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The Untold Story of Richard Oakes' Killing, Part 1

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Richard Oakes led the famous native occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

View the full episode transcript.

Richard Oakes was the face of the burgeoning “Red Power” movement when he led the famous Native occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969. 

But like other civil rights leaders at the time, he died too soon. In 1972, Oakes was gunned down in rural Sonoma County. His killer, Michael Oliver Morgan, stood trial for manslaughter and was found not guilty.

The official story of Richard Oakes’ death, and the circumstances surrounding Morgan’s trial, are part of the reason why Oakes’ legacy has been largely erased from mainstream history. Oakes’ family and friends, meanwhile, never got closure. All this time, they have believed that Oakes’ death, and Morgan’s acquittal, were racially motivated. 

Now, thanks to new reporting from the San Francisco Chronicle, we know details about this story that have been kept secret for decades. In Part 1 of a two-part episode with reporters Julie Johnson and Jason Fagone, we discuss the events that led Oakes to rural Sonoma County, and the encounters that foreshadowed his killing. 

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This is Part 1 of a two-part episode. Part 2 will publish on Wednesday, Oct. 11.


Read the full story on Richard Oakes’ death in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Episode Transcript

This is a computer-generated transcript. While our team has reviewed it, there may be errors.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra, and welcome to the Bay; Local news to keep you rooted. Richard Oakes is one of the most important figures of the Native Civil Rights movement. In 1969, he led the famous occupation of Alcatraz Island, where he brought attention to living conditions on the reservation and pushed for Native people’s right to self-determination.

Eloy Martinez: Richard was a visionary. He would see beyond just now. I believe any strong leader this leader is right up there with all of the best of them, some of the great black leaders in the civil rights movement. Alcatraz was the civil rights movement.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Oakes’ actions on Alcatraz would eventually bring the Red Power movement to the mainland. But like other civil rights leaders of the time, he died too soon. Oakes was gunned down in 1972 in rural Sonoma County. His killer, Michael Oliver Morgan, stood trial for manslaughter but was found not guilty. That was 50 years ago. The official story of Richard Oakes, His death and the not guilty verdict for the man who shot him are part of the reason why his legacy has been erased from mainstream history. Oakes His family, meanwhile, has never gotten closure all this time. They’ve never doubted that Oakes, his death and Morgan’s acquittal were racially motivated. But thanks to new reporting from the San Francisco Chronicle, we now know details about this story that have been kept secret for decades.

Jason Fagone: The story that came out of the trial was not a big story about a moral cause. It was a story of two men getting in an argument on a road in the middle of nowhere. That story is the wrong story.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Today, Part one of my conversation with San Francisco Chronicle reporters Jason Fagone and Julie Johnson about the true story of Richard Oakes, his death, and why it went untold until now.

Jason Fagone: Richard was one of the most prominent and effective Native American activists of that era.

Richard Oakes: I think it’s about time this government starts recognizing that we young people like to take over our own destiny.

Jason Fagone: He had a national profile, even an international profile, because of the Alcatraz occupation, which he started in 1969.

Reporter: Do you think you have the legal right to claim the island and why?

Richard Oakes: Well, you’re talking about two different societies now. In my society or in Indian society, yes, we do.

Jason Fagone: It became this, you know, 19 month occupation. Huge global news story. I mean, Marlon Brando went to the islands, Jane Fonda, all kinds of tribal elders came to meet him, to talk to him, just to hear what he had to say.

Richard Oakes: We hope to build an example at our Mecca.

Jason Fagone: And he inspired a whole generation of young native people.

Richard Oakes: We will purchase, said Alcatraz Island for $24 in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago. Our offer of 20 a dollar and $0.24 per acre is greater than the $0.47 per acre The white man is now paying to California Indians for their land.

Jason Fagone: Because he was channeling and expressing, you know, native anger about a range of issues, you know, mainly mistreatment by the US government, poor conditions on reservations, forced assimilation into a white society that really had no place for native people. But he is also laying out this vision for a better world.

