Deputies thought they were confronting Arylis Peters
The first to die
that long, violent evening was Reginald "Gene" Britton.
It was about six o'clock when Arylis Peters, a Wailaki Indian, shot the 48 year-old man to death. A dispute between some members of the Peters and Britton families had been simmering for months, and several recent confrontations escalated matters. Behind that were more serious differences.
The Peters and Lincoln families are among those Native American people trying to revive long-suppressed indigenous culture and spirituality, while the Brittons are among the more assimilated, Americanized residents on the Round Valley Indian Reservation. Such distinctions may seem trivial to some, but the differences reach into everyday life; some Lincolns accuse law enforcement of bias towards the Brittons and against the Lincolns and Peters, for example. It was sheriff's deputies' failure to act on Lincoln complaints about Britton youths harassing a Lincoln teenager that led to escalation of hostilities -- and left Gene Britton dead in the Covelo High School parking lot.
Mendocino County deputies quickly arrested a married couple who had been in the car with Peters and began a manhunt for Arylis.
About four hours later and long after dark, two deputies shot and killed Leonard Peters, Arylis' brother, on a remote mountain road. Deputy Dennis Miller and his partner, Deputy George Robert "Bob" Davis, apparently thought they were confronting Arylis; the first people who came upon the scene after the shootings were asked if the man killed by deputies was Arylis Peters. It was only then that deputies learned they had killed Leonard, who was not a suspect in any crime and bore little physical resemblance to his brother.
Not far from the body of Leonard Peters lay another victim: Deputy Bob Davis.
The body of Leonard Peters remained on the dirt until 4 AM
is certain: two men lay dead, just a few feet apart on Little Valley Road. Within minutes of the shootings, police whisked the body of Davis from the scene believing he could still be revived, despite massive head wounds. The body of Leonard Peters remained on the dirt until 4 AM. Department spokesmen said Peters' body was left in the road for the purpose of not disturbing the crime scene until investigators could arrive to view the evidence.
But there are serious questions about what happened on that bloody night. The police have presented several versions of their account, and the upcoming trial of Bear Lincoln may reveal yet another explanation.
Immediately after the killings an intensive manhunt was launched for the killer of Deputy Davis. At first, Arylis Peters was suspected; the search for him ended quickly the next morning, when he was arrested without incident. After his arrest, investigators named Eugene "Bear" Lincoln, 41, also a Wailaki man and traditionalist, as their suspect.
Nobody saw Lincoln at the scene, but officers said they found his hat nearby, and other evidence at his home a short distance away. When he surrendered to authorities, Lincoln effectively admitted he was with Peters when he accused the police of ambushing the two of them.
Reports of "shoot to kill" orders against Lincoln
In the days
that followed, police procedure demanded that because its own officers were involved in the shootings, the Mendocino Sheriff's Office required an "independent investigation" of the case. First turning to the Mendocino District Attorney, then to the neighboring Sonoma County Sheriff's Office, the investigation was assigned to Sonoma County Sheriff's Detective Roy Gourley. Gourley is a former Mendocino County deputy.
Early media coverage demonized Lincoln as a dangerous, violent ex-con, probably armed to the teeth and hiding in the reservation hills. Relying on questionable, anonymous sources, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported Lincoln terrorized his family and "could snap again." Ignored was his proven recent history of 15 years of community work.
When the first official accounts appeared describing what happened that night on Little Valley Road, many in Round Valley questioned the sheriff's version. Neighbors who heard the exchange said it sounded like a war zone, with heavy automatic weapons fire. Others listening to police scanners reported hearing "shoot to kill" orders against Lincoln after he became the prime suspect.
But the most far-reaching event of those days was the arrival of dozens of heavily armed law enforcement officers pouring into Round Valley to join the manhunt for alleged cop killer Bear Lincoln. Many carried M-16 military assault rifles or shotguns. Included was a helicopter-supported Sonoma County SWAT team, FBI, California Highway Patrol, and officers from nearby counties, cities and state agencies.
Within a few days, reservation residents issued a news release saying they had been "living in a state of terror ... at the hands of the Mendocino County police. Many households have felt it necessary to evacuate their children from the valley for fear of their safety...."
