Incident at Round Valley

What began as a deadly dispute between Indian families turned into a lesson about power, guilt, and justice for one California community.

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It was Good Friday, 1995, and the air in Mendocino County was cold and damp, with clouds rolling in over a rising moon. Eugene “Bear” Lincoln and his close friend Leonard “Acorn” Peters walked cautiously up a dirt road on the Round Valley Indian Reservation. Peters carried a lever-action Winchester rifle and Lincoln a Mini-14 semiautomatic. They were not going hunting.

There had long been trouble on the California reservation, a simmering feud, with the Lincoln and Peters clans on one side and the Britton family on the other. But now it had erupted into a shooting war. Earlier that day, Acorn’s brother, Arylis Peters, had confronted Gene Britton in the high school parking lot. The two argued, and both reached into their cars for rifles. Arylis fired first, killing Britton. Then he left.

It was after 9 p.m. when Bear and Acorn headed up Little Valley Road, hoping to find Arylis and protect him from the Brittons, who they felt certain would retaliate. Acorn was a dozen or so paces ahead as the pair approached a ridge, not knowing that two other armed men were not far over the rise.

Suddenly, as Bear would later testify in court, he heard Acorn say, “Oh, fuck” — then, a barrage of gunshots, and Acorn fell backward on the road. It was dark, and Bear couldn’t see who was shooting, but he fired back 10, 12 rounds, he wasn’t sure. Then he dropped over an embankment and scrambled for cover.

The Brittons, he thought, as he lay in a creek bed, trying to catch his breath. It has to be the Brittons. Then everything was quiet. He crept back up the hill to check on Acorn, knowing he couldn’t leave his friend bleeding in the road. He was 20 or so yards below the ridge when he saw a muzzle flash and heard a burst of automatic gunfire. Bear fired back from the hip, but after one round the rifle clicked. Empty. Again, he took cover. It was only then that he heard another sound, a male voice in the darkness shouting numbers, like a police radio call.

Bear Lincoln would later learn that the voice belonged to Mendocino County Sheriff’s Deputy Dennis Miller and the code — 11-99 — meant there was an officer in trouble. In his initial statement that night, Miller would tell a very different version of the events: that he and Deputy Bob Davis had spotted a lone Indian with a rifle in the moonlight, had identified themselves, and had been fired upon. In the gunfight that followed, Davis was shot in the head and killed.

Lincoln did not stick around to tell his version of what happened that night. It didn’t matter whether it was the Brittons or the police shooting at him, or both. Whoever it was out there, he would later recount, was trying to kill him, so he took off, running for his life.

Over the next four years, the events of that night would trigger first a massive manhunt and then public protests and a deeply divisive murder trial. The citizens of Mendocino County would get a hard education in how their local law enforcement wielded its power. And Indians from the Round Valley reservation would, for the first time in memory, challenge the justice system — and by doing so take a step toward regaining a sense of hope, something they and their ancestors had lost long ago.

Like most stories from Indian country, this one begins with the land: In winter and spring, when the high mountain passes west of the Mendocino National Forest are blocked with snow, only one stretch of blacktop leads into or out of Round Valley. Highway 162 starts just south of Laytonville and curls along Outlet Creek and the wild Eel River deep into the mountains. Just before the road drops into Round Valley, there is a gravel turnout — Inspiration Point — that overlooks a basin of pastureland nearly nine miles across, cupped in a circle of forested hills like a bright-green gift.

A historic marker here offers one version of the region’s past. It begins: “This valley was discovered by Frank M. Azbill, arriving from Eden Valley on May 15, 1854.” The plaque goes on to list the area’s first Anglo residents. What the marker does not mention is that Azbill, by his own accounts, also slaughtered the first 40 Yuki Indians he encountered. Not long ago, members of the local Indian population pasted their own legend on top of the official one: “A Brief History of the Round Valley Area: 1853-1874. White settlers, instead of bypassing the valley, as ordered by D.C., eliminated 11,600 of 12,000 native people and stole their land.”

