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Thelma Rios

Thelma Rios, longtime Lakota advocate who was recently convicted of being an accessory in the Annie Mae Aquash murder case, died Wednesday in Rapid City of complications from lung cancer.

Randy Connelly represented Rios, 65, when she pleaded guilty in November to being an accessory in the kidnapping of Aquash, an American Indian Movement activist murdered in 1975. The Rapid City criminal defense attorney has known Rios since the 1970s and called her death a "sad day" for the Lakota people on whose behalf Rios often worked.

"She was a warrior. There was no greater warrior for her people and her fellow man than Thelma. She assisted her people in many, many ways," Connelly said Thursday.

Rios died at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday of complications from lung cancer at Rapid City Regional Hospital, according to a family member. She was in poor health late last year when she avoided a trial on murder charges in the Aquash case by agreeing to a plea bargain that acknowledged her role in the events leading up to Aquash's death. In an agreement between prosecutors and defense attorneys, she was sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison, most of which was suspended. She spent 90 days in the Pennington County Jail following her arrest in September 2009.

South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley extended his condolences on Thursday to the Rios family and said he didn't expect her death to affect any possible future charges in the Aquash case.

"While I do not condone the criminal venture that kidnapped and executed a young mother, it is important to recognize Ms. Rios' acceptance of responsibility for her involvement and her willingness through the plea agreement to provide assistance to authorities," he said in an e-mail to the Journal. "The prosecution has overcome many evidentiary challenges stemming from this 35-year murder case, and while this certainly may give rise to future evidentiary issues, I do not anticipate it will have an overall effect on holding those involved in this brutal murder responsible for their actions."

Spearfish attorney Matt Kinney said Rios was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after he negotiated her plea agreement, which was sealed by the judge at the request of both prosecutors and defense attorneys.

"I think it was fortunate that we were able to spare her from a trial," Kinney said.

Kinney assumes that there are ongoing state or federal investigations of other suspects in the Aquash case, but neither he nor Connelly expect that Rios's testimony will play a role in further prosecutions.

"All along I never felt that Thelma's role in the Aquash case was very extensive. I don't believe she knew very much. I thought the government's case against her was very thin," Kinney said.

Now that Rios is deceased, it remains to be resolved if any of her statements in the case would be admissible in court, Kinney said.

Connelly said Rios' conviction in the case cast an unfair shadow over her life, which he described as "filled with character and integrity."

"It puts an improper and unfortunate punctuation to the end of her life. It truly, truly does," he said. "Her involvement, I've always believed, was totally unwitting in a sense."

Ryan White Feather, a close friend and distant relative of Rios's, said she was well-known as a Native American advocate.

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"Thelma had done a lot of great things in Rapid City long before AIM came here," White Feather said.

Connelly doubts that Rios knew how little time she had left to live when she agreed to the plea.

"She hadn't been diagnosed but knew she was having problems and was aware her health was failing," Connelly said. "Whether the stress of the charges exacerbated or aggravated the cancer, I wouldn't know. But I know it was very hard on her."

"Her desire was to spend what time she had with her family. I don't think she did know how little time that was."

An all night wake for Rios will begin at 5 p.m. Friday at the Mother Butler Center in Rapid City with a service at 7 p.m.

The funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Edstrom & Rooks Funeral Service at Serenity Springs, Chapel of Tranquility with Rev. Brad Abelseth officiating. Interment will be in Pine Lawn Memorial Park in Rapid City.

Contact Mary Garrigan at 394-8424 or mary.garrigan@rapidcityjournal.com

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