"They've roughed up our elders and put guns to our children's heads"
Homes were searched
on the basis of parole or probation status, and many searches and arrests were based on any available warrant, some for old vehicle code violations. One tactic was to arrive with weapons drawn and to threaten and intimidate the residents to consent to a search without a warrant, even when only children were at home.
"Innocent people are being caught up in a police dragnet," said tribal council member Ron Lincoln. "They've roughed up our elders and put guns to our children's heads." Some residents said they were stopped and searched whenever they left their homes. According to a sheriff's spokesperson, the officers stayed within the letter of the law, but others have admitted they used every pretext for conducting searches.
During one daytime search a mother whose children were playing outdoors asked a deputy if drawn guns were necessary. He replied, "We're here to make a point." Later a sheriff's spokesperson said family members or other reservation residents were suspected of hiding Bear Lincoln, adding, "We're going to be a thorn in their side until they cough him up."
Representatives from Round Valley went to the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors seeking relief from law enforcement harassment. They asked for support of their request for federal intervention by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and begged the supervisors to tell the sheriff to order his officers to abide by all state and federal laws in their dealings with Indians. The board unanimously agreed. Supervisor Charles Peterson said, "This wouldn't have been handled like this if it had happened in [non-Indian communities like] Mendocino or Point Arena. It's because it's Covelo." The board scheduled time at its meeting the following week to hear from individuals who had complaints about the behavior of law enforcement.
But when Round Valley residents arrived for the May 2nd meeting, they found the supervisors' chambers packed with angry law enforcement supporters, including the sheriff's wife and wives of his deputies. Police supporters berated the supervisors for not sending formal condolences to the widow of Deputy Davis and for backing the Indians' requests. Some of the Round Valley people chose to stay outside, gathering around a drum circle. Their chants and throbbing drumbeats penetrated the supervisors' meeting.
Leonard Peters' domestic partner, Cyndi Pickett, was the first member of the public to speak to the board. "The whole thing stinks of a cover-up, and of police absolutely out of control, and of gross racism. It is the supervisors' responsibility to answer these questions. Even though nothing can bring Leonard back, the truth is important."
The cautious organization asked for investigations into police abuses
As the alleged
police abuses became better known, events moved quickly. At a tribal hall meeting May 5th for reservation residents, supporters, and media, several residents told of the harassment they had personally suffered or witnessed, and said intimidation by police was continuing. At this and later meetings, support groups were formed to bring concerned citizens together.
Later, the Round Valley Tribal Council unanimously voted for resolutions calling for independent investigations into the killing of Leonard Peters. The cautious organization also asked for investigations into police abuses.
After autopsies were done on the bodies of Leonard Peters and Deputy Davis, further questions were raised about the events on that remote dirt road. Ten days after he died, Peters was quietly buried on the Round Valley Indian Reservation. Davis was given a hero's funeral attended by over 1,000 people, including a parade of over 550 law enforcement officers through downtown Ukiah.
Leonard Peters' family is filing a wrongful death suit against Mendocino County. They are represented by Sacramento lawyer Carlos Alcala, known for representing Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. Alcala obtained a court order requiring investigators to preserve all evidence in the case, including notes, diagrams, photos and tape recordings. Since Peters was buried on the reservation, exhuming the body for forensic examination is a possibility. No such option exists for the body of Deputy Davis, however, since it was cremated and the ashes scattered at sea.
The official version of the shootout changed
While these efforts
were beginning, the manhunt for Bear Lincoln intensified. At the request of Mendocino County Sheriff Jim Tuso, Governor Wilson announced a $100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer of Bob Davis. Also at the sheriff's request, TV's "America's Most Wanted" program prepared to film a reenactment of the three shootings and broadcast photos of Bear Lincoln.
It soon became clear what kind of "reenactment" the television show planned. The Native community was not asked for its version of events; only the sheriff's version would be heard. Several individuals and organizations, including the Leonard Peltier Foundation, sent letters of concern, and a letter circulated calling for a boycott of the program's sponsors. At least one advertiser, Tylenol, cancelled commercials for the program.
While the show was as slanted towards the police as many feared, there were also surprises; the official version of events now differed from the story which the Sheriff's Office had been giving to the press.
According to the new version, the two deputies saw two men, not one, walking up the road toward them. One man, whom they now identified as Bear Lincoln, fired the first shot at them.
