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Cold-blooded killer or a victim?

In Rome, 500 Italians will refuse to eat. In Washington, supporters will pray and protest. And in Lawrence, Kan., the phone in a small office will ring and ring.

All this for Leonard Peltier, arguably the most famous and influential American Indian in the world _ and a prison inmate convicted of murder.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the afternoon the U.S. government says Peltier helped ambush two federal agents on a remote Indian reservation.

They were brutal and cold-blooded murders. Peltier was convicted and has spent the last 18 years in federal prison and could spend the rest of his life there.

His most recent appeal was turned down in May, but another is in the works. Efforts to get President Clinton to grant clemency are continuing.

"I know I said I killed those guys once," Peltier, 50, said during a recent interview at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth. "But that was just anger. I never killed those agents. I didn't do it. I couldn't do it."

The murders made Peltier famous. He's the darling of what's left of the counterculture of the '60s and '70s.

Some historians even predict that Peltier someday will be named alongside Sitting Bull and Geronimo. All because congressmen, a Belgian princess, a host of foreign dignitaries, rock stars and others have taken up his cause.

A documentary _ Incident at Oglala _ by actor-director Robert Redford, helped firmly established Peltier as a symbol for the longstanding oppression of American Indians.

Still, even some who were close to him are convinced that something is getting lost in his celebrity.

"The farther away from South Dakota _ and the facts of his case _ you get, the stronger his support becomes," said Frederic Alan Maxwell, a writer who spent five months collaborating with Peltier on a proposed book.

"I came away from him with a terrible, terrible taste in my mouth. Despite what you've read, he's definitely not a saint."

Tim Giago, publisher and editor of Indian Country Today, the nation's largest American Indian newspaper, puts it more bluntly:

"Leonard Peltier is a murderer," said Giago, who in the mid-1970s ran a newspaper from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, where the federal agents were killed. "He killed two men in cold blood. . . . I know you've got a lot of people out there who've got to make him into some kind of a cause. Of course, most of those people are white and they're not from around here."

Peltier was convicted in 1977 in North Dakota of two counts of first-degree murder. According to the trial:

Just before noon on June 26, 1975, FBI special agents Ronald Williams and Jack Coler were driving into the Pine Ridge reservation when they were ambushed.

They radioed for help, saying that they were trapped in a cross fire.

Witnesses said they saw Peltier carrying an AR-15 assault weapon walking toward the downed agents. Authorities think Williams was murdered while he knelt on the ground. Coler was unconscious when he was shot in the head and face.

In February 1976, Peltier, who had fled the reservation after the killings, was captured in Canada. His attorneys argued that Peltier wasn't at the shooting scene, but the jury didn't buy it. He was sentenced to two life terms and has since been sentenced for an armed escape attempt.

If he is not paroled, his sentences will expire in 2041.

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