SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) – The U.S. attorney’s office in South Dakota has finished reviewing a handful of unsolved death cases on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and determined that “some” of them should be closed, U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson says.
Oglala Sioux tribal officials asked federal authorities to reopen investigations into 60 deaths dating from the 1960s to the present. Johnson told The Associated Press in an interview on Tuesday that his office has completed reviews on four or five of the cases.
“Some of the cases we reviewed, our conclusion has been consistent with the original case filing, the original case closing,” Johnson said.
He would not give specifics on how many cases his office has determined should be closed or provide details about the cases that have been completed.
Many of the cases are from the 1970s, when the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation’s murder rate was the highest in the nation and tensions peaked between the American Indian Movement and the FBI. AIM was started in the late 1960s to protest the U.S. government’s treatment of American Indians and demand that it honor its treaties with Indian tribes. The movement grabbed headlines in the early 1970s with its takeover of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs headquarters in Washington and its 71-day occupation of the Pine Ridge town of Wounded Knee.
The FBI typically investigates homicides on reservations, while the U.S. attorney prosecutes the cases. But the FBI refused to reinvestigate the cases in question without new information. A report released in 2000 detailed the agency’s decision to close 57 cases, but tribal members have called the report questionable.
Johnson has appointed three prosecutors from his office and an investigator to review the cases. He said his office will reach out to family members of the victims in the next few months to discuss where the cases stand.
He said reviewing just one case and following up on possible leads can take months. He said his office would release more information this spring, once additional cases have been reviewed.
“We’re really taking a close look at each file. We’re reaching out to potential witness, people who might know something when appropriate, and really taking them one by one. To give these cases a fair review, the challenge is that it takes a long time,” he said.
Johnson said he has reached out to the tribe and would welcome the involvement of Tatewin Means, the tribe’s attorney general. The tribe could not immediately locate a phone number for Means when asked by the AP on Wednesday.
Among the people hoping to get more information from the review is the tribe’s vice president, Tom Poor Bear. His brother, Wilson Black Elk, and cousin, Ron Hard Heart, were found in 1999 on reservation land. The deaths remain unsolved.
Poor Bear did not return a phone message seeking comment Wednesday. He previously told the AP that he would like a special team of investigators other than the FBI to come to the reservation to investigate the deaths.
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