The improvised sign was gone the next morning, but the anger behind it lingered, and so did the contrasting points of view that the two versions illustrate. Whites — who control the media, the police, and the power — and Indians, who do not, often see the world through very different filters in this part of California. It has been this way since the gold rush years, when local militias hunted Indians like game animals, and the U.S. government herded the survivors of seven or more tribes into a reservation in Round Valley.

The Indians — predominantly Wylakis and Yukis, who were traditional enemies — were kept divided and weak by their captors, harried by disease, and forced to compete for meager resources. Their experience was similar to that of reservation Indians elsewhere: Their languages and customs were beaten out of them in government-run boarding schools. Their story was written out of the history texts, and they became a discarded people, visible to the larger community only when they ran into trouble with the law.

At first glance, Round Valley is poignantly beautiful. In fact, it looks like a child’s farm set, with horses and cows grazing beneath graceful oaks. Fewer than 3,500 people live here, perhaps half of them Indians. The only settlement is the little town of Covelo: one grocery store, one bank, no movie theater, no stoplights. It seems quaint, but this is no Mayberry RFD. Most of the rich bottomland in the area was acquired by white ranchers decades ago, while the majority of Indians are concentrated on the reservation at the north end of the valley.

There is no industry here, and no tribal casinos to artificially bump up the standard of living. According to tribal data, 87 percent of Indians are unemployed, poverty and substance abuse are high, and education levels are low: A full 80 percent of Indian adults here have not finished high school. The Tribal Health Services reports that alcoholism and drug abuse are prevalent on the reservation and that paint sniffing and methamphetamine use are “astoundingly common” among tribal kids.

Violent domestic disputes are routine in Round Valley, and since the reservation cannot support its own tribal police, it relies on the Sheriff’s Department to maintain order. In a recent survey, 30 percent of Round Valley’s middle school students had already had some contact with the criminal justice system or were on probation. Most reservation residents run up against the law at one time or another, and for the vast majority, the experience is not pleasant.

“I think it comes down to ignorance and racism on the part of law enforcement,” says 58-year-old Cora Lee Simmons, a former county probation worker and co-founder of Round Valley Indians for Justice. “The police don’t know us, and they don’t want to know us.”

Sixty-five-year-old Lucille Lincoln had been home when the shooting started that Friday night. Thinking the Brittons were attacking, she decided to get her family out of the valley. As she tells it, she was climbing into her pickup with a half-dozen of her children and grandchildren when her son Bear came running down the road in the darkness.

“They killed Acorn,” he told her, out of breath. “They shot him dead for no reason. You guys better get out of here — they’ll come and kill all of you!” Then he ran back up the road.

Lucille waited until it got quiet, then decided to risk driving back to town, where it would be safer. At the top of the ridge her headlights picked up Acorn Peters’ body on the road and Lucille stopped the truck. Then suddenly, she was caught in a spotlight, and loud male voices were shouting at her.

“Turn your fucking lights off, or we’ll blow your fucking head off!”

She was dragged along the road, she later testified in court, pushed into a muddy ditch, and handcuffed by a highway patrolman who held her down with his foot. With her children and grandchildren, she was brought to a makeshift command post in the valley, questioned, and released.

Lucille then drove to her sister’s house and found Bear in the back room, writing out his will. It was a letter to his girlfriend, giving her two of his horses. He handed the letter to his mother and took off for the hills.

On Easter morning, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat — the region’s largest newspaper — ran a banner headline about the manhunt for Bear Lincoln, whose hat had been found at the scene, a bullet hole through its crown. The article repeated the deputy’s version of the shoot-out and described Lincoln as an extremely dangerous “paroled felon” who a court-appointed psychiatrist had testified may have “a sadistic streak.” It also described Lincoln’s felony conviction for the “savage beating” of a 2-year-old back in 1979.

There was no denying that Bear had had his share of run-ins with the law, and a history of problems with drinking. But the article did not mention that Lincoln seemed to have turned his life around in recent years. By early 1995, he was better known in the community as an organic vegetable farmer than a felon.