Richard Oakes: Therefore, we plan to develop on this island several Indian institutes in the name of all Indians. Therefore, we reclaim this land for our Indian nations. For all these reasons, we feel this claim is just and proper, and that this land should rightfully be granted to us for as long as the river shall run in the sunshine. Sign Indians of All Tribes. November, 1969, San Francisco, California.

Jason Fagone: And he also just had this incredible kind of charisma like this, which has volcanic personal charisma. People, people, people followed him.

Reporter: Why Alcatraz?

Richard Oakes: Everybody can see it. At one end of the country, you have the Statue of Liberty. And this is it’s just the opposite. We have a true reality of liberty.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: He was essentially like the face of the red power movement. Right.

Jason Fagone: He was the leader of a national movement. Red Power was something that grew out of the Alcatraz occupation. You know, it wasn’t just a one off thing, Richard. After Alcatraz, he he sort of took the spark of that demonstration in that protest and and brought it to the mainland and then set up the string of sort of very similar demonstrations all across the West Coast.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: This story takes place in rural Sonoma County in the 1970s. Julie How does someone like Richard Oaks end up in Sonoma County in 1972?

Julie Johnson: Richard’s wife Annie was from Sonoma County. She grew up there. She grew up on the Stuarts Point Ranch area, home of the Cassia Band of Pomo Indians. Near the Sonoma County coastline, it was actually two traumatic incidents that led them back to Sonoma County. The first was the death of their daughter, Yvonne. She was 13 years old and she fell off a ledge while playing on Alcatraz. This was during the occupation. She was rushed to the hospital, but she died. And Richard and Annie didn’t return. The occupation was still going on, but they were grieving and they just didn’t go back to the island. But Richard was still involved in activism. He was traveling all around the state of California, participating in demonstrations related to land rights.

Richard Oakes: With the river tribe of Indians of California, in accordance with the findings of the Indian Claims Commission that established the various findings, our territory and what is now called Shasta Modoc, Lassen and Siskiyou Counties land that was illegally taken from us in the year of 1853. Reject all monies offered to us for this land and instead will retain our land within these established findings.

Julie Johnson: He had developed this really interesting and kind of effective strategy to trespass on corporate or government lands that were in fact traditional indigenous lands, and they would get arrested and mass forced police to arrest dozens of people. Then they’d end up in court and the government would have to argue that Native American people were trespassing on their own traditional lands. And it was wonderfully ironic and got a lot of media attention. And in 1974, Richard and a group of others went to P.G. and his headquarters in downtown San Francisco. This is on Market Street to make a citizen’s arrest of the CEO And Peggy and he owns a lot of land in California, including many traditional indigenous lands.

Julie Johnson: So they did like this staged citizen’s arrest. Security kicked him out. They held a press conference deemed a success. Afterwards, they went to a bar to celebrate and a man snuck up behind Richard and attacked him with a pool cue. And he ended up in a coma and suffered permanent impacts. Once he awoke, he had to relearn how to talk. He had to relearn how to walk. And he never really was the same. So it was in that context that Annie, I think, insisted that they move back home to her family, this quiet place, very familiar, very remote.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: So, Richard, in any move to this quieter, more rural part of the Bay Area and in large part because they’ve really experienced, I mean, some of the consequences of being the face of a movement, the dangers of that. But Richard doesn’t retreat from his activism once he moves to Sonoma County, does he?

Julie Johnson: So in Sonoma County, he was involved in a number of smaller demonstrations, but one in particular caught the attention of Sonoma County. The county wanted to widen the road. Skaggs Springs Road that went through the Stuarts Point range area. To this day, it’s the only road between the Dry Creek Valley and the Snowman Coast. And so the county carved away about three acres of tribal lands to do it. And, you know, mind you, that tribe had about 40 acres. So that was significant. And Richard saw this as theft. So he had a group of men and adolescents pulled a branch across the road one day, painted a sign and started charging drivers a dollar to pass. You know, this is a rural road. It’s in the middle of nowhere. I think eight drivers passed. But in the paper the next day, he was called a militant.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: I know someone who becomes aware of Oakes. His presence in Sonoma County. Is a man named Michael Oliver. Morgan Jason. Who is Michael Oliver Morgan. And how would you describe him?

