The day the story changed about the Black Panthers and an Omaha policeman’s murder

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Sixteen year-old Duane Peak changed his story on September 28, 1970 after being threatened with the electric chair and implicated two Black Panther leaders in a murder he earlier said they were not involved in. (credits: Unknown photographer/Court exhibit)

The Omaha Municipal Court preliminary hearing for Ed Poindexter and David Rice (later Wopashitwe Mondo Eyen we Langa) was called to order on September 28, 1970. Both defendants asked their murder cases be severed and tried separately but were denied. County Attorney Donald Knowles and Arthur O’Leary represented the prosecution, Public Defender A.Q. Wolf and Thomas Kenney represented Poindexter, with David Herzog representing Rice.

The two men were leaders of Omaha’s affiliate chapter of the Black Panther Party called the National Committee to Combat Fascism. The pair were charged with the bombing murder of Omaha Patrolman Larry Minard, Sr. on August 11, 1970. Peak confessed to planting the bomb and after six versions ended up implicating the Black Panther pair during his preliminary hearing testimony, however only after contradicting himself.

Thomas Kenney later described the hearing held at Omaha City Hall. “It was a few blocks from the Courthouse, but the preliminary hearing was a real circus. There was a mob of people there, and screaming and hollering. There were mobs of people, news media, pro-police factions, you know, a number of black people.”

David Herzog began by immediately objecting to any testimony by Peak because he was a co-defendant, unreliable, and a minor. The judge overruled the objection stating he did not know anything about Peak.

Arthur O’Leary asked Peak about seeing Ed Poindexter a week before the murder. Peak couldn’t remember. “I don’t think I remember seeing him.”

Peak also couldn’t remember seeing Poindexter at the American Legion on the Friday before the bombing as he earlier claimed. Peak couldn’t remember giving a deposition to O’Leary a month earlier where he purportedly did remember. Nor did Peak remember giving O’Leary a statement during an interrogation a week earlier.

County Attorney Donald Knowles had enough and stopped the questioning. “I note, Your Honor, from looking around the courtroom, that this witness’ lawyer is not here. I would like your permission for a continuance to the time that we can get his lawyer here. I think he should be here with him.”

When the preliminary hearing resumed in the afternoon, Knowles made a statement, apparently because Peak was still not ready to cooperate with the prosecution. “I understand that the Court’s ruling was that we were allowed to withdraw the witness that was on the stand this morning due to the fact that he had taken us by surprise and we are allowed to proceed now with other witnesses.”

Finally, in mid-afternoon, Duane Peak returned to the witness stand, wearing sun glasses. The Omaha World-Herald reported that Peak’s hands trembled and his answers were whispers.

Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers interviewed Peak years later about the case and that day in court. Peak described removing his sunglasses upon instruction from the judge at the preliminary hearing. “The stress and the pain and all that I went through, it showed in my face.”

If you had known, you could have felt the inside of my heart, you know, it just like someone took a big bass drum and took it inside me and just started beating away. You know, I could feel like…uhh…as I sat on the witness stand, my heartbeat. I felt that everyone could see my entire body pulsating, you know. The way my heart was beating and I was under a lot of hurt and I was under a lot of stress. I had a big concern for my family. I didn’t want to see my family suffer for anything they had nothing to do with, and that was very important as well.”

Peak admitted conferring with three people during the morning recess; his lawyer, his brother Donald, and his grandfather, Foster Goodlett. Objections were made against any further testimony by Peak because of the visits. The judge allowed Peak to testify. “The young man is represented by competent counsel and I don’t know what he advised him but he has been represented and he has also conferred with his grandfather, who is a minister and whom I have known for a long time and I don’t know what advice he gave him but your motion is overruled and we will see what the defendant testifies to.”

Unknown to the defendants or their attorneys, Donald Peak was a paid FBI informant who reported to Special Agent in Charge Paul Young and later to prosecutor O’Leary. Poindexter and Rice were targets of the clandestine COINTELPRO counterintelligence operation and the subject of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s personal attention. Donald Peak’s visit with his brother during the recess carried with it COINTELPRO taint.

Peak’s testimony changed during the recess. Now Peak remembered a conversation outside NCCF headquarters with Ed Poindexter about a bomb. “He called me outside and said he wanted to show me how to make a bomb.”

