Twenty-five years of pent-up fear and guilt gushed from Myrtle Poor Bear as she recanted the utterances that led to aboriginal activist Leonard Peltier being extradited to the United States in 1976 over the murder of two FBI agents.
"I was forced into this, and I feel very awful," the weeping woman testified, at a unique hearing held in a downtown Toronto office tower. "I just wish that Leonard Peltier will get out of prison."
In her first public statement on the case, Ms. Poor Bear testified that she agreed to implicate Mr. Peltier in the 1975 shooting deaths of two Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in North Dakota only after she had endured months of unrelenting harassment and threats from other FBI agents.
"They told me they were going to take my child away from me. They told me they were going to get me for conspiracy, and I would face 15 years in prison if I didn't co-operate. They said they had witnesses who placed me at the scene."
The 48-year-old woman said her claim that she was Mr. Peltier's girlfriend and that she saw him shoot the agents was utterly false. She testified she has never met Mr. Peltier, and that she was actually 80 kilometres away at the time of the shooting.
The hearing, held to put Ms. Poor Bear's statements on the record, was presided over by the commissioner of several high-profile inquiries -- former Quebec Court of Appeal judge Fred Kaufman. The witnesses were questioned by Scott Fenton, a former federal prosecutor, and Michael Code, a onetime assistant deputy attorney-general in Ontario.
(Organizers asked The Globe and Mail to delay coverage of the hearing until the U.S. election campaign was over, lest Ms. Poor Bear's testimony spark an inflamed campaign debate.)
The hearing was the latest event in a worldwide effort to free Mr. Peltier, who has languished behind bars since 1977, when he was convicted in the murders of FBI agents Ray Williams and Jack Coler on June 26, 1975.
Mr. Peltier's supporters have long believed the FBI was so incensed by the murders that they went to great lengths to frame Mr. Peltier -- including eliciting false affidavits from Ms. Poor Bear in order to bamboozle Canadian authorities.
The Leonard Peltier Defence Committee intends to approach both Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and U.S. President Bill Clinton with evidence from the Toronto hearing to convince them the extradition was obtained by fraud.
A member of the committee, Dianne Martin, said there is a realistic possibility Mr. Clinton may grant clemency to Mr. Peltier before he leaves office next January.
"It's not asking a lot, as a Canadian, to have an honest look at the factual foundation under which he was sent back to an unfair trial," Prof. Martin said. "A strong case has now become overwhelming.
"There is a clear pattern of [U.S.]government misconduct. We hope there will be diplomatic pressure from Canada, because the only person who can do anything now is President Clinton."
Unfortunately, Prof. Martin said, Canada has dodged the Peltier controversy for years. Justice Minister Anne McLellan even sent a letter to U.S. Attorney-General Janet Reno last year saying there seemed to be nothing untoward in the case.
"I've seen a lot of things happen in the Peltier case over the years, but that stunned me," Prof. Martin said. "She didn't just keep ducking, she added a nail to the coffin."
Mr. Coler and Mr. Williams were shot during a chaotic, daylong firefight between a large contingent of federal agents and about a dozen Indian activists on North Dakota's sprawling Pine Ridge Reservation. The agents had arrived to investigate the theft of a pair of cowboy boots.
Ms. Poor Bear told the Toronto hearing that several weeks after the shooting, FBI agents started showing up at her workplace. She was allegedly told that she would face dire consequences unless she co-operated with them.
Ms. Poor Bear said she was taken on long drives -- sometimes to neighbouring states -- and confined, incommunicado, for days or weeks at a time in hotel rooms. She said the agents worked continually to break down her resistance.
On rare occasions when she was briefly allowed to return to her family -- a daughter, her father and 10 siblings -- Ms. Poor Bear said she was ordered to reveal nothing of her ordeal.
"They told me I could go home and be with my family if I signed it [a false affidavit] that they wouldn't bother me any more," Ms. Poor Bear said. "I was telling the agents I didn't want to go through with anything that I didn't know."
Ms. Poor Bear said she was eventually told that word had leaked out on the reservation that she was an FBI informant. She said the agents said that without their protection, she would be killed as a traitor by the American Indian Movement.
Ms. Poor Bear also testified that she was shown autopsy pictures of an Indian activist from Nova Scotia -- Anna Mae Aquash -- who had just been shot to death, execution-style, and dumped in a ravine on the reserve.
"They showed me certain parts of her body that were decomposed," Ms. Poor Bear testified. "They said that's how I was going to end up if I didn't co-operate with them. They said they could kill me and get away with it. I was very scared. I got to a point where I believed they would do it.
"They talked to me real mean. They were threatening me mostly every day. I remember that at one point, they hung the autopsy pictures of Anna Mae up on the hotel room wall. I decided to go ahead with what they wanted me to do."
Ms. Poor Bear was drilled for hours on minute details she was expected to memorize and shown models of the murder scene, complete with the positions of each participant. Later, she was taken to see the scene in person.
"I recall them saying they had to make the story very serious, because they were going to convict Leonard," Ms. Poor Bear said.
The first affidavit she swore stated that Ms. Poor Bear was far from the shooting scene that day, but that Mr. Peltier -- her "boyfriend" -- had confessed to her several days later.
As it turned out, Canadian officials did not see this affidavit until after the extradition was approved. Instead, they were given two other affidavits for use at the extradition proceeding. In these, Ms. Poor Bear claimed to have actually witnessed the shooting.
In 1977, the district attorney handling the Peltier murder trial quietly dropped Ms. Poor Bear from his witness list, claiming she was unstable and unreliable.
Ms. Poor Bear's sister -- Elaine Poor Bear-Martinez -- also testified at the recent Toronto hearing and recalled Ms. Poor Bear being at home on the day of the shootout doing laundry.
Ms. Poor Bear told the hearing that the Peltier incident has marred her life. "I'm always fearing for my life -- not only mine, but my family," she concluded, tears streaming down her face. "I pray for Leonard every day.
"I want him to be free just as much as you all want to be free. I would probably rest in peace if I knew he was out of prison."