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Witnesses Testify About 1979 Riot That Left Two Dead

October 30, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Witnesses in federal court spoke Thursday of bullets zinging overhead, of hostages held at gunpoint and, ultimately, of who was in charge at the Red Lake Indian Reservation when riots broke out eight years ago, leaving two dead.

The Red Lake band of Chippewa Indians sued the U.S. government for $12 million, alleging that FBI commands to other law-enforcement personnel at the scene in northern Minnesota prevented a peaceful conclusion to the taking of hostages that led to a two-day riot in 1979.

U.S. District Judge Thomas A. Flannery must decide whether the FBI acted negligently when it ordered all police and sheriff’s officers, including Bureau of Indian Affairs police who generally handle local matters, to leave the reservation early in the standoff.

The lawsuit alleges that the FBI order effectively halted negotiations between local authorities and five dissident tribal members who were holding five hostages at gunpoint at the reservation’s law-enforcement center. Shortly afterward, widespread shooting, looting and arson broke out.

When the rioting was over, two teen-agers were found dead of gunshot wounds, several people were injured and about $4 million in property damage had been caused, primarily by fire.

The hostages were rescued by a former BIA police officer, Delwyn Holthusen, and his wife, Mildred, who said outside the courtroom that they ignored the guns pointed at them and cracked open the jail cell to free the five before the building went up in flames.

David Brumble, who at the time was the special agent in charge of the Minneapolis FBI office, testified Thursday that his main concern on learning of the situation before dawn on May 19, 1979, was the fate of the hostages, not dealing with the general trouble brewing at the reservation.

″The FBI’s role historically always was, always should have been as investigators, not as law enforcement officials and not as police officers,″ he testified.

However, Kenneth M. Aldridge, one of the FBI agents sent by Brumble to the scene, said he believed the FBI’s role there was ″to get with the other agency heads, the BIA, and do whatever had to be done ... to quell what was going on,″ not just to investigate.

He said he agreed with the decision by FBI agent Robert Erwin, sent by Brumble to head the FBI’s actions at the reservation, to pull officers out of the firing line.

Aldridge described the bullets he dodged as ″a zinging noise over our heads.″

Brumble said Erwin told him ″there was no way to stop the firing ... at law enforcement personnel ... and there was nothing to do but withdraw.″

Aldridge, who frequently testified that he couldn’t remember details of the situation, said during cross-examination that it was possible that Herbert McNeal, who lived on the reservation, had said shortly before the officers pulled out that the hostage-takers would be willing to lay down their arms.

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