WORCESTER, MASS. – Paul DeMain, publisher and managing editor of News From
Indian Country, doesn’t make retractions easily.
After settling a libel suit filed by Leonard Peltier with a letter stating he did not believe the American Indian Movement veteran and long-term prisoner was involved in the murder of AIM activist Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, DeMain enraged the negotiators of the settlement by denying that he had made a retraction. Instead he trumped his previous statement with sweeping charges against a long list of AIM figures.
In an interview with Indian Country Today, the controversial editor said he thought Peltier was not a suspect in the execution-style killing because he did not rank high enough in AIM to have the authority to order it. Instead DeMain reeled off a list of AIM leaders that he said had a motive for the murder.
The motive, DeMain said, was that Pictou-Aquash, along with several other AIM insiders, had heard Peltier brag about pulling the trigger on two FBI agents who had been wounded in a shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1975. DeMain based his statement on unnamed “multiple sources,” as well as testimony at the recent trial of Arlo Looking Cloud for the murder of Pictou-Aquash. Looking Cloud was convicted, and the investigation is continuing.
Peltier is currently serving two consecutive life sentences for “aiding and abetting” the killing of the two FBI agents at the Jumping Bull compound in Oglala, S.D., but he has continually denied that he pulled the trigger. He filed a libel suit against DeMain on May 1, 2003, less than two months after DeMain printed his charge as a note to another writer’s lengthy interview with Peltier.
It’s not the first time DeMain has back-pedaled on a lurid story. In May 2002, he charged that a “top Oneida Nation official” was a suspect in a 21-year-old murder investigation. Although the statement circulated briefly on the Internet and was picked up by the editor of another newspaper, it was categorically denied by all of the investigating authorities. DeMain never produced substantiation. He said he had settled the issue by writing a letter of “clarification” to Oneida Indian Nation lawyers and publishing a “We Stand Corrected” item in his July 25, 2002 issue. (The Oneida Nation is owner of Four Directions Media, Inc., parent company to this newspaper.)
Nevertheless, DeMain, has received awards from the Native American Journalists Association and the University of Oregon School of Journalism. In spite of earlier protests about the Oregon award, Journalism School Dean Tim Gleason told ICT, “We have no intent at this point to review the award.”
This recognition focused on DeMain’s coverage of the murder in late 1975 or early 1976 of Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, a now legendary figure in the AIM standoff at Wounded Knee and ironically the center of the Peltier libel suit. The editor and main writer of the twice-monthly Wisconsin newspaper made waves in a March 3, 2003 article with the double charge that “the motive” for the murder of the AIM heroine, “allegedly was her knowledge that Leonard Peltier had shot the two agents, as he was convicted.”
On May 26, after postponing several attempts to take his deposition, DeMain negotiated a settlement of the suit. He wrote a letter to Peltier’s lawyer Barry Bachrach of Worcester, Mass., stating, “I do not believe that Leonard Peltier received a fair trial in connection with the murders of which he was convicted. Certainly he is entitled to one. Nor do I believe, according to the evidence and testimony I now have, that Mr. Peltier had any involvement in the death of Anna Mae Aquash.”
DeMain said he agreed to the letter after the conviction of Arlo Looking Cloud. “The negotiations were opened by Bob Robideau, who asked me if there was something I would still say about Leonard Peltier that would be helpful to him,” DeMain said. (Robideau an AIM veteran, was tried for the murder of the FBI agents in 1975 and acquitted.) DeMain said he felt the trial had damaged the campaign for Peltier’s pardon. He published the letter on his Web site under a link saying, “Peltier finally gets a break” and the headline “News from Indian Country allows Peltier to withdraw lawsuit.”
He said that although he felt he had a strong defense in media law, he didn’t want to go through the expense of depositions and a trial.
Bachrach gave a very different picture of the negotiations, however. According to Peltier’s lawyer, DeMain had agreed to the wording of the letter several months earlier, using Robideau as a go-between. But then nothing happened.
“After about three or four weeks of hearing nothing, I was starting to get perturbed,” said Bachrach. “So I woke up and said, ‘I’ve got to do something here,’ so I filed a motion to enforce the settlement agreement. He had agreed to a certain statement, and Leonard had agreed to dismiss the suit.”
Bachrach said his concern was to end “what I call ‘smear-say’, around the Anna Mae trial and the investigation where Leonard was getting smeared by rank hear-say.
“We wanted a clear statement from DeMain that he had no evidence nor did he believe that Leonard had any involvement nor did Leonard order the shooting nor could he have.”
Although DeMain’s letter didn’t exactly follow the original agreement, said Bachrach, “Leonard felt it was close enough. He doesn’t really want to be in the business of suing an Indian newspaper, but this guy has run his mouth way too much.”
After signing the letter, however, DeMain introduced it on his Web site by repeating his original offending footnote. He added, “Those statements have not been retracted by Paul DeMain, or News From Indian Country as part of the agreement by News From Indian Country to allow Mr. Peltier to withdraw his lawsuit.”
Bachrach told ICT he is trying to cool off the controversy, but that he found this retraction of the retraction “ridiculous.”
“I thought he frankly looked foolish,” he said. Venting in an e-mail to Robideau, he called DeMain “a classless snake and hack journalist.”
This is not the first controversy to surround DeMain’s coverage of a high-profile murder. In May 2002, his paper ran an Associated Press item saying that federal prosecutors were reviewing the 20-year-old disappearance of Tammy Mahoney, a college student last seen hitch-hiking May 8, 1981 on Route 46 near the Oneida territory. Police believe she was taken to a party at a house-trailer on Territory Road, gang-raped and murdered. DeMain inserted his own statement that the list of suspects “allegedly include [d] the name of a top Oneida Nation official.” He repeated the charge a month later in a speech at the Native American Journalists Association convention, while accepting its Wassaja award for courageous reporting.
The trouble was that officials of every department in the multi-jurisdictional investigation categorically denied DeMain’s statement
and said he had never talked to them. He later said that he had received his information from three unnamed New York residents “close to the investigation” but refused to name them.
After correspondence with Oneida Indian Nation attorneys, he printed a “clarification” in his July 25, 2002 issue acknowledging that the lead investigator, Madison County Undersheriff Douglas Bailey, had denied that any Oneida Nation officials were on the suspect list. He said he had repeated the “clarification” in a September letter to the Oneida Nation sent from his attorney’s office.