Man convicted in 1983 assault and murder of former Devils Lake police officer leaves prison
FARGO – Richard LaFuente walked out of federal prison Thursday after spending almost 28½ years behind bars for a murder the victim’s family believes he did not commit.
LaFuente, who was from Plainview, Texas, drove to North Dakota’s Spirit Lake Indian Reservation at the invitation of his half-sister, who told him he was in line to receive an allotment of money as a member of the tribe.
His car broke down, prolonging his visit – a misfortune that ultimately led to his indictment and conviction, in 1986, of driving the car that ran over Jerome “Eddie” Peltier, a former Devils Lake police officer.
LaFuente was one of 11 men convicted of Peltier’s 1983 assault and murder by a jury here in U.S. District Court.
It was touted as North Dakota’s largest murder case – and became one of its most troubled.
LaFuente and the other 10 men steadfastly maintained their innocence, and none implicated his co-defendants.
“We are thrilled that Richard is no longer in prison, but there is still much work to be done to overturn his conviction,” said Julie Jonas, managing attorney, Minnesota Innocence Project. “We have been working on his case for 10 years because we truly believe he is innocent, and we will continue to fight to prove it.”
During repeated appearances before the U.S. Parole Commission, LaFuente refused to express remorse for Peltier’s murder, saying that would require him to confess to a crime he did not commit.
After once again denying LaFuente parole last year, the commission abruptly reversed the denial after his lawyers appealed the decision, citing his “superior program achievement,” and recently set Thursday’s release date from a federal prison in Fort Worth, Texas.
So, with the stroke of a pen, LaFuente, now in his mid-50s, was released from his life prison sentence. He was greeted by his two grown daughters and had his first meal soon after he was freed.
“It was very beautiful,” Jonas said of the reunion, which also included cousins and aunts.
One of his first tastes of freedom was a Mexican breakfast of refried beans, eggs, potatoes and tortillas, washed down with an ice-cold bottle of Coke – the first glass bottle and metal fork he had held in 28 years, Jonas said.
“He just wants to relax for a little bit,” she added, “just get used to being on the outside.”
He has several job possibilities, Jonas said. He is learning how to use a smartphone and will need to get a driver’s license.
In five years, LaFuente will be eligible for a presidential pardon, and his lawyers plan to file a petition.
Peltier’s late mother, Gladys, made written and videotaped pleas for LaFuente’s release, saying the family no longer believed he and the other men convicted of her son’s murder were guilty.
“Definitely I want him free,” she told The Forum in 1999 after signing a statement asking for his release. “Definitely.”
Last year, Peltier’s sister, Andrea Peltier, appeared before the Parole Commission to ask that LaFuente be set free because she believes he did not murder her brother.
“That’s so cool,” she said Thursday, referring to LaFuente’s release. “I feel so good. I know he’s innocent and I know who killed my brother.”
On appeal, murder counts against eight of the 10 men convicted of homicide in connection with the death later were dismissed for insufficient evidence.
LaFuente twice won motions for a new trial, based on new evidence, but the decisions later were overturned, his conviction ultimately upheld. Appeals judges found prosecutorial misconduct, but said it didn’t harm LaFuente.
The government’s case relied heavily on four key witnesses who said they saw Peltier’s assault and murder at a drinking party that turned into a mob that set upon Peltier on Aug. 27 28, 1983.
But two of the witnesses – including Peltier’s younger brother, Fredrick – later recanted their testimony, saying they had been threatened by the Bureau of Indian Affairs police officer credited with cracking the case.
The officer, James Yankton, was in a carload of people who told authorities they discovered Peltier’s body on Highway 57 near Fort Totten. Witnesses said Yankton’s brother, Quentin, was the last person to see Peltier alive.
In his appeals, LaFuente argued that Yankton and others framed the 11 men to pin blame for the death on others. Yankton and federal prosecutors denied those allegations.
At trial, the defendants argued Peltier had been killed by a hit-and-run driver.
LaFuente and John Perez, his brother-in-law, were the only two defendants in the case to serve long prison sentences.
Todd Trotter, a documentary filmmaker in Los Angeles, is working on a film about the case called, “Incident at Devils Lake.” A video photographer for the project filmed LaFuente’s release.