In the days that followed, law enforcement officers from all over Northern California swarmed through Round Valley looking for Lincoln. According to a class-action lawsuit later filed by reservation Indians, police teams surrounded houses and allegedly searched them without warrants, holding children and elders at gunpoint. Members of the Lincoln and Peters families were rounded up and interrogated. Still, no one offered a clue to Bear’s whereabouts. Authorities speculated that their suspect might be injured or dying, since a trail of blood had been found on Little Valley Road, leading from the shooting scene down to his gate.

Bear’s family and friends let the cops believe what they wanted; they were certain he was alive. In fact, he was never more than a week’s walk from home. He had a pup tent and a few store-bought rations, but he lived mainly on nuts and wild mushrooms and raspberries. At first he moved camp every night. Only two trusted friends knew how to find him. Even his family didn’t know — and didn’t want to know — exactly where he was. “They were watching us all,” says Cyndi Pickett, Acorn’s live-in partner and Bear’s close friend.

A month later the police still had no leads on Lincoln, even after then-Gov. Pete Wilson offered a $100,000 reward for his capture and conviction. At the same time, the Fox television show “America’s Most Wanted” broadcast a segment on the crime that revealed a new police version of the events. Now, instead of showing Acorn Peters firing first at the deputies, it showed Bear Lincoln initiating the gun battle. Peters’ rifle, it turned out, had not been fired that night. Questioning the authorities’ conflicting versions of events, the local media demanded to know what the real story was.

Meanwhile, the hills filled up with horseback posses and freelance bounty hunters on dirt bikes, drawn by the governor’s reward. Bear had a lot of close calls. Helicopters hovered over him as he huddled in the bush. Once a helicopter team dropped down to bust a marijuana garden not 50 yards in front of him, but they never caught sight of him.

Lincoln had seriously considered fleeing to Canada, where he knew he could fade into the Indian communities, but he wanted his day in court. “I guess one of the things that held me the most was getting our side of the story out, not to let them get away with murder,” he says now. “That’s what Acorn would have wanted.”

San Francisco attorney Tony Serra was no stranger to high-profile cases. The 63-year-old ponytailed lawyer, whose flamboyant style was captured by James Woods in the film True Believer, has represented such clients as Black Panther Huey Newton and Ellie Nesler, the California mother who shot her child’s molester in court. Lincoln had heard of Serra, mostly because he knew the case of Hooty Croy, a Shasta Indian who landed on death row after shooting a police officer. Serra had won Croy a new trial, in which he was acquitted.

Word got to Lincoln through an intermediary that Serra was willing to take on his case pro bono. “For a lot of reasons it was a good case to vindicate,” Serra says. The lawyer maintains that Lincoln should never have been charged with capital murder. And he was appalled by the poisonous pre-arrest publicity. “The whole case was phony,” Serra says. “All of the racism that underpins the relationship between Round Valley and the mostly white police force certainly became a meaningful and righteous issue in the case.”

After four months in hiding, Lincoln turned himself in at a press conference in the lawyer’s offices. Serra assembled a formidable defense team, anchored by his longtime colleague Diana Samuelson and an attorney from Mendocino County, Phil DeJong. There was no bail for Lincoln. He sat in the county jail for 18 months awaiting trial. It took three months just to pick the 12 jurors. When Bear Lincoln at last came to trial in the summer of 1997, every juror was white and willing to impose the death penalty if the case warranted.

On the prosecution side, Mendocino County District Attorney Susan Massini handed the case to Aaron Williams, a relatively young and inexperienced assistant district attorney. By the time Williams and Serra had completed their opening statements, it was clear that the case would hinge on the testimonies of Bear Lincoln and Dennis Miller, the survivors of the gunfight on Little Valley Road. And like so many stories from this part of the world, two very different versions of reality were about to unfold.

Miller’s testimony should have proved formidable. The 44-year-old had 18 years in the Sheriff’s Department. And when the short, sandy-haired deputy finally took the stand, jurors heard a chilling tale.

