September 3, 1967

unsettled

An image created with a pinhole camera shows the shoreline off Pleasant Point in Down East Maine. Late in the summer of 1967, a routine traffic stop on the causeway leading to the reservation escalated into a violent conflict between Indians and the police. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

It started as a routine traffic stop.

Maine State Trooper Arlo Lund was driving south through the Pleasant Point Indian reservation in his cruiser at 1 in the morning, accompanied by a 24-year-old tribal constable named Bobby Newell. As they exited the reservation and started across the causeway to Eastport, a convertible with Massachusetts plates and a missing taillight passed them going in the opposite direction.

Relations between Indians and law enforcement had long been strained, because of what sheriffs and police officers both would and would not do.

“Local police were pretty rough on native people,” recalls Newell, who had become a constable to help his people. “They’d show up without warrants or anything, drag someone out and throw them in jail, and it would take a long time to get them out.”

Apart from unarmed, nonuniformed and essentially unpaid constables like Newell, the Indians had no public safety personnel of their own. Calls for help – to the police, the sheriff, the fire department, or ambulance services – were often ignored, as they had been the night Peter Francis was killed.

“Most of the time, if there were a fire on the reservation, that house would just burn to the ground, and an ambulance would take a half-hour or more to show up, so if you were having a heart attack you might as well write it off,” says Newell, who, like others of his generation, grew up in a house that lacked running water, a telephone or electric appliances. “A lot of Indian people wouldn’t even report a crime, because they knew nothing would become of it.”

As constable, Newell had seen police abuse up-close. “I’d bring somebody I’d arrested to the Eastport jail, and they would be in perfect shape and cooperating, and when I got to court, the guy would have been beaten up,” he recalls. “I’d ask what happened, and he would say, ‘Nothing.'” Such episodes were wearing on Newell, and he’d soon resign his post as a result of his disillusionment.

Newell’s informal partner, Trooper Lund, was different, a recent arrival to Washington County who showed no prejudice toward the tribe. Instead of treating the constables with contempt, Lund invited Newell to tag along on his patrols and to have coffee with him and other officers in Eastport. Newell taught him Passamaquoddy phrases, and Lund was pleased to be invited to Indian homes to socialize.

Lund did a U-turn on the causeway, turned on his lights, and pulled the car over at the reservation end of the causeway. He went up to talk to the driver, Edward Bassett, a Pleasant Point native on his way back to his job in Massachusetts.

Newell, sitting in the cruiser, saw a Volkswagen Beetle pull up behind him. Out stepped Edward’s hotheaded brother, Danny Bassett, a muscular former Army paratrooper with a violent past and an even more violent future. In the car was Danny’s much-abused wife, Annabelle, his brother Victor, two male friends, and Deanna Francis, the former tribal governor’s niece and one of the girls the Massachusetts hunters had allegedly propositioned for sex, who was now 19. They’d been drinking at the Red Ranch Roadhouse just down the road. Danny was itching for a fight.

Newell ordered Danny to get back in his car. Danny, according to Newell, jumped him. The other occupants of the VW piled out, and one of the women said in Passamaquoddy: “Don’t hit him; he’s an Indian. Hit the other guy; hit the white man!”

Soon, Lund and Newell were engaged in a prolonged melee in which the trooper was backflipped into a guardrail and the cruiser’s radio microphone was nearly torn out. They held their own – assisted by Edward Bassett, who physically restrained his brother – until Danny and his companions sped off in the Volkswagen.

unsettled

A man crosses Indian Road on the Passamaquoddy reservation at Pleasant Point this spring. In the 1960s, relations between law enforcement and the Indians living here had long been strained, both because of what sheriffs and state police would do and what they wouldn’t. Photo by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

This incident would not have become the center of statewide media attention if not for the events that followed that rainy night.

Around 2 a.m., about half an hour after the fight, a dozen officers – state police, deputy sheriffs and game wardens – descended on the reservation, breaking into at least four homes and beating Indians.

Indian witnesses later testified that Deanna Francis, a freshman at the University of Maine, was kicked in the lower abdomen, and that Annabelle Bassett was beaten on the legs and arms with a billy club by Lund.

(Lund, who is retired and living in North Carolina, did not respond to an interview request.)

The two women said Deanna had been slapped and shoved and had her clothes torn by a state trooper at the Machias jail the next day.

Lund himself admitted dragging Victor Bassett out of a car by his shirt, at which point another officer clubbed the suspect on the forehead with a nightstick, causing considerable bleeding.

Newell saw several officers pin another suspect, David Homan, against the side of a house, demanding to know where Danny Bassett was. When Homan said he didn’t know, Newell heard a series of “bumps and whacks” coming from the scrum, after which Homan said Danny was at Christy Altvater’s home.

Around 3 a.m., a motorcade pulled up outside Altvater’s house, one of the cars idling over the spot where Peter Francis had been beaten to death 22 months earlier. The police entered unannounced and without a warrant, searching for Danny. Instead they found a white houseguest, Robert S. Howe, an instructor at the Poland Spring Job Corps, whom they awakened rudely.

