VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Robert Satiacum, a former Puyallup Indian tribal leader who fled to Canada after being convicted on federal racketeering and embezzlement charges, was granted refugee status Monday by a Canadian immigration appeals board.
The ruling was the latest development in a 3 -year battle by Satiacum to prevent his extradition to Washington state, where he faces a possible sentence of more than 300 years in prison.
'It was a total shock to my system. You go for years and years when everything's been negative and all of a sudden someone says 'yes,'' Satiacum said in a telephone interview from a Canadian jail after the decision.
However, Satiacum likely will remain in jail for the time being. The U.S. Justice Department requested that the provincial government hold Satiacum on an arrest warrant until the U.S. government has time to file an extradition request.
Satiacum, who maintains his innocence and says he fled to Canada because he was being persecuted by the government, said he was sure Monday's ruling would be upheld.
'We do have testimony coming up that will prove what we've been trying to say for the past couple of years,' Satiacum said.
Satiacum, 59, had amassed a fortune as a businessman and tribal leader on the Puyallup Indian Reservation near Tacoma, Wash. He gained national attention in the early 1970s by winning fishing rights for Indians in Washington.
But a flashy lifestyle attracted the attention of federal investigators, and in 1982 he was convicted by a Seattle jury on 47 counts of racketeering and embezzlement. Most of the charges stemmed from accusations that he failed to pay taxes on millions of dollars worth of cigarettes sold on the Puyallup Reservation.
He was also convicted of conspiracy to murder Ramona Bennett, a former girlfriend and business rival.
Just before sentencing, Satiacum fled to Canada. He was captured in Saskatchewan in November 1983.
'I became a target and that was it,' he said. 'I was going to rot in jail, so it was up to me to make up my mind which way I was going to go. At the last minute I decided to come to Canada for protection.'
He applied for political asylum, claiming he did nothing wrong and faced political and racial persecution by the U.S. goverment for his activities on the reservation. In testimony before the Canadian immigration board, he said police in Tacoma had once conspired to assassinate him.
Since his arrest, Satiacum has been imprisoned in Vancouver's Oakalla Jail.