In the aftermath of the Gene Britton shooting, Miller testified, he and his partner, Bob Davis, had been dispatched to man a checkpoint on the road to Little Valley, where Arylis Peters was rumored to be hiding. While they were sitting in their patrol unit, Miller looked up to see “the heads of two figures in front of our vehicle coming up the road.” The deputies got out of the car, and Davis shouted three times: “Sheriff’s Department, drop the gun!” One of the two responded, “Fuck you! Drop your gun.” Then the man raised the rifle to his shoulder, and Miller saw a muzzle flash from that direction. Almost simultaneously, both deputies opened fire with their 9 mm Berettas.

After they had regrouped behind their car, the deputies heard a noise behind them in the woods. They decided they were being flanked, and left their vehicle to cross the road for better cover on the downslope of the ridge. On the way across the road, Davis leaned down to check on the body of the Indian. Miller by this time had taken an M-16 rifle from the patrol car, set it on full automatic, and was covering Davis with it. Miller testified that he then spotted a silhouette moving 30 yards farther down the hill and saw a bright flash. Miller said he fired a burst of bullets down the road, took a step backward, and fell off a steep drop-off. He flipped over before he could recover. When he stood up and glanced back across the road, Miller said, he saw Bob Davis leaning against the opposite bank, wounded and gasping. Then Davis flopped on his back in the road, gurgling on his own blood as he died.

Tony Serra cross-examined Miller for two days. The attorney set out to suggest that a panicked Miller had accidentally shot his own partner and invented a story to cover it up.

Serra hacked away at the many inconsistencies in the deputy’s testimony. He played the tape of Miller’s initial police statement, given within hours of the shootings. In it, the deputy stated that he had seen only one figure on the road in the initial gun battle, not two. And his testimony revealed other conflicts. Miller testified that he never called the case investigator to change his story; phone logs proved that he had called, and his second interview with the investigator shows Miller stating he had seen two men. He also testified that Davis had been constantly in sight, except for a few seconds after the first exchange of gunfire and for an instant after he, Miller, fell off the edge of the road. But DNA testing proved that the trail of blood that led from the ridge nearly all the way down to Bear Lincoln’s gate came not from Lincoln, but from Deputy Bob Davis.

Still, under Serra’s questioning, Miller maintained he was certain even about new details he had remembered, such as the hats he saw on the silhouetted figures, and how Acorn had yelled, “Fuck you!”

“Your memory, like wine, gets better with age?” the attorney asked.

“No,” said Miller. The deputy explained that his “recalled memories” came back to him once he relaxed at home after the shootings.

The jury didn’t buy it.

“My whole attitude, from the beginning, totally turned around,” says juror Ron Norfolk. The 50-year-old disabled logger and self-described hermit had been ready to hang Bear Lincoln himself if he was guilty. Then he began to listen. “You sit there and you watch this story unfold. And you want to believe that a cop is the guy to put your trust in. But they started changing their stories to fit the circumstances, and then they just started lying! I think they just assumed that everybody would believe their story simply because they’re cops and the Indians don’t matter anyway.”

When Bear Lincoln took the stand in his own defense, he made a convincing witness. The full story of what happened in Round Valley that night may never be known, but Lincoln didn’t try to pretend he couldn’t have shot Davis. He admitted firing back in self-defense.

“What was in your mind then?” asked Serra.

“Well, I thought it was the Brittons,” said Lincoln. “I figured I was going to be shot next.”

“He wasn’t nervous,” Ron Norfolk remembers. “And he believed in his heart that, white or not, we would find the truth.” Norfolk eventually came to feel that even if Lincoln did shoot Bob Davis, he did so in self-defense, believing he was under attack by the Brittons. And, further, that he had run from the police because everything in his personal experience and that of his people told him that to surrender was to commit suicide.

The jury deliberated for just under four days. On September 23, 1997, they acquitted Lincoln of capital murder, but they hung up on a lesser charge. There were two holdouts pushing for a manslaughter conviction. “I think they thought somebody had to pay,” says Jane Dymond, another juror. “An officer was killed, and somebody had to pay.”