Jason Fagone: Michael Morgan was a fairly typical local white guy of that era and that place in Sonoma. I read out of high school he joined the Army and he served for a couple of years as a military policeman. He was essentially a cop for the army there. Around 1970, he was hired by the Berkeley YMCA, which operated this kind of remote wilderness camp that they mainly used as a summer camp for Bay Area kids up in the Redwood Country in Sonoma. And because it was so far away from Berkeley, the Berkeley, why needed a local person to sort of look after it and keep the boiler running and take care of the horses that they had there and fix pipes and that kind of thing. And Morgan was good at those kinds of tasks. And so they hired him there as the caretaker to look after it.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Richard in any live in the Stuart’s point, Rancheria, where is it located and what was the relationship between the camp where Michael Morgan worked and the ranch area?

Julie Johnson: So the Stewarts Point Rancheria is about four miles down the road from the camp closer to the coast to about 40 acres. And to compare, the YMCA camp had about 450 acres of beautiful, pristine forest alongside a lovely creek. And the Rancheria, in contrast, didn’t have access to fresh water, so they had to truck it in, actually. And they still do to this day. And I think for a long time there was somewhat of an understanding between the caretakers of the YMCA camp and the people who lived in the Rancheria Canteen was a really important source of food and also just recreation for people living in the ranch area. And I think they were able to kind of traverse on camp lands. And this is this is a wild forest. So, you know, the boundaries are somewhat unclear, but I think they were able to move pretty freely. And our understanding is that once Morgan became the caretaker, that he was just more firm with those boundaries and he didn’t want people trespassing on camp land.

Jason Fagone: The thing about Morgan is that he was different from other caretakers who had looked after the camp before him. He came in and he he basically viewed everything there is as private property, totally off limits to the shire. And he was willing to enforce that belief with firearms. He kept a lot of guns there. Guns were common in some in that area and I think they still are shotguns, hunting rifles and that kind of thing. He had guns that were not those kinds of guns. He had handguns. He had semi-auto automatic pistols. That wasn’t the kind of thing that had been at the camp before.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Coming up, Michael Morgan and Richard Oakes’ first encounter and how it sets the stage for the violence to come. Stay with us.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Jason, Michael Morgan would eventually shoot and kill Richard Oakes on September 20th, 1972, but they’d actually met days before that. As I understand it, it wasn’t a very friendly encounter. How does that first encounter between Michael Morgan and Richard Oakes sort of foreshadow what is to come?

Jason Fagone: So six days before the killing, September 14th, 1972, Morgan and his employees at the camp there, they’re at the camp one afternoon, and this 15 year old, a native kid, comes walking down the road. His name is Billy Lazor. He was a mohawk. He had known Richard, Richard and Stanley for a while. He was visiting from the East Coast, from Mohawk territory. And this kid comes walking, walking down the road and Morgan and some boys ask to be still in there. And he doesn’t say. He just says this is Indian land. And any Indian has a right to be here and hunt here. It turns out the kid had been looking for his friends who had gone hunting earlier in the day, thought they might be around there. But Morgan and his camp employees interpreted this says, as some kind of reticence or hostility.

Jason Fagone: They get into this argument about whether that’s Indian land or not. Pretty soon after that, Richard Oakes pulls up in a car. He’s been out looking for the missing boys, too. He sees this argument happening. He pulls over to see what’s going on. He joins the argument. The argument keeps getting more and more heated. And there are kind of two versions of what happened next. In Morgan’s version, the kid takes out a hunting knife. Richard grabs the knife. Morgan sees him grab the knife. He’s afraid for his safety. He asks Richard to leave. Richard refuses. And so at that point, Morgan picks up a rifle and fires a warning shot at Richard right above his head, booms out. And and then Richard says he’s going to come back and burn down the camp. And then at that point, you hear the kid leave.

