February 5th, 2023

Cold Case Task Force offices for Missing and Murdered American Indians to open nationwide

Picture and future rendering of American Indian woman.

Seven offices are being established across the country to handle cold cases in Indian Country. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center, there are more than 1400 unresolved American Indian and Alaska Native missing person cases in the U.S. Of that, 136 cases are in Minnesota.

To address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women crisis, President Trump signed Executive Order 13898 on November 26, 2019.

The Executive Order established the Operation Lady Justice Task Force, a multi-agency effort co-chaired by Secretary Bernhardt and U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr. Its purpose is to enhance the operation of the criminal justice system and address the staggering number of missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Natives in Tribal communities.

“Cold cases in Indian Country will be addressed with determination and the understanding that the victims in these cases will be accorded some measure of dignity and compassion – not only for them, but for their survivors, as well,” said Tara Sweeney, Assistant Secretary Indian Affairs.

According to a press release from the U.S. Department of Interior, the Cold Case Task Forces are in accordance with the president’s Executive Order and will be staffed with law enforcement personnel and newly-appointed special agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services (BIA-OJS), along with personnel from other Operation Lady Justice Task Force partners including tribal law enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Offices of the U.S. Attorneys.

A way for top federal officials to engage, coordinate and work with tribal governments on developing strategies to address the crisis, the Operation Lady Justice Task Force is working to collect and manage data across jurisdictions; establish protocols for new and unsolved cases; establish multi-jurisdictional cold case teams; improve the response to investigative challenges; and provide clarity on the roles, authorities and jurisdiction for those involved. 

It is also charged with providing a report to the president of its work and accomplishments in meeting the executive order’s mandate.

Since 2019, the Department of the Interior and BIA have undertaken a number of efforts to address the crisis, conducting criminal investigations, stopping illicit drug activity and solving missing and murdered cases, the DOI press release states.

The BIA-OJS and its partners have opened 200 percent more drug cases across Indian Country than in the last year of the Obama Administration, and their tribal law enforcement officers have seized approximately 6,000 pounds of narcotics worth $30 million in the past two years.

“Preventing further violence against American Indians and Alaska Natives is largely predicated on ending illicit drug activities and sex trafficking,” the release states.

The BIA-OJS’s partnership with the Department of Justice’s Missing and Unidentified Persons System, known as NamUs, has led to the development and implementation of new Tribal-affiliation data fields to assist law enforcement with capturing information to track missing and murdered persons in Indian Country.

Since the addition of these new data fields last year, there has been a 60 percent increase in Native-person entries into the system, according to the DOI.

List Cold Case Task Force office openings in the following cities and their opening dates:

• Rapid City, SD (August 4)

• Billings, MT (August 6)

• Nashville, TN (August 12)

• Albuquerque, NM (August 18)

• Phoenix, AZ (August 20)

• Anchorage, AK (August 27)

The exact number of missing and murdered indigenous women is unknown- the lack of data has contributed greatly to this. Last July, the Argus Leader attempted to compile of list of cases of missing and murdered Native American women and girls in South Dakota and found five missing persons cases and 12 homicide cases using databases and newspaper archives.

These were the cases that have yet to be solved or an arrest hasn’t been made:

• Sharon Baldeagle has been missing since September 1984, she was 12 years old when she and a friend were picked up by Royal Russell Long in Casper, Wyoming. Long allegedly drove to his residence in Evansville and held the girls at gunpoint. Baldeagle’s friend managed to free herself and report the abduction to law enforcement but when police arrived at Long’s home, neither he nor Sharon were found. One week later, Long was apprehended in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He claimed he dropped Sharon off in Cheyenne, WY. By early 1985, he was given life in prison after pleading guilty to kidnapping and assault. Long is suspected in the disappearances of Deborah Meyer, Carlene Brown, Cinda Pallett, and Charlotte Kinsey. He died behind bars in 1993.

• Delema Lou Sits Poor has been missing since Feb. 1, 1974, when she was walking on a back road from Oglala to Manderson on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and never arrived at her destination.

• Rapid City resident Donna Marie Larrabee, 16, took a bus to California to visit her father. It’s unknown if she arrived, and she’s never been seen since. She was last heard from on Nov. 17, 1976.

• Monica Bercier Wickre of Aberdeen got in a car with two people she knew and one person she didn’t know after leaving a bar on April 7, 1993. Her body was found in the James River outside of Aberdeen on June 16, 1993.

• Leslie Ironroad was staying with a friend in McLaughlin when she went to a party a few miles away. She was found in the morning locked in a bathroom where men had raped her the night before. She died in a Bismarck, N.D., hospital a week later on Feb. 27, 2003.

• Beverly Ann Ozuna-Ulrich, 42, was last seen at home in Belle Fourche, and she was reported missing on Oct. 17, 2003.

• Victoria Eagleman’s body was found on Aug. 23, 2006 in a remote area of the Lower Brule Reservation. She was last seen alive on July 28 of that year.

• Jessie Renae Waters’ body was found a mile off of U.S. Highway 18 on the Pine Ridge Reservation on April 30, 2015.

• Sherry Ann Wounded Foot of Porcupine was found beaten and unconscious behind a building in Whiteclay, Neb., and died 12 days later on Aug. 17, 2016.

• Rapid City resident Larissa Lonehill, 16, texted her cousin on Oct. 3, 2016 that she was with two male friends, and that was the last time her family heard from her. Detectives believe her body may have been disposed of within a 100-mile radius of Rapid City, but it remains a missing person case.

Cold Case Task Force offices for Missing and Murdered American Indians to open nationwide