So, apparently, did District Attorney Massini, who vowed to retry Lincoln for manslaughter. And she was not alone. The press reported that as Bear Lincoln was finally led out of the jail, free on bond until a trial date could be set, a detective with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department lunged at him from the crowd, shouting, “You lie with forked tongue!”

Dymond thinks the cops out there are still angry. “I don’t like to drive by myself at night in the county,” she says. “It makes me nervous.”

But her apprehension didn’t stop her and several other jurors from stepping forward to try to prevent the state from retrying Lincoln. “We felt we couldn’t let it go,” says Dymond. “And frankly, I think we were all concerned about Bear’s safety.” So they circulated petitions and attended a half-dozen court hearings on the issue.

Late last year, even after having lost a reelection bid to a candidate less inclined to retry Lincoln for manslaughter, Susan Massini — by then a lame duck — referred the case to the California attorney general for possible prosecution at the state level.

Ron Norfolk came out of his mountain cabin to speak on Bear’s behalf at forums in places like Berkeley, even though public speaking terrified him. “It’s one of those things where, very seldom, a poor man can ever make a difference,” says Norfolk. “And when you do get a chance to make a difference, then I believe it’s a sin not to try.”

Several of the jurors were nearly as relieved as Lincoln when, on April 23, 1999, more than four years after the shoot-out on Little Valley Road, the state attorney general’s office decided that a manslaughter charge could not be proved, and moved to dismiss.

While the aftershocks from the Good Friday killings are still being measured, there has been a noticeable change in Mendocino County’s political landscape.

Susan Massini readily admits that the loss of her job was, in part, a result of the Lincoln case. But her pursuit of Lincoln was never a vendetta, she insists. The state attorney general’s office, she says, “simply did not believe they could get a conviction in Mendocino County.” She thinks the neutrality of the jury pool was “subconsciously undermined” in favor of Lincoln. “I must credit the defense in this case because they spent a great deal of time basically educating all possible jurors in the county for the year and a half that they delayed the trial.”

But Massini admits there was a problem with some of the evidence and some mysteries that will never be solved, such as Bob Davis’ blood trail. “I don’t understand it,” she says. “We’ve all gone over that a million times, wondering. That whole crime scene was so contaminated that I don’t know that there is any kind of a rational explanation for it.” But Massini can account for Dennis Miller’s changing memory. “It’s not unusual for a traumatized person,” she says.

Along with a new district attorney, Mendocino County also has a new sheriff these days. Distraught over the loss of his friend Bob Davis and the outcome of the trial, Sheriff James Tuso decided not to run for reelection. His successor, Tony Craver, has already opened a dialogue to repair relations with Round Valley reservation Indians.

“At this particular point, I don’t think that anybody here in the Sheriff’s Department harbors any kind of a grudge,” Craver says. “We’ll always remember Bob Davis, always revere his memory, but we’re not out to even the score or to blame the community, or assign blame. It happened. It’s over with. And it’s time to just get on with life.”

For Cyndi Pickett, Acorn Peters’ partner, life has changed forever. “It’s amazing how your world can go from being nearly perfect to being just shattered,” she says. One instant turned her into a grieving widow; after a year of mourning, she became an activist. Pickett has helped organize a support group for victims of police violence, and she now keeps track of police actions in the Round Valley reservation area for the Human Rights Monitoring Project (HRMP).

“It saved me because it gave me something constructive to do with my hate and anger,” she says. “It’s therapeutic.” The data gathered by the HRMP has been used in the class-action civil suit brought against the Sheriff’s Department by some 50 reservation Indians, accusing the department of misuse of power.

“Things have changed because the spotlight got shone here,” says Pickett. “A few people have learned to speak out, and the police know that they’re being watched now,” she says. “But the change is so subtle that it hasn’t really trickled down yet.”

At the same time, Pickett says, she is greatly encouraged by Tony Craver’s election. “If people can just talk to him, that’s the beginning.”

Cora Lee Simmons of Round Valley Indians for Justice sees the beginning too. “We’re being treated by police a little bit better,” she says. “And the elders say that we’ve made history.”

