For the first time since her husband went missing 40 years ago, Cheryl Robinson can go to bed at night knowing what happened to the man she and her kids want so desperately to find.
The only questions now are why was he killed and where is he buried.
Robinson always suspected her husband, civil rights activist Ray Robinson, was murdered at Wounded Knee, S.D., where he had gone to support the American Indian Movement (AIM) in its fight against the federal government.
She also suspected he was killed because someone believed he was a government informant.
Thanks to the work of two Buffalo lawyers, Robinson now knows that her husband, a disciple of Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson, was shot to death, and that the FBI suspects the killers were members of AIM.
Newly released documents from the FBI shed new light on what many consider one of America’s great unsolved murders and confirm what Robinson’s family has long suspected – that he was murdered at Wounded Knee.
“There have been rumors for years, and there’s multiple people who say he was shot,” Robinson said recently. “We just want some answers.”
They got some of those answers when the FBI, in response to a Freedom of Information request by their lawyers, released hundreds of pages of previously secret documents regarding Robinson.
The documents date back to 1973, the year of the Wounded Knee occupation, and for the first time reveal evidence that the FBI gathered over the years.
They cite confidential sources and witnesses who claim to have firsthand knowledge of what happened to the civil rights activist.
“They confirm the rumors that have been floating out there for years,” said Michael Kuzma, one of the Robinson family’s Buffalo-based lawyers. “The only missing part of the puzzle is where Ray’s buried.”
Ray Robinson, well known within civil rights circles, traveled to Wounded Knee with the intention of preaching his message of nonviolence and building a bridge between Indians and African-Americans.
By the time he backpacked into the Pine Ridge Reservation, a 71-day siege, an often-bloody confrontation with a federal government many thought had ignored treaties between the two sides, was well under way.
What happened next was, until now, unclear, but the speculation always centered around the belief that Robinson was shot and killed during the occupation.
“That was the story from the very beginning,” said Cheryl Robinson, who now lives in the Detroit area. “That he was shot in the knee and allowed to bleed to death.”
The newly released records provide few details about how Robinson was murdered but make it clear the FBI believes AIM was involved in the killing.
As recently as 2000, the Minneapolis office of the FBI developed information that the civil rights activist was killed by “militant members of the American Indian Movement.”
A memo documenting the new evidence says a confidential source had come forward with new information indicating “Robinson had been tortured and murdered within the AIM occupation perimeter, and then his remains were buried ‘in the hills.’ ”
The memo indicates the new evidence came from someone who took part in the Wounded Knee occupation and was present when AIM leaders talked about Robinson.
That same FBI memo also mentions a confidential witness who allegedly recorded a conversation in which AIM leader Vernon Bellecourt spoke of Robinson and said AIM, “really managed to keep a tight lid on that one.”
Bellecourt, who is not linked to the murder, has since died.
“I think AIM members were involved in Ray’s murder,” said Barry Bachrach, a Massachusetts lawyer working with the Robinsons. “They were very, very paranoid about informants and may have thought he was an informant.”
In the FBI’s eyes, the evidence of AIM’s possible involvement in Robinson’s disappearance was strong enough to warrant a criminal investigation.
It’s not clear from the documents if that investigation, separate from the one into his disappearance, was actually started and, if it was, where it went.
For a variety of reasons, Cheryl Robinson is skeptical.
She says the FBI never interviewed her about why her husband was there or, even basic information, like what he was wearing.
If there was an investigation, she thinks the FBI is covering up the results in an effort to protect its informants.
“It’s speculation on my part but there’s no other answer to the question of why they didn’t do more,” she said. “They never interviewed who they should have.”
“This is a case they don’t want solved,” he said. “A murder occurred. Why wasn’t it pursued and why wasn’t it pursued aggressively?”
Robinson and her lawyers think the answer may lie in FBI documents that are still confidential and they are currently working to make public.
“Why did they sit on this?” Kuzma said of the information suggesting AIM was involved in Robinson’s killing. “I think the most valuable information is still being withheld.”
The FBI declined to comment on the Robinson case, except to confirm that its 40-year investigation into his disappearance was closed when the documents were released.
“If new information comes forward, the FBI could reopen the investigation, depending on the information that comes forward,” said Gregory Boosalis, division counsel for the FBI in Minneapolis.
When asked about the allegations that it used informants at Wounded Knee and might be withholding evidence in an effort to protect them, Boosalis said the FBI could not comment.
Robinson’s lawyers say there’s a long history of sloppy or improper investigations by the government and they point to the case of Anna Mae Aquash, an AIM member whose body was discovered three years after the standoff.
Aquash was originally determined to have died of exposure, but a second autopsy found a gunshot wound to her head.
In 2004, 28 years after Aquash’s body was found, two men were convicted for her murder. The evidence also indicated she was shot because AIM members believed she was an FBI informant.
Even now, decades after Wounded Knee, the American Indian Movement continues to operate and one of the leaders is Vernon Bellecourt’s brother Clyde.
“I hear these rumors all the time,” Bellecourt said of the FBI memos claiming AIM was involved in Robinson’s murder. “It’s just another attempt by the FBI to get involved in legitimate organizations like ours by making crazy charges.”
When asked about the memo suggesting his brother had knowledge of Robinson’s murder, Bellecourt said it was news to him.
“I was pretty close to my brother and he never mentioned one word about that,” he said.
While the newly released documents shed light on Robinson’s disappearance, they stop well short of answering the question his widow and children have been asking for decades.
Where is Robinson buried?
One of the family’s lawyers thinks the FBI might know.
“They were watching everybody and everything,” said Buffalo attorney Daire Brian Irwin. “It’s just amazing to me that his body just went missing.”
With that in mind, Irwin, Kuzma and Bachrach have hired a private investigator who is circulating posters around Wounded Knee seeking information about where Robinson is buried.
“I never give up hope,” said Cheryl Robinson. “That’s all I want to know. Just tell me where he’s buried.”
She says her children were very young when their father went missing, but are nevertheless anxious to find his body.
“He’s there but just out of reach,” she said of her kids’ interest in their father. “We’ve never had a funeral. We’ve never had a burial. And that’s important to the kids.”