“They shined a flashlight in my face, said, ‘No, it’s not him’ and left,” recalls Howe, who would later serve as a legislator and executive director of the Maine Civil Liberties Union. “I followed them out in the rain, and I yelled: ‘What is going on?’ And a trooper came in and said, ‘Shut up or I’ll bust you.’ Then he just walked off. I couldn’t believe it.”

The following day, when Lund and Newell arrested Deanna Francis, Howe rode with her to the Machias jail, where he says he witnessed a state trooper grab and throw her against a stone wall, tearing her blouse.

Within days, Howe reported the incidents to the new governor of Maine, Kenneth Curtis, who ordered an investigation. Shortly thereafter, Howe was fired by the Job Corps after someone from the Attorney General’s Office placed a call to Job Corps Director Robert Lake. Lake confirmed to reporters that the caller had linked Howe and the Indian case but then denied it a day later.

Don Gellers represented Danny Bassett and the other six Indians who had been involved in the initial melee, all of whom were charged with obstructing law enforcement. Four faced an additional charge of assaulting a police officer.

On the day of their first court appearance, Gellers discovered one of his clients being interrogated by Newell, Lund and the acting county attorney, Elbridge Davis. Davis, Homan later testified, demanded to know “what Don Gellers told me to say in court.” Gellers denounced the move as a violation of Homan’s rights and the American Bar Association’s Canons of Ethics. The judge denied his motion for a dismissal of charges against Homan.

The subsequent legal proceedings were bizarre. The initial judge recused himself without explanation in the midst of the trial. His replacement, Judge Ian MacInnes of Bangor, found four of the seven defendants guilty of various charges, but in announcing his verdict said he was “very disturbed” about the side issues in the case, which were “probably more important than the actual case before me.” He urged “a forthright investigation” of the police actions.

A few days later, a grand jury issued new indictments against the Indians, including a conspiracy charge MacInnes had thrown out. Deanna Francis, who had just been found innocent of assault, was charged with aggravated assault. She and two others who had been found innocent of obstruction were once again charged with obstruction.

Gellers protested that these moves amounted to double jeopardy; he was overruled. His motion to have the proceedings moved to Cumberland County was denied.

When the Attorney General’s Office put forth lists of potential jurors, not a single one was Indian. Gellers successfully challenged the list, which was reissued with some Indian names. An all-white jury was nonetheless selected from it.

Before the new trial started, all seven Indians were arrested on additional, secret indictments. Gellers protested that since all seven Indians had appeared voluntarily in the past, there was no possible reason to have them arrested.

Through it all, no charges were filed against the police for their actions that night. They would be formally cleared of any wrongdoing in February 1969 by a Washington County grand jury. Newspaper editorials denounced the process, but State Police Chief Parker Hennessey announced he was “very pleased” with the results.

Gellers planned a vigorous defense and appeals motions for his seven clients. But he would never see the case through.

Rumors had been swirling that winter that the police were out to get him. Everyone except Gellers himself seemed to know about it.

Bobby Newell heard it from deputy sheriffs in Eastport. Bangor Daily News reporter John Day was told of it by sheriffs in Old Town. Rumors even reached Gellers’ intern from the previous summer, Tom Tureen in Washington, D.C., who says he telephoned to warn his former boss.

“There was no question that the state police were out to get Gellers because he was a ‘bad actor,’ a ‘criminal drug user and dealer’ – all those justifications they used to rationalize what they were doing,” recalls Daniel G. Lilley, who was the assistant attorney general who prosecuted several phases of the case against Danny Bassett and the other Indians.

Gellers, Lilley recalls, was an easy guy to hate, particularly among the law-and-order conservatives of that contentious era. He recalls Gellers arriving late to court before Judge Thomas Delahanty, a former agent in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, who made life hard on defendants. “He’d show up disheveled, he smelled bad and looked like he’d slept in a barn. He wore dirty white shirts with lousy ties,” he recalls. “He was obviously smart, but he wanted to die on every hill. Everything was going to go to the Supreme Court of the United States.”

Delahanty was clearly annoyed with the attorney. “Gellers would show up late, and it almost seemed like he was doing it to piss the judge off,” Lilley recalls. “He was just perfect, straight out of central casting.”

The state police, Lilley recalls, were cowboys. “I rode up to Calais with some of them on the Airline Road, and they would stop and get booze and see girlfriends. They were on top of the world, and it was quite an eye-opener for a young lawyer,” he continues. “And it was just us versus them, and they were fighting the Indian wars all over again. It was discrimination at its worst.”

“The motivations of people higher up than me were a little skewed from what they should have been,” he says.

Hy Mayerson, a Philadelphia attorney who later represented Gellers, says the young lawyer definitely rubbed many the wrong way. “You have this individual who talks as if he’s delivering sermons from the Mount, and the problem was sometimes he was, and at the same time he was doing it he was smoking a lot of weed,” he says. “But most of all he was just pompous. And brilliant. So he was a thorn in the side of those who say, ‘Do as I say or you’re dead.'”

Then, in the midst of it all, word got around that Gellers was about to make his most provocative move yet on behalf of the Passamaquoddy. His land claims case was about to be filed.


Colin Woodard can be contacted at 791-6317 or at:

[email protected]

 

Coming tomorrow:

Staking a claim on the land