The road to Little Valley is still unpaved and carved with deep ruts. But now, at the crest of the ridge, there is a small clearing with a stone monument, a white cross, and a blizzard of prayer flags tied to branches.

Bear Lincoln has to pass by the spot every day on his way to and from his still-unfinished cabin. When he walks with a visitor he can calmly point out the landmarks on the road.

“It was about right here,” he says, pausing at the place where Acorn Peters died. “I went off the bank right there.” He indicates the sharp embankment across the way. “Davis, he died right there.”

Lincoln wears a straw cowboy hat adorned with feathers, with long black hair falling behind it. He walks with the stiff gait of a samurai. He has a soft voice and a quiet charisma rarely captured in photographs, which sometimes make him look complacent. Tony Serra described him as “the most Buddhistic client” he had ever represented. Lincoln uses his face, and his words, sparingly.

“After Acorn was gunned down,” he says, “it was like the world had come to an end. His world and mine. I believed that I was also gonna die that same night.”

Since his much-publicized surrender and trial, Bear Lincoln has been reborn as something of a cause célèbre in progressive circles. During his incarceration he generated as much passion, if not as much press, as the better-known politicized prisoners Mumia Abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier. Since his release, Lincoln has spoken at rallies for both, and at prisoners-rights forums.

In June 1999, he traveled to a Peltier Defense Committee gathering in Kansas, and suddenly he realized he needed to do something to help get his “brother” out of prison. “I stayed with his family, and I feel a real close connection with his case,” Bear says of the Leavenworth prisoner who got a life sentence for the killing of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge reservation, a charge Peltier denies.

“As soon as I arrived in Kansas, I felt a new energy,” Lincoln says. “A new strength and a new hope.” He signed up as a regional organizer for the cause. He plans to meet with tribal councils all over California to organize a march on Washington, D.C., for Peltier this fall.

It will be the first time Bear Lincoln has used his notoriety in his home territory. Even though his supporters in Round Valley Indians for Justice have pressured him to take a leadership role, Lincoln has kept a low profile on the reservation. Once he actually went into hiding again, when he heard his name mentioned over the police scanner in connection with another shooting. (He resurfaced when the guilty party was arrested.) In many ways, he says, daily life in the area hasn’t changed much. “Things are basically the same,” he says. “Things could blow up again.”

What has changed since Good Friday, 1995, is the way some people on the reservation view their situation. “The people in the valley, they got a real hard education from law enforcement,” says Lincoln. “A lot of people’s eyes were opened to who the enemy was. I think to a small degree it brought some people together, and it made them wiser.

“No one ever expected me to get out of jail,” he says. “So, my trial was a victory not just for me, but especially for Native Americans and minority groups, people who’ve been losing against law enforcement and the government for so long.”

As tribal historian on the Round Valley reservation, Leota Card knows the litany of those losses. She has an office in a building that houses a small lending library. The best books on tribal history have long been lost or stolen, but Card knows the stories of her people by heart.

Card, 59, describes herself as “one of those radical activists” who is always rocking the boat on the reservation. A few years ago, she was part of a group that held a protest at the tribal headquarters. The complaints within the reservation are always the same: nepotism among those in power, money disputes, cultural and class differences.

“We are divided here,” says Card, “but the federal government set it up that way. The tribes were trained to fight with each other. And a little bit of that still continues today. We do the fighting in more subtle ways, but we hurt each other the same.”

Card bristles whenever anyone mentions the word “feud” to describe the strife on the reservation. The situation, she says, is more complex. Most blood is mixed here, although generally people will identify with one tribe. She considers herself a Yuki, but Bear Lincoln, a Wylaki, is her nephew. “My children have the blood of six tribes,” she says.

Like others in Round Valley, Card has seen a subtle change on the reservation since the acquittal. It gave the community something that has been missing since the last of the tribes was forced into this beautiful, cruel valley. Says Card: “It gave a lot of people hope.”


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We have about a $170,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign that ends Saturday. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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