the crime

IN THE PREDAWN HOURS of August 28, 1983, the battered body of Jerome Eddie Peltier, a Native American policeman, was found on a highway on the Devils Lake Sioux Reservation in Ft. Totten, North Dakota by an intoxicated off-duty tribal cop.  What at first appeared to be a hit-and-run accidentescalated into an incredible tale of mob violence, mayhem and murder. Witnesses emerged two years later, claiming a mob savagely attacked Peltier and deliberately placed him on a road so a vehicle could run over him, resulting in his instantaneous death.  At the center of the investigation was the alleged driver of the death car, Richard LaFuente, who had come to the reservation that summer at the behest of his half-sister, Patricia DeMarce, to receive a percap, or distribution of money from the tribe to its members, that ultimately didn’t exist.

Richard LaFuente the day of his release from FCI Ft. Worth (photo by Hal Samples)

On New Year’s Eve 1985, LaFuente was summoned to the sheriff’s office in his hometown of Plainview, Texas, for what he thought was an unpaid speeding ticket.  Instead he was arrested by federal marshals for the murder of Peltier – a man he had never met. In May of 1986, a jury convicted the mob of murder, giving LaFuente the harshest sentence of all: life in prison. Numerous appeals followed as evidence of police corruption and prosecutorial misconduct began to surface.

In 1994, federal prosecutors offered LaFuente a plea bargain: if he would admit guilt and show remorse for the crime, he would be released on time served.  Steadfastly proclaiming innocence, LaFuente refused the offer.  ”I can’t and won’t show remorse for a crime I didn’t commit,” he told his lawyer at the time.

In a 2006 article written by Michael Hall for Texas Monthly magazine, LaFuente’s current attorney, Julie Jonas of the Innocence Project of Minnesota, said: “I don’t have another inmate who would do that.  Someone who’s been in a federal prison and is given the key to the door and he won’t go – that’s indicative of innocence.  And a real strength of character that very few possess.”

In 2013, Jonas filed an executive clemency petition with the Obama Administration, which was denied, and on June 5th, 2014, after serving 28 years for someone else’s crime, LaFuente was finally released from prison – without explanation.  Though not officially exonerated, he is now a free man.

Behind the Scenes

Producer Todd Trotter is a graduate of Southern Methodist University’s Cinema-Television program and is a producer on Talking Dead, the after show to AMC’s The Walking Dead.  Mike Wiser, an award-winning writer-producer for the PBS series FRONTLINE, is providing advice and consultation on the project.  Investigative journalist Michael Hall, who originally reported Richard LaFuente’s story for Texas Monthly magazine and The New York Timesis a key consultant.  Also consulting is Fargo Forum reporter Patrick Springer, who covered the 1986 murder trial – the largest in North Dakota’s history – from start to finish.  Matt Daniel, a citizen investigator and former firefighter, has worked with Trotter on the case since 2011.