SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — It's been 19 years since a rancher discovered the frozen corpse of Anna Mae Aquash, an American Indian activist who vanished after two FBI agents were killed in a gunfight near Wounded Knee.
Her death has been an unsolved mystery. Some of Aquash's colleagues in the American Indian Movement believe she was killed by the FBI. Others think she was killed by AIM supporters who suspected her of being a government informant.
Two decades later, authorities have suddenly reopened the case, led by Robert Ecoffey, an Oglala Sioux who was sworn in as South Dakota's U.S. marshal last year.
Ecoffey said his ethnic background helped develop new information on the case. He wouldn't elaborate.
But AIM members claim Ecoffey is using the case as a vendetta against the group and Leonard Peltier, the AIM member convicted of killing the FBI agents and sentenced to two life terms.
"It looks more like a witch hunt aimed at discrediting the movement rather than reopening the case," said Lisa Faruolo, a volunteer with the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee.
She said Peltier "is worried the Feds are trying to make (AIM members) seem like immoral animals who will kill their own friends."
The investigation revisits a turbulent period in the history of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, when tensions between AIM activists, federal authorities and government-backed factions resulted in dozens of deaths.
Aquash, a Micmac Indian from Canada, came to the reservation in the early 1970s and took part in the 1973 takeover of Wounded Knee. For 69 days, hundreds of AIM members occupied the reservation, the site of an infamous, bloody massacre a century earlier. Two Indian leaders were killed in the standoff.
Aquash later became a close associate of such leaders as group co-founder Dennis Banks, but disappeared two years later after two FBI agents were killed in June, 1975, in a shootout with AIM members.
Her frozen body was found in February, 1976. FBI agents ordered her hands cut off and sent to Washington, D.C., for identification.
The doctor who conducted the first autopsy, W. O. Brown, ruled she had died of exposure. A second autopsy showed she had been shot execution-style in the back of the head with a .38-caliber gun; Brown said he "inadvertently overlooked" the bullet wound.
AIM activists point to the first autopsy and the severing of Aquash's hands as proof that the FBI was involved in her death. Federal authorities have repeatedly denied the accusations.
Bruce Ellison, a lawyer who represented Aquash, says she told him an FBI agent threatened her months before her death. He also claims the FBI deliberately spread rumors that Aquash was a government informant.
He says an FBI agent "with a big smile on his face" gave him Aquash's hands shortly after the second autopsy.
"Who do I think killed her?" Ellison asked. "I don't know who pulled the trigger, but when the FBI threatens her, when they spread false rumors that she's an informant, when they cover up her murder and mutilate her body . . . the responsibility clearly rests with the Federal Bureau of Investigation."
Some Indians have their doubts about the renewed investigation. At the time of Aquash's death, Ecoffey was a police officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He also had worked with the slain FBI agents just before they died.