Peak said Poindexter told him to meet that evening at Frank Peak’s house. “He met me there with Rollie House.”

Duane claimed that from Frank’s home he went with House and Poindexter to Mondo’s residence where Poindexter got out of the vehicle. “We went up to Rollie House’s house. Rollie brought a suitcase out from the house.”

Peak said House returned him to Mondo’s home where Peak claimed that Poindexter opened the suitcase to reveal dynamite. “Poindexter took the dynamite out of the suitcase and put it in a box.”

Peak’s story about construction of the bomb changed from his earlier versions. Peak said he and Mondo assisted Poindexter. Peak also said that Poindexter wanted to plant the bomb that night but couldn’t get a ride. According to Peak, at an encounter with Poindexter about 11:00 p.m. on Friday night at the American Legion Club, Peak was instructed to deliver the bomb to a vacant house on Ohio Street.

Peak gave yet a different version of the bomb construction to Ernie Chambers. “That thing was made in David’s basement. It was his basement.” Peak denied witnessing the construction of the bomb. None of Peak’s earlier versions of the crime supported his new claim to Chambers that the bomb was assembled outside his view in Mondo’s basement. At trial, the bomb was allegedly assembled by Poindexter in the kitchen while Peak watched on.

Peak said he retrieved the suitcase and took it to Olivia Norris’ house where he told his brother Donald to stay away from the suitcase. From there Peak took the suitcase to sister Delia’s apartment with sister Theresa giving him a ride.

Under cross-examination by Thomas Kenney, Peak admitted telling the police a different story when first questioned. Peak said he was threatened with the electric chair during his first interrogation.

David Herzog asked Peak about his arrest. Peak said he was taken to the police station where he met with police officers and one other person. “There was one from the FBI.”

“The FBI arrested me,” testified Peak.

Peak said police twice talked to him about being executed in the electric chair. “They said I was sitting in the electric chair so I had better tell the truth.”

“I didn’t have a chance.”

Peak admitted he had been coached about his confession by Arthur O’Leary in preparation for the hearing. Peak said his attorney was not present for the session with O’Leary. Herzog asked Peak to remove his sunglasses. Ernie Chambers was there and described the scene in an interview. “When he came back in the afternoon, his face was swollen around his eyes, he had glasses on….When Duane took his glasses off his eyes were red, you could see he had been crying, and there was an audible gasp in the courtroom.”

“His answers were scarcely audible. A young man who knew nothing about anything in the morning and suddenly gave the answers that the police, the prosecutors needed to implicate David and Ed.”

Kenney asked for a dismissal of the charges. “Your Honor, the case that the State has presented thus far was the testimony of a 16-year-old boy who admittedly was subjected to extensive psychological coercion on the part of the Omaha Police Department and therefore is unreliable.”

Herzog also sought a dismissal. “The witness has changed sides; has altered his story; has forgotten, claims to have forgotten some facts, and then comes back this afternoon and offers that testimony at the State’s own request and that witness has now impeached himself.”

“The confession itself or the statement here is of an unreliable nature; obviously coerced; obviously given under fear by the statement of the witness himself. He indicates he would give the police officer or police officers anything they wanted.”

The case was continued to trial where in April 1971 the FBI obtained the conviction they sought. Peak stuck to his story, got his deal and never spent a day in prison. Raleigh House was never charged for allegedly supplying the suitcase and dynamite for the bomb. Rice was convicted and died at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in March 2016. Poindexter remains behind bars at the maximum-security prison where he continues to proclaim his innocence.

The day after the preliminary hearing Peak wrote to Olivia Norris, a family friend, from his jail cell that he betrayed “two bloods” and deserved a life sentence or execution. The letter, censored by the jail staff, was shown to prosecutors but kept from the defense.

This article is excerpted from the book FRAMED: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO & the Omaha Two story. The book is available in ebook by Kindle or print from Amazon. The book is available for local readers at the Omaha Public Library. Portions of the book are also online for free at NorthOmahaHistory.com.

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Author: richardsonreports

Author of FRAMED: J. Edgar Hoover, COINTELPRO & the Omaha Two Story.

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