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Police mix-up destroys evidence

Denver Rocky Mountain News
August 21, 2003

By Sarah Huntley and Karen Abbott

Denver police officials are investigating whether evidence in the 1975 slaying of American Indian activist Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash is missing as a result of confusion over inventory records.

The Rocky Mountain News has learned that several tapes stored in the police department's property bureau were destroyed in 2001 after a homicide lieutenant was unable to link them to any known case.

Copies of at least some of the tapes have been recovered.

Armedia Gordon, division chief of investigations, said the mistake came to the department's attention last week when federal authorities asked Detective Abe Alonzo for new copies of the evidence.

Copies of all the department's evidence had been forwarded to the feds years ago when the case was transferred from Denver, where Pictou-Aquash was abducted, to South Dakota, where her body was found.

"They lost everything, so they came back to Abe asking the question," Gordon said.

When Alonzo went to the property bureau, he was told there were no tapes. In their place he found an order signed by Lt. Jon Priest authorizing the destruction of the evidence.

Gordon said Priest signed off on the order after receiving an incomplete - and erroneous - invoice from the property bureau's computer. The bureau forwards invoices to investigators every 13 months to determine whether evidence should still be preserved.

The computer printout given to Priest listed a 2000 date and an address in northwest Denver, neither of which appeared to be connected to Pictou-Aquash's death.

"It doesn't show the victim's name or the officer's name or any of that," Gordon said.

Some records associated with the evidence included a badge number, but the number belongs to a vice detective - not the detective assigned to the case.

"I don't think Priest thought there was any way to identify where this case belonged," Gordon said. "Somehow all the information didn't get transferred over (into the computer) . . . This is just an error that needs to be checked out."

When the lieutenant learned of the mix-up, he was able to retrieve duplicate copies of at least some of the tapes from the homicide unit's archives, she said.

The unit is methodical about preserving its own archives, which are kept separate from the property bureau. Evidence in old cases is maintained indefinitely in the hope that new leads could result in an arrest.

"My understanding is that the critical evidence was found," Gordon said. "Whether it was everything, I'm not clear on."

Alonzo, who was handling the case for the department, wasn't available for comment.

Gordon said she is reviewing original inventory records to determine whether any tapes were irretrievable."I really hope that all is not lost," she said.

Federal officials in South Dakota, where two men face federal murder charges for Pictou-Aquash's death, couldn't be reached Wednesday.

Arlo Looking Cloud, of Denver, was arrested in April in connection with Pictou-Aquash's slaying. Looking Cloud's trial is scheduled for Sept. 30. John Graham, of Canada, also known as John Boy Patton, was indicted in April in the killing, but he has not been arrested.

The 30-year-old woman, who has become a revered symbol to other American Indians, allegedly was snatched from the Denver home of TroyLynn Yellow Wood in 1975 by three people, then taken to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and killed.

A rancher found the badly decomposed body of a woman in a ravine near Wamblee, S.D., in February 1976. Nobody knew who she was, and a government pathologist concluded she died of exposure. The FBI had her hands cut off and sent to Washington, D.C., for identification. The rest of the body was buried in a pauper's grave.

A judge later ordered the body exhumed, and a second autopsy uncovered a bullet in the back of Pictou-Aquash's head.

Three grand juries reviewed the case. A fourth grand jury indicted Looking Cloud and Graham in March.

The long-unsolved murder has divided American Indian activists and the Pine Ridge reservation for decades. Rumors have circulated since her death that Pictou-Aquash may have been killed by other American Indian Movement members who believed she was an FBI informant, or by the real informants - perhaps with FBI knowledge - for fear she would disclose their identities.

Some AIM leaders even have accused each other of involvement in her death.
It was unclear Wednesday what effect, if any, the evidence mix-up in Denver would have on the federal prosecution. None of the physical evidence in the case was affected.

But Gordon acknowledged there could be unintended consequences.

"We were able to find evidence that was listed as destroyed in the homicide archives," she said. "But if this case is later lost, good Lord, people will be pointing to this and who knows what else."

Copyright 2002 Rocky Mountain News