The Shoot Out
June 26, 1975
On June 26, 1975, two agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—Mr. Jack Coler and Mr. Ron Williams—entered private property on the Pine Ridge reservation, the Jumping Bull Ranch. They drove unmarked vehicles, wore plain clothes, and neglected to identify themselves as law enforcement officers. They allegedly sought to arrest a young Indian man, Jimmy Eagle, for the theft of a pair of cowboy boots. They believed, the government contends, that they had seen Eagle in a red pick up truck that they then followed onto the Jumping Bull property.
Members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) were camping on the property at the time. They had been invited there by the Jumping Bull elders, who sought protection from the extreme violence on the reservation at that time. Many non-AIM persons were present as well.
Map of the Jumping Bull Compound
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For unknown reasons, a shoot-out began. A family with small children was trapped in the cross fire. Throughout the ranch, people screamed that they were under attack and many of the men present hurried to return fire.
When the skirmish ended, the two FBI agents were dead. The U.S. government claims they had been wounded and then shot through their heads at close range.
A young Native American named Joe Stuntz (above) also lay dead, shot through the head by a sniper bullet. His killing has never been investigated.
The more than 30 men, women, and children present on the ranch were then quickly surrounded by over 150 FBI agents, Special Weapons and Tactics (or SWAT) team members, Bureau of Indian Affairs police, and local vigilantes. They barely escaped through a hail of bullets.
The FBI immediately began its investigation into the shoot-out, the so-called RESMURS investigation, and launched the biggest manhunt of its history.
Angry agents shot up the Jumping Bull home, leaving bullet riddled family portraits in their wake. In the days following the shoot-out, FBI agents in SWAT gear and carrying assault rifles also terrorized other Pine Ridge residents through a series of warrantless no-knock assaults on their homes.
Continuing with its long tradition of manipulating the media—placing articles in the popular press that put the Bureau in a positive light and interfering in the publication of “dissident” writings by persons such as Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.—the FBI immediately set about disseminating gross inaccuracies about this case. Agents Coler and Williams, the FBI claimed, had been murdered in “a cold-blooded ambush” by a large force of trained guerillas in “sophisticated bunkers” and “fortifications,” but not before Williams had first pleaded for their lives for the sake of Coler’s wife and children. How the Bureau developed this information about Williams’ last words in the absence of anyone who could have heard them was unclear. Other reports indicated that the agents’ bodies had been “riddled with bullets.” Then FBI director Clarence Kelley was forced to retract these statements when reporters—who had been barred from the Jumping Bull property for two days following the shoot-out—began to discover the truth.*
The FBI very quickly focused its investigation on prominent AIM members known to be present during the shoot-out—Leonard Peltier, in particular. The investigation became a race to develop a case against him. Investigators imposed their desires on the evidence, taking bits and pieces and fashioning them in such a way so as to support their case.
In short order, indictments were issued against Leonard Peltier, as well as his two friends and colleagues Dino Butler and Bob Robideau, who also had been present throughout the incident. Charges against a fourth man, Jimmy Eagle (a non-AIM member), were later dropped. (Prosecutors admitted during Peltier’s trial that Jimmy Eagle had not even been on the reservation on the day of the shoot-out. However, FBI documents later revealed that the government decided to dismiss charges against Eagle so that “the full prosecutive weight of the Federal Government could be directed against Leonard Peltier.”). Despite the presence of so many other individuals on the Jumping Bull property during the shoot-out, no other individuals were given any serious scrutiny during the RESMURS investigation—even those who claimed participation in the shoot-out and bragged about being responsible for the agents’ deaths. No other persons were charged for the shooting deaths of the FBI agents.
*Media manipulation is a tactic used against Leonard Peltier even today as evidenced by the FBI’s media work during Peltier’s bid for an award of Executive Clemency. Click here.