When the conservative Ukiah Daily Journal pointed out the change in the story, Sheriff Tuso said the TV show had the story right, and the local media had had it wrong for the previous six weeks. The Journal then ran a scathing editorial accusing the sheriff of grandstanding to the national TV audience.
Using the theory of "vicarious liability," Lincoln is charged with the death of Leonard Peters
After the broadcast
of "America's Most Wanted," the manhunt cooled; deputies mused that Bear Lincoln had died in the hills of gunshot wounds, and might not be found for years. Nonetheless, law enforcement kept up the pressure on the Native American community, stopping and searching cars driven by Indians, and doing frequent and repeated searches of homes where there was someone on parole or probation. Meetings continued on the reservation trying to get the media to report their cry for help, and seeking a way to get an effective federal investigation started. Although media coverage was scant, there were a number of meetings attended by representatives of the California Intertribal Council
and other Indian supporters from outside the reservation.
After repeated requests for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate allegations of police abuses during the manhunt, the FBI sent a number of agents to the reservation. According to reports, agents were asking the right questions, not simply using the investigation as a pretext for learning the whereabouts of Bear Lincoln. The FBI investigation continues.
An independent investigation was begun by Jonathan Hill, a criminal investigator with the Jackson Rancheria Tribal Police under the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who volunteered his services and began an investigation into the case, but was soon forced to resign under curious circumstances.
The story suddenly sprang to life on August 16th. Surprising everyone -- including supporters of the Lincoln family -- Edwina Lincoln issued a press release, announcing that Bear Lincoln would surrender to authorities that very afternoon, at the San Francisco law office of Tony Serra.
As covered in the last edition of the Albion Monitor, Lincoln surrendered quietly and with dignity. Wasting no time, Mendocino County District Attorney Susan Massini filed the expected murder charge for the shooting death of Deputy Bob Davis at the first arraignment hearing.
But Lincoln was also charged with five additional felonies and nine "special allegations." Alleging that Lincoln ambushed and fired first at deputies, the D.A. used the theory of "vicarious liability" to charge him with a second count of murder for the death of his friend Leonard Peters when deputies returned fire. He was also charged with additional felony counts of attempted murder of Deputy Dennis Miller, murder of a peace officer, lying in wait, and being a convicted felon in possession of a gun. The D.A.'s office has not yet said whether it will seek the death penalty.
The first two arraignment hearings were held under extraordinary security procedures, with both press and public limited to small numbers. Many of the dozen sheriff's deputies present wore Secret Service-style radio earphones. Some observers felt the elaborate security measures were primarily a show for the media, designed to give the impression that Bear Lincoln is a vicious and extremely dangerous criminal. Albion Monitor and Anderson Valley Advertiser reporter Mark Heimann questioned the sheriff about the security measures at the first hearing, and was arrested when he arrived at the courthouse to cover the next day's hearing. These extra security precautions were relaxed at later hearings.
Nearly two weeks after Lincoln's surrender Tony Serra was appointed his lead counsel. Ukiah attorney Philip De Jong was appointed co-counsel and pleaded Lincoln not guilty to all charges. Serra is widely respected because of his successful retrial in 1990 for Patrick "Hooty" Croy, a Shasta-Karuk who had been in prison for a decade after a conviction for murdering a police officer. The acquittal was based on self-defense after Serra presented the history of violence against Indians.
Besides Deputy Miller, only Bear Lincoln knows what really happened
As Mendocino County
awaits the trial, many Round Valley residents believe Bear Lincoln is innocent. As the only eyewitness besides Deputy Miller to what really happened the night of the killings, his supporters and family members believe the Sheriff's Office is using Lincoln as a scapegoat, to cover up the deputies' mistaken ambush of Leonard Peters, leading to the death of Deputy Bob Davis. Attorney Serra has stated that Lincoln returned fire in self-defense.
Supporters believe Lincoln's life was in danger because he was a potential witness against the deputies. It is said Lincoln evaded arrest not because he was guilty, but because he was justifiably running for his life until he could find effective legal defense and negotiate a safe surrender.
Many other serious questions remain unanswered. Given a fair trial and adequate defense, serious wrongdoing by Mendocino Deputies might come to light, and the painful history of Round Valley changed forever. Or there is the possibilty that a jury could place Bear Lincoln in prison for life, or maybe in San Quentin's death row.
Regardless of how the case unfolds, Round Valley will never be the same.
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