Jason Fagone: That’s what Morgan says happened, according to the kid’s version, which he later gave in court and which we think is more credible. What really happened is that Morgan is the one who escalated this argument in this conflict. It was Morgan who started to be hostile to sort of make threatening gestures, say threatening things called Richard Oakes a stupid Indian, according to the kid. And it was Morgan who fired the shot. And it’s only after he fires that the kid takes out the knives because the kid is afraid because now he feels like he’s he’s being attacked. At that point, Richard takes the knife from the kid because he’s trying to de-escalate. He doesn’t want anybody to do anything rash.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: What evidence is there to show that the latter account from Billy Lazarus is perhaps more credible?

Jason Fagone: The FBI ultimately investigated the circumstances of the killing, and they talked to some of Morgan’s own people who were there that night, his own employees, and they took these witness statements. The witness statements are very detailed. And in the witness statements, there are a couple of Morgan’s own people, in other words, people on Morgan’s side who corroborated some of the most important elements of the kids believe the source story. So that’s why we think it’s more credible.

Ericka Cruz Guevarra: Julie, why was this first encounter and in what you would eventually learn about it from some of these FBI documents, why is it important to note and to document.

Julie Johnson: This first encounter really set the stage for what would happen next? And not only did Michael Morgan fire a warning shot over Richard’s head, but right after that, a sheriff’s deputy came to the scene. Richard and Billy had left. A sheriff’s deputy turns up because somebody at the camp had called and they had this conversation. And Jason was really instrumental in getting these FBI files and getting them unredacted, which was really important to understanding who said what and how. All of this, like, really changes the way you can look at the shooting.

Jason Fagone: To me, this is one of the most crucial parts of the story and one of the most important things that we discovered. And it took about a year through the FOI process even to find out where these documents were and to go and to get them unredacted. Because what we found is that the police themselves escalated this conflict. And there’s even evidence that they conspired with Morgan to contemplate the death of Richard Knox and kind of create a space to give a kind of permission that made violence against Richard possible. Because remember, this is six days before the killing. So six days before the killing, the warning shot happens and someone calls the police and then this deputy sheriff shows up, David Craver, who went by the nickname Mike.

Jason Fagone: And by this point, Richard and Kate have left. It’s just Morgan, his friend. And there’s this white deputy sheriff. And the deputy sheriff is talking to Morgan about what just happened. And Maureen tells them, in the end, the cop says to Morgan, well, why didn’t you just shoot him when you had the chance? I would have shot him when he picked up the knife. After that, this cop said some blatantly racist stuff about Native people. He bragged that he wasn’t afraid of Indians. He said that he kept an M-16 rifle in the trunk of his cop car and that this rifle just loves to eat up Indians. And he said all this stuff in the presence of Morgan, who six days later shoots and kills Richard Oakes.

Jason Fagone: So the story of this first incident. Sonoma County police were involved in the conflict in a really fundamental way, but they injected themselves into it, escalated it, and seemed to goad Michael Morgan into violence. Six days later, Morgan shoots and kills Richard Oakes. Maybe it’s not surprising to listeners that a rural cop in the early 1970s would be racist. But to me, this really is shocking because of the specifics and because this information was not available to the public at the time. The story that came out of the trial was not a big story about a moral cause. It was a story of two men getting in an argument on a road in the middle of nowhere and something happening. That story is the wrong story.

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Ericka Cruz Guevarra: That was San Francisco Chronicle reporters Julie Johnson and Jason Fagone. This is part one of a two part episode on the killing of Richard OakEs. On Wednesday, we’ll hear more from Julie and Jason about the trial of Michael Morgan, how he was found not guilty and the impact the trial still has today. You can read Julie and Jason’s full story for The Chronicle on the true story of Richard Oakes’s death. We’ll leave you a link to that in our shownotes. This conversation was cut down and edited by senior editor Alan Montecillo. Producer Maria Esquinca scored this episode and added all the tape with extra production support from me. Special thanks to San Francisco Chronicle staff photojournalist Brontë Wittpenn. At the top of this episode, you heard from Eloy Martinez, a friend of Richard Oakes. Music courtesy of the Audio Network. Archival footage from the Bay Area Television Archive. The Bay is a production of member supported KQED. I’m Ericka Cruz Guevarra. Thanks for listening. Talk to you Wednesday.

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