Missing and Murdered: Confronting the Silent Crisis in Indian Country, Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Oversight Hearing

On December 12, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (SCIA) held its last Congressional oversight hearing of 2018 to hear testimony from multiple federal agencies on how they are working to better handle cases of missing and murdered individuals. The Committee also heard testimony from Indian tribes and family members of missing Native women concerning the need for reforms to address the barriers to justice for MMIW.

Understanding the crisis of the disappeared is a national political issue requiring Congressional action however as stated by SCIA Chairman Hoven, “it is less clear who has responsibility for investigating cases of missing indigenous individuals. This lack of clarity has left tribes and families unsure of who to call for help and has contributed to our lack of knowledge of the scope of the problem. Families want justice and closure and tribal leaders want answers and support.” Chairman Hoven ending his opening remarks stating, “It is past time that we understand the scope of the problem and work towards viable solutions.”

The non-federal witnesses who provided testimony during the hearing included Kimberly Loring Heavy Runner the sister of Ashley Loring Heavy Runner, Patricia Alexander the Co-chair of the Violence Against Women Task Force of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty. Watch the full SCIA hearing at https://goo.gl/ZwUTBf.

Kimberly Loring Heavy Runner
Sister of Ashley Loring Heavy Runner

My name is Kimberly Loring Heavy Runner, and I am here today to share my sister Ashley Loring Heavy Runner’s story, and to shed light on the mistreatment of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women cases handled by multiple levels of Law Enforcement in Montana, and across the United States.

Ashley’s Story
Ashley Loring Heavy Runner is a 22-year-old Blackfeet woman that went missing June 12, 2017, on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, at the age of 20, over one and half years ago. Ashley’s life is valued and cannot be explained in the five minutes that I am being allowed. Please forgive me if I go slightly over the requested time frame.

Failure of Law Enforcement
The first information in regard to Ashley’s disappearance was received on June 25, 2017, stating that Ashley was running from a male’s vehicle on US Highway 89, alongside the Rocky Mountain Front on the Blackfeet reservation. In the beginning stages of the investigation, a sweater was found on the Blackfeet Reservation on June 28, 2017, and placed into evidence with Blackfeet Tribal Law Enforcement (BLES). The sweater was identified by an eye-witness stating that Ashley was wearing the exact same sweater when she went missing. When the sweater, which was stained with ‘red spots’ and holes was turned over by Blackfeet Law Enforcement (BLES) to the BIA, the agent stated multiple times that he sent the sweater to the crime lab, when we questioned the results of the testing of the sweater he then changed the story and said he couldn’t send it out due to testing reasons after eight (8) months of being in evidence with the BIA. We later found out the sweater has never been sent and is still currently sitting in BIA evidence.

The Blackfeet Law Enforcement (BLES) informed us they did a search on the location where the sweater was found on July 28, 2017. We searched that location for two weeks after the sweater was found and never saw either agency BLES or BIA during our searches. We later spoke with a BLES officer that was working on Ashley’s case and she had no recollection of a search ever being conducted in that location. We were then told BLES was no longer taking any tips concerning Ashley’s case and we were instructed to contact the BIA agent assigned to our area in Montana. Several attempts have been made by the family with no response from the BIA agent to date. During the course of the investigation with the BLES we became aware that a Blackfeet law enforcement officer working on Ashley’s case was having relations with and giving information to a prime suspect.

For over the course of nine (9) months that the BIA has taken over the case most leads, and information given to BIA have not been followed up on, nor documented. Blackfeet Tribal Law Enforcement as well as the Bureau of Indian Affairs have not taken Ashley’s case seriously.
After two months of being reported missing the BIA Agent responded to our calls by stating “Ashley is of age and can leave whenever she wants to.” Despite the fact that all the leads coming in were stating that Ashley was in danger or was hurt and placed in the mountains. From the very beginning, both the BLES and the BIA have ignored the dire situation that Ashley is in and have allowed this investigation to be handled in a dysfunctional manner. This isn’t just a reality for our family but a reality for many MMIW families. We all share the same experience when working with law enforcement.

Closing
In closing, think of how each of you would feel if the response you are given about your wife, sister, daughters missing persons case was “she is of age and can leave when she wants to.” Ashley is loved and cherished. I will continue to search for my sister. I am asking you to recognize that Indigenous women matter, and the way our missing and murdered women cases are handled needs to be corrected.

We are going missing. We are being murdered. We are not being taken seriously. I am here to stress to you we are important, and we are loved, and we are missed. We will no longer be the invisible people in the United States of America, we have worth.

 

Patricia Alexander, Co-chair of the Violence Against Women Task Force of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.

