A New Look at the Killing of the 'Face of Red Power'

Richard Oakes, a Mohawk, was shot to death in 1972, and the shooter went free
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 1, 2023 2:35 PM CDT
A New Look at the Killing of the 'Face of Red Power'
A screen shot from video of the late Richard Oakes, during a protest at Alcatraz Island.   (YouTube)

In one sense, the events that day were straightforward: "On Sept. 20, 1972, a white man pulled out a pistol, pointed it at an unarmed Indigenous father and fired a single bullet. It struck Richard Oakes in the heart, killing him almost instantly." So write Jason Fagone and Julie Johnson in the San Francisco Chronicle about the death of the 30-year-old Oakes in the woods of Sonoma County. The victim's name may not be familiar, though the story suggests it should be: At the time of his death, Oakes had become the "face of Red Power"—influential in the push for Native American rights and sovereignty, thanks in part to an occupation he led of the government-owned Alcatraz Island a few years earlier. The story takes an exhaustive look at what transpired the day he was shot by Michael Oliver Morgan, a caretaker at a YMCA camp in the woods.

Morgan claimed self-defense, saying Oakes (a Mohawk who lived on a nearby Native reservation) lunged at him, and he was later acquitted by an all-white jury. "The verdict devastated Oakes' family in ways his descendants still struggle with today," per the story. "He was assassinated," says nephew Leonard Oakes Jr. "That's what we felt from the get-go." The story reveals that Morgan "had expressed anti-Native views, but he wasn't the only one—so did a sheriff's deputy who goaded him toward violence six days before the killing, multiple eyewitnesses told the FBI." The detective who investigated the case, "Butch" Carlstedt, now 90, revisits the scene and maintains the physical evidence didn't match Morgan's claim of self-defense. "I'll never forget it," he says. "I had a confession. I had a victim. I had a weapon. I had a bullet." Read the full story. (Or check out other longforms.)

Stories to sink your teeth into.
Get our roundup of longform stories every Saturday.
Sign up
Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.