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IN MARCH 1981 ROBERT REDFORD VISITED the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., arguably the toughest prison in the United Stales. "It was a chilling feeling as each door locked behind me," he recalls. "In my paranoia, I thought something could happen to me." Alter all, Redford was there to meet Leonard Peltier, a Native American activist serving a life sentence for the murder of two FBI agents—a man his many supporters believed was the target of a government assassination plot. Redford began to wonder, somewhat imaginatively, if he too might be the victim of "an accident."

As it turned out, the visit wasn't at all dangerous. "My first impression was that Leonard looked like a Hell's Angel," Redford says. "He had a gangsterish look." But that first impression didn't last long. "He was stoic, with a lot of dignity and composure," the film star recalls. "I was impressed by his cool."

As Peltier spoke about his 1977 conviction for killing FBI agents Jack Coler and Ronald Williams on a South Dakota Indian reservation, the actor decided to help. "It seemed pretty clear he was being railroaded," Redford says. "I didn't know if he was guilty or innocent. But even if he were guilty, there was some justification. We had a civil war [on the reservation], and these people [the Indians] had every right to feel spooked enough to fight for their lives."

At first, Redford confined his efforts to lobbying Congressmen, Senators and even then—FBI Director William Webster to re-examine Peltier's case. But now he is leading a major Hollywood charge to free Peltier from prison. He has executive-produced and narrated a documentary, Incident at Oglala, which will be released this month. Oglala's director, Michael Apted, currently has another film out, Thunderheart, loosely based on Peltier's story. And director Oliver Stone is turning Peter Matthiessen's recently reissued book about the Peltier case, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, into a feature film, à la JFK.

Not everyone, of course, views Peltier (pronounced Pel-TEER) sympathetically. "This is a regular garden-variety murder case," says one of his prosecutors, Asst. U.S. Attorney Lynn Crooks in Fargo, N.Dak. "There wasn't any great plot [against Peltier]. Now that we are in the age of Dances with Wolves and consciousness of Indian causes, you can't change what this case is all about."

One person who believes she knows what it's about is Ellen Williams, 65, of Los Angeles, mother of one of the slain FBI men. "It's like my son is being murdered over and over again," she says of the campaign to free Peltier. Although she has not yet seen the film, she says press accounts indicate the documentary ignores key facts. "I was at Leonard Peltier's trial every day," she says, "and based on the evidence, I have no doubt he was the one that fired those fatal shots. It is upsetting that everything is being turned around to make these two boys [the FBI agents] the bad guys while Leonard Peltier is touted as a hero."

With all the publicity, Peltier, 47, a Chippewa-Lakota Indian, may become as well-known in the U.S. as he is overseas. Redford is not the only one to be sympathetic to Peltier. The respected human-rights organization Amnesty International calls him a political prisoner. Nearly 20 million Europeans, including Russians, have signed petitions demanding clemency. And both the Archbishop of Canterbury and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu have championed his cause. All this attention has helped maintain Peltier's spirits. "It isn't productive for me to act frustrated and defeated," he says. "I have to keep my humor in order to keep my supporters going. I have to give them spirit and encouragement. But at times I have to pull down deep inside to find it."

Peltier's troubles began on June 26, 1975, in Pine Ridge, S.Dak., on the 7,200-square-mile Lakota Indian Reservation. Relations between the federal government and area Indians had been severely strained two years earlier by a 71-day Indian occupation of nearby Wounded Knee, site of the massacre of Indian women, children and old men by federal troops in 1890. Tension at Pine Ridge was particularly dangerous. The Lakotas viewed government-backed Indian authorities on the reservation as dictatorial and corrupt; the FBI and other government agencies saw Indian activists as "terrorists." Both sides charged the other with excessive and random violence. And feelings ran high over the proposed leasing of Indian land to mining companies.

Drawn to this turmoil was the radical American Indian Movement (AIM). And one of the AIM activists who went to the reservation was Peltier, a high school dropout and jack-of-all-trades who had spent much of his life on the West Coast.

