I push open the heavily padded swinging doors of the aged federal courtroom in Prescott. The large, high-ceilinged room is filled with prospective jurors.
They fill not only the jury box but all the pews in the courtroom, too. I sense the tension. U.S. District Court Judge Robert Broomfield, gray-haired and alert, leans forward as he conducts his inquiry into the backgrounds of those summoned for jury duty.
An older woman with the sweet face of a chocolate-candy addict stands in the jury box. "Judge, I cry a lot since my open-heart surgery," she says. "So I don't watch anything that's sad on television." Judge Broomfield nods toward the defendants. "Is there something that you are afraid will make you sad if you sit on this jury?"
The woman glances directly at the defendants. They are former Navajo tribal chairman Peter MacDonald and ten other Navajos. They face charges of conspiracy to overthrow the present tribal government and to start a fatal riot.
After reflecting briefly, she says, "No, I don't know any of them."
Another man is uncertain how he will react to testimony by police: "Some cops got in trouble in my town," he says. "The police chief even went to jail for a while.
"So it would lead me to give less credibility to what police say now. I lost a lot of respect for law enforcement."
Judge Broomfield nods.
The judge asks each prospect in the jury box to stand and answer a series of questions. I find two of them fascinating:
"What was the last book you read?"
"Do you have any bumper stickers on your car?"
Many of the jurors do not read books. But one is reading the esoteric Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco and another is reading William Shakespeare's The Tempest. Others are reading novels by Michael Crichton and John Grisham, both who have books on the New York Times' best-seller list. Bumper stickers? Many of the prospective jurors proudly advertise their membership in the National Rifle Association.
Peter MacDonald, for 15 years chairman of the 200,000 Navajos on a reservation the size of West Virginia, is the principal defendant. He is charged with conspiracy to overthrow the tribal government that had stripped him of his powers five months previously.
The trial will revolve around a bloody battle fought on the reservation between MacDonald's followers, called "Peter's Patrol," and tribal police on July 20, 1989.
MacDonald wasn't present when the battle took place, but the government claims to have evidence that he had drawn the battle plan shortly before. Others say he had urged his followers at the last minute not to go to the scene. But they went anyway, and two of his followers died of gunshot wounds in the ensuing clash with tribal police.
MacDonald sits in court each day with his arms folded and a noncommittal expression on his face. It is as though he is posing for one of those sepia-tone portraits of Geronimo you sometimes come across.
But MacDonald doesn't have a blanket over his shoulder. He doesn't wear a headband. Instead he wears a fashionably cut tan summer suit and gold-rimmed aviator glasses. On his feet are a carefully polished pair of tan Gucci loafers. He looks like a Fortune 500 business executive.
For years MacDonald was the best known and most powerful of all Native Americans. He was so highly regarded by Richard Nixon's White House that that administration picked him to speak at the Republican convention in Miami in 1972.
However, in the 20 years since much has gone wrong for MacDonald. Most of it involves politics. He fell afoul of former Senator Barry Goldwater, for one thing. That set off a chain of events that brought down not only Goldwater's wrath but a stream of investigators and informers to the reservation seeking to find enough evidence to destroy MacDonald.
MacDonald points to the fact that there is much on the reservation that the white man finds valuable for use by industry. They have much incentive to destroy any Native American leader who wants to make them pay dearly for tribal resources.
No one can say that MacDonald didn't make it easy for those who wanted to run him to ground. His lifestyle was regal. He chartered jets to go to football games, drove big cars and made open demands for money from people who wanted to do business with the tribe. They began calling him "MacDollar."
So now he is going through his sixth criminal trial in the past two years. This one will last months. Already MacDonald is serving a seven-year sentence imposed by a Navajo tribal court. This brings up the question of why the U.S. government would bother to spend more than $1 million in legal fees to bury him even deeper. No matter what the pressure, MacDonald is not cowed. To most Navajos, he is still the Naa'taanii, the tribal leader, a man filled with wisdom and deserving of reverence and respect.
MacDonald plays this role well. He sits each day with his arms folded in the wooden armchair that seems to get harder as the days wear on. He does not protest. His expression changes rarely. Sometimes he smiles briefly. MacDonald is clearly a man with a sense of humor. Considering what he is up against, he will need it.
Pamela Gullett, the chief assistant United States attorney trying the case, was graduated from George Washington University law school only a few years ago.
After working for Lewis and Roca, a private Phoenix law firm, she found a job in the U.S. Attorney's Office. How she found this job is interesting.
Wes Gullett, her husband, is chief administrative officer to Arizona Senator John McCain. During the years a Republican president is in office, the Republican senator picks the United States attorney for that state, with the president's approval. Any lawyer with a connection to McCain finds it quite easy to get a job in that office.
McCain picked Linda Akers for the job. Another Republican family stalwart in the office is Wally Kleindienst, son of Richard Nixon's attorney general, Richard Kleindienst.
Wally Kleindienst once held the job of first assistant but voluntarily stepped down because he does not enjoy mixing with people.
Akers has made a reputation for herself as a hardball player in her negotiations with Native Americans over gambling on the reservations.
So has Pamela Gullett made a reputation as a hard charger. Most lawyers in the U.S. Attorney's Office wait for a lengthy period before getting a trial. Gullett went around the office offering her help on cases so aggressively that she ended up with a trial in her first week on the job.
Now that she has been named first assistant, she revels in her newfound power.
When veteran lawyers seek to give her advice, she invariably replies, "Thanks. Just remember, I am the supervisor."
It is interesting that Gullett ended up as the prosecutor in the MacDonald case. It was originally assigned to Chuck Hyder, former Maricopa County attorney and an aggressive court veteran with 30 years' experience.
