficult because you were dealing with a different culture that none of us really had a lot of knowledge and experience with. The American Indians that were honest and wanted to help, the people that lived there, were very fearful as to what was going on.

You know, we, the FBI was accused of being gestapo and those kinds of things, and a lot of that emanated from the fact that we had so many FBI agents in that small concentration of area. And we were very intense, and we wanted to get it resolved.

So it wasn’t easy. It was difficult, you know. It was difficult finding people that would talk to you. It was difficult establishing facts. It took time. We’d have done a lot better if we were in the middle of a city, because that’s kind of the way we were trained. 

We didn’t have a lot of agents that were trained, you know, to work those kinds of cases under that -- in that environment. And we really didn’t know what we were up against.

When we got into Tent City, that was all foreign to us. Had we known that all that was going on, our approach probably would have been a little bit different. We probably would have had Kohler and Williams out of there. They probably shouldn’t even have been in there trying to arrest Jimmy Eagle.

Kohler and Williams probably shouldn’t even have been in there. But they were. Despite an explicit warning.

Dave Tilsen (00:21:36):
It's my view that the FBI had a real training problem. 

Dave Tilsen again.

Dave Tilsen
They weren't trained in any kind of cultural sensitivity or the history of the Pine Ridge reservation at all. 

The reality was this was a community only a couple of generations removed from war with the United States government, from the Seventh Cavalry massacring women and children at Wounded Knee. 

Everyone had a grandfather or a great uncle who'd ridden with Crazy Horse or Sitting Bull. And this was very much part of the oral tradition and part of the culture and they felt colonized. 

And the FBI, they acted in my opinion, you know, like they acted in urban areas. You know, they're very macho, very full of testosterone, puffing themselves up big and expecting that the badge and the words FBI would intimidate people and cause people to cooperate with them and be in fear. 

And this macho attitude on the part of government officials, in my opinion, got these two agents killed. 


News and Notes.

Remember Nick Tilsen? The Native American activist who was among those arrested during President Trump’s controversial visit to Mt. Rushmore in July 2020. 

Nick is actually Ken Tilsen’s grandson and Dave Tilsen’s nephew. His dad is Dave’s brother Mark Tilsen, who lives next door to Bruce Ellison. 

Run that through your six degrees of Kevin Bacon.

In Season Two, Episode One we reported that the Biden Justice Dep’t had dropped the charges against Nick as long as he completed a diversion program. 

Well, the South Dakota state prosecutor has resurrected the case, following some comments Nick delivered to the media. Mr. Tilsen now faces almost 17 years in prison if convicted of the three felony counts against him, which include second degree robbery and simple assault on law enforcement. 

Meanwhile the outcome was quite different for South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg. Last year Ravnsborg killed a pedestrian in a car crash after making an illegal lane change while using his phone. 

Ravnsborg was facing a maximum of 30 days behind bars for his crime. But he got no jail time. Instead, the judge fined him $1,000 and ordered him to pay court costs of $3,742. 

And they say justice is blind!


This podcast is produced, written, and edited on Tong-vay land by Rory Owen Delaney and Andrew Fuller. Kevin McKiernan serves as our consulting producer. 

Thanks to Bobby Halvorson for the original music we’re using throughout this series.

And thanks to Mike Casentini at the Network Studios for his engineering assistance, and to Peter Lauridsen and Sycamore Sound for their audio mixing. 

Thanks to our cast: Dave Tilsen, Chuck Banner, Ed Robinson, Tanner Azzinnaro, and Courage the Actor. 

Thanks to Maya Meinert and Emily Deutsch, for helping support us while we do what, we hope, is important work.

Thanks to Carol Gokee and Jean Roach for their tireless work leading the International Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.

And thanks, most of all, to Leonard Peltier.

Sign Off: To get involved and help Leonard, sign the new clemency petition at freeleonardpeltier.com. For more information, go to whoisleonardpeltier.info or find us on social media. @leonard_pod on Twitter and Instagram, or facebook.com/leonardpodcast.

This podcast is a production of Man Bites Dog Films LLC. Free Leonard Peltier!