What happened on June 26 is largely in dispute. Late that morning FBI partners Coler and Williams arrived at a ranch compound on the reservation in separate unmarked ears to arrest a young Indian for assault and theft. Peltier maintains he was asleep at the time in his tent a half mile away. It is uncertain who started shooting, but when gunfire broke out, he says, he thought it was another clash with government-armed goon squads. He grabbed a rifle, he recalls, and took cover in a grove of trees. Police reinforcements arrived shortly, and soon he and about 30 other Indians were surrounded.

The gunfire continued all afternoon. Peltier says he and two friends, Bob Robideau and Darrelle Butler, decided "to get closer to investigate who was responsible for the gun battle." They sneaked along a creek bed that circled the property until they neared the agents' cars, he says. But before they could do anything, Peltier says, a red pickup truck pulled up. He insists the driver got out, walked up to the agents' cars, fired some shots and drove away. The agents' bodies were found nearby, shot at point-blank range. Recently, a man calling himself Mr. X told PEOPLE he shot the agents, but he refuses to give himself up.

In November 1975 Peltier, Robideau and Butler were indicted for the killings. (Charges against a fourth man were dropped.) Robideau and Butler were acquitted on self-defense grounds. But Peltier, who was tried separately, was convicted. He was sentenced to two life terms.

During his many appeals, the courts found the government had used "improper tactics." including falsified evidence, had coerced witnesses and suppressed documents favorable to Peltier's defense. For example, during the trial, defense attorneys never saw a ballistics report that said the firing pin from Peltier's rifle did not match markings on a critical shell casing found near the agents' bodies. Even so, the courts refused to overturn Peltier's conviction. The questionable evidence, an appeals court said in 1986, was not enough to warrant a new trial. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

In 1979, while in prison at Marion, Peltier says he heard rumors that the government was plotting to kill him. He would be transferred to Lompoc, a minimum-security prison in California, where an escape attempt would be staged and he would be assassinated. "My first reaction was, 'What the hell is this?' " Peltier says. "But the next thing I knew, I was transferred and on a bus to Lompoc." Three months later, on July 20,1979, he escaped—and was recaptured six days later. He received an additional seven-year sentence, making him ineligible for parole until 2015.

It was shortly after he was returned to Marion that he met Redford. After the star decided to make a movie, it took him a long time to figure out the approach. Finally, producer Arthur Chobanian suggested making a documentary that would allow multiple points of view. "The issue of Leonard's guilt or innocence was too much of a fog," Redford says. "But what was emerging clearly was the issue of a fair trial. The case asks layers of questions about the double standard of our judicial system."

Transferred to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas in 1985, Peltier says his life now is relatively easy compared with the nightmare of Marion, where inmates are locked in a cell for 23 hours a day. His prison job on the trash detail leaves him plenty of time to work on his ease, answer letters, exercise and paint. (Jane Fonda and Val Kilmer are among those who have paid from $2,000 to $6,000 for a Peltier painting; the money goes to his defense fund.)

He also spends a considerable amount of time making collect phone calls. The first each day is almost always to his fiancée, Lisa Faruola, 25, a former English teacher from New Jersey who is now a paralegal on his defense committee in nearby Lawrence, Kans. "Her sense of humor keeps me laughing," says the twice-divorced Peltier, who has eight children, ages 16 to 27, and three grandchildren. "She simply makes me feel good." Prison authorities are now deciding whether to let him marry her in May.

Being married means Lisa will be allowed to kiss Peltier hello and goodbye and to hold his hand, gestures of affection she is denied as a paralegal. But there is another reason for getting married, she says—defiance. "With all the international support Leonard is getting, we are sure that they can't keep him in prison much longer," she says. "This is our way of demonstrating to them that we are building a life outside of prison."

It is not clear, however, that Peltier will enjoy that life anytime soon. With his legal remedies nearly exhausted, he is hoping the films about him will build enough political support so he can get a presidential pardon or a commutation of his sentence. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Select Committee on Indian Affairs, has asked President Bush to consider Peltier's case, in light of questionable evidence against him. But thus far the White House has not made a decision. In the meantime, Peltier can only wait. "I'm so tired of prison," he says. "I don't want to die in here."

JOE TREEN
CIVIA TAMARKIN in Leavenworth

  • Contributors:
  • Civia Tamarkin.