“Tlingit & Haida is all too familiar with the corrosive effect that this violence against our women and children has had on our communities. It has been more than a year since the unsolved death of 19-year- old Jade Williams of Kake and nearly a year since the unsolved death of 37-year-old Francile Turpin of Klawock. The alleged murder of Judylee Guthrie, 28 of Klawock, Alaska, has yet to be prosecuted nearly two and a half years later. Earlier this year, Tlingit & Haida held a memorial in solidarity with our northern relatives after ten-year-old Ashley Johnson Barr of Kotzebue was found dead, sexually assaulted and strangled, after being missing for days. Fortunately, the perpetrator is being held accountable for this heinous crime.

Because we believe the future of Indian Country rests in the secure status of women living in environments that are free of violence, Tlingit & Haida has committed its resources and staff to working towards bringing an end to these threats to our women and children. At our 2018 annual Tribal Assembly, Tlingit & Haida passed resolution TA18-27 calling for the increased investigation of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and asking the Department of Justice to report on their steps to reduce the disproportionate numbers of victims who are Native women.”

Read Patricia Alexander’s full testimony to the SCIA at https://goo.gl/3PfkzE.

 

Amber Kanazbah Crotty
Navajo Nation Council Delegate

“Provided below are only a couple incidents of missing and murdered enrolled members of the Navajo Nation. Although the ages of each individual, geographical location, and date the persons were reported missing vastly differs in each case. The significant shortcomings in each case remains the same: law enforcements’ delayed response and jurisdictional complications.

11-year-old Ashlynne Mike, was kidnapped with her 9-year-old brother in Shiprock, New Mexico in May 2016. After a couple found Ashlynne’s 9-year-old brother scared and walking on the side of the road, he was taken to the Navajo Nation Police Department in Shiprock where they proceeded to coordinate with local law enforcement. Hours later, when the Farmington Police Department was notified of the missing child, it was clear no information had been shared. Eight hours after Ashlynne went missing, an AMBER Alert mass notification was finally issued at 2:30 A.M.

26-year-old Amber Webster, a married mother-of-three, was murdered in Florence, Kentucky on December 2018. Amber was employed as a construction worker that had traveled out of state to provide income to her family on the Navajo Nation. 32-year-old Jesse James brutally stabbed her to death while staying at the same hotel as her. The two had no prior interactions with one another prior to the incident.

26-year-old Katczinzki Ariel Begay, went missing in July 2017 on the eastern edge of the Navajo Nation reservation in Arizona. Ariel was picked up from her residence by her boyfriend and never came back home. Efforts were been made by law enforcement and a search ensued on the Navajo Nation, New Mexico, and Arizona. However, sadly, her remains were found in October 2017 in Querino Canyon, Arizona. Her case remains unsolved today.

23-year-old Ryan Shey Hoskie, 42-year-old Teri Benally, and 32-year old Fredrick Watson, were three transgender Navajo Nation members who were found beaten to death in Albuquerque, New Mexico in January 2005, July 2009, and June 2009 respectively. All three victims’ bodies were found in the Southeastern-side town within a block of one another laying in the street or allies. The details of each of their deaths remain unknown and no suspects were detained for their slayings.

63-year-old Marena Holiday, mother of three and grandmother, was murdered in Comb Ridge, Utah on December 2015. Marena was killed within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation after she was beaten then shot in the head by a neighbor. In disposing of the body, the perpetrator tied a rope around Holiday’s ankles to the back of his truck and dragged her body to hide under a tree. She was found the next day and the perpetrator was later indicted by a federal grand jury for first-degree murder and sentenced to just 22 years in prison.

Jurisdictional Complexities. Complications in determining criminal jurisdiction on tribal land is a primary issue in determining who has legal authority between tribal police, state law enforcement, and federal agents. Ashlynne Mike’s case is a primary example of jurisdictional complications and a delayed response time in rendering an AMBER Alert for a missing persons’ notification through tribal-state-federal responses. Additionally, in cases where due to the Nation’s expansive geographical distances across three separate states and limited police force, it takes Navajo law enforcement hours to respond to criminal activity because it can exceed the capacity and resources of current law enforcement. This includes a vital problem of the Navajo Nation to facilitate active relationships with law enforcement between federal, state, local municipalities to effectively share information exists as a persistent issue. Currently, there is no mode of communication that exists between the Nation and law enforcement outside of the reservation boundaries, which leads to a continued loss of lives by way of jurisdictional miscommunication.

These same jurisdictional complications result in law enforcement officials at the local and state level to not enforce restraining or protection orders issued through the Nation’s courts as valid orders of protection outside the boundaries of the reservation. These circumstances leave victims feeling ignored and with the false impression that the police and court system do not care about them, as well as contributes to the now prevailing culture of impunity among criminal offenders. The establishment of a State-Tribal Intergovernmental Task Force and/or Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) for cross- jurisdictional coordination is vital to reduce wasted time and communication amongst law enforcement.”

Read Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty full testimony to the SCIA at https://goo.gl/Zmbkpi.