Perhaps it is only fitting. Wes Gullett, Pamela's husband, arranged the Washington, D.C., hearing of the Committee on Indian Affairs that is so crucial to this whole case.
The primary reason for the hearing was a series by the Arizona Republic in October 1987 detailing fraud involving the Bureau of Indian Affairs and energy companies.
But Senators McCain and Dennis DeConcini were reeling from bad publicity because of their involvement with Charles Keating. They required a more colorful target.
MacDonald was perfect. Authorization was received to monitor MacDonald's activities with a surveillance van and telephone taps. So much for the fiction that the reservations have status conferred on them by treaty as separate nations.
As the New York Times later reported when four members of the staff quit in protest of the changed focus of the probe: "It was the Big Easy. The chief counsel was only interested in a big hit. This was Watergate in Indian country. It only made the Indians look corrupt." Wes Gullett brought in the contractors who testified about the cash and gifts they had given MacDonald in exchange for work on the reservation. They told of a free limousine service at MacDonald's 1987 inauguration, a private jet flight to his daughter's graduation from Harvard and all-expenses-paid trips to Hawaii and Las Vegas.
This all sounds terrible. But isn't MacDonald supposed to be head of his own nation? Isn't this a tribal matter? At any rate, shortly after the hearings, the tribal council voted to put MacDonald on paid leave, even though it didn't have enough votes to legally oust him from office.
That brought about the five months of internecine war on the reservation that directly led to the riot that Pamela Gullett is now prosecuting. The Gulletts and Senator McCain have a frighteningly cozy relationship to the events now taking place in this Prescott court.
Make an enemy of the Republican party and it can find a way to make you suffer for it.
Take this one staggering step further. Judge Robert Broomfield was formerly the chief judge of Maricopa County Superior Court. A Republican, he was nominated for his position on the federal bench by none other than Senator McCain.
Since this is a case that infers that MacDonald is a leader who has taken advantage of his position by making things more comfortable for himself, Judge Broomfield becomes an interesting study.
Since being appointed to the federal bench, he has built a new home in Prescott, where the weather is cooler in summer. There are persistent reports that Judge Broomfield is lobbying to have a new courtroom built for himself in Prescott at a cost of more than $1 million.
Judge Broomfield moved last summer's Earth First! trial to Prescott and held it there despite the fact that the transfer upped the cost of the trial substantially. Who are we all kidding here? Is there any wonder we all think our government is out of control?
John McCain flies around in Charlie Keating's jets for years and vacations at his home and accepts his money. That's legal. That's politics. Dennis DeConcini uses insider information to make himself one of the richest men in the United States Senate. He takes all the money he can grab from Keating and then attempts to interfere when government regulators step in. Peter MacDonald does the same things on a smaller scale. But he's singled out as being corrupt. He becomes, in the eyes of McCain and DeConcini, another Manuel Noriega. When do McCain and DeConcini look in their own mirrors and see something the least bit embarrassing to them?
If this is the way of democracy, that word most certainly should be spelled with a lower-case d.
Bruce Griffen is tall, slim and alert. He is a Flagstaff lawyer appointed to defend MacDonald. Griffen realizes how long the odds are against his client and himself.
For the government, this is a slam-dunk case. The bare bones of it are that MacDonald's followers stormed a tribal building and, when the police tried to stop them, beat the cops with sticks.
To stop the riot, the police fired on and killed two of MacDonald's people.
However, the whole situation reeks of a setup. Even though the tribal police knew that MacDonald's men were on the way, they stationed only one police car at the front of the building. They did not make a show of force that would have dissuaded the attack. Instead they set up a truck from which to film the entire attack. That video will be used in this case as evidence.
What jury will acquit after seeing the film?
And yet Griffen fights as hard as he knows how. He tells the jury: "When you look over at Peter MacDonald, I want you to see a Naa'taanii, a leader. I want you to see a man who has the right to the presumption of innocence."
He tells them about MacDonald's life. MacDonald, 63, was born on a goatherd's blanket. He studied to become a medicine man because that's what his grandfather had been.
He took the name "MacDonald" at boarding school because the teacher could not pronounce his Native American name and because the young boy continually sang the song "Old MacDonald Had a Farm."
At 15 he joined the United States Marine Corps and went to the South Pacific, where he was a member of the Navajo Code Talkers unit that was used to confound the Japanese.
MacDonald went to the University of Oklahoma, graduating in 1957 as an electrical engineer. He moved to Los Angeles and worked for Hughes Aircraft on the project that developed the space program. He was a junior engineer on the Apollo program.
"It was at this point," Griffen told the jury, "that Raymond Knockeye, the tribal chairman, invited Peter back to the reservation. MacDonald was director of management for six years and then, in 1970, was elected tribal chairman.
"He was elected for three consecutive terms, embracing 12 years, before being defeated in a close election. And then, after four years, he was reelected for a fourth term. He is the head of his country."
Griffen hesitated. Then he told the jury: "I'm nervous. This is the biggest courtroom I've ever been in. I'm flattered to be appointed to such a huge responsibility. I now regard Peter as my friend."
Griffen shook his head.
"This is a huge effort to prosecute MacDonald. It's a political persecution. He's charged with 18 counts of things that happened at the building and he wasn't even there.
"They charge him with giving speeches. He always gave speeches. What else do leaders do? He is not a pied piper of violence. . .only a leader."
The trial begins.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
The first witness is the police officer who hid in the van and filmed the attack on the tribal finance center.
"Do you know Peter MacDonald?" he is asked.
"How is that?"
"At one time I was one of his bodyguards."
This will be a bitter trial, in which betrayal will play a large part. All of the witnesses against MacDonald are members of the tribe who either once admired him greatly or still do. We are left with one mystery. Why is this case being tried in federal court?
Only because it's the government's final, crunching move to destroy MacDonald. It's ugly. But not surprising.