Missing, murdered cases are faced with questions of jurisdiction


She was covered in a pink blanket when she took her last breaths.

By the time the body of 29-year-old Tasha Lewis, who had been reported missing three days earlier, was found, it was too late.

Shiprock’s Sylvia Clifford puts her hand on a mural depicting missing and murdered indigenous women in Phoenix last Thursday. Clifford said her daughter Crystal de Antone’s body was found in 2012.

Lewis’ body was found in a “prone position” with “no pulse”, according to an April 1 police report by a Crownpoint Police District officer.

According to police reports, Lewis was reported missing on March 28th. The day before she was found, Navajo police were looking for Lewis with her family, including her older sister, Angie Peshlakai, who is from Fort Defiance.

Police concluded that Lewis’ death was accidental and determined that she allegedly fell from the top of a mesas in Thoreau.

Peshlakai said it couldn’t be accidental because on March 27, the day before Lewis was reported missing, neighbors heard “screaming and screaming in the mesa area.”

Lewis’ body was found under a tree that had no broken branches, which, for Peshlakai, was another indication that it couldn’t have been accidental.

The report also said that Peshlakai told police that witnesses said Lewis’ friend allegedly drove their car to Dalton Pass, which is about 39 miles northwest of Thoreau.

The boyfriend and relative of Lewis, according to the police report, then drove back to Thoreau to look for Lewis, where she allegedly got out of her car and “walked away after an argument with her boyfriend.”

Lewis’ case has been turned over to the Navajo Criminal Investigation Department. The FBI was called and concluded that the death of the housekeeper at Rehoboth-McKinley Christian Hospital was accidental.

“My sister is the kind of girl my mother calls every day,” said Peshlakai. “No matter what, she calls my mother, my father. You know, even she’s one of those visits, you know, when there’s no call. “

Convinced death not accidental

Peshlakai said her mother, identified as Veronica Begay on the police report, said it wasn’t like Tasha didn’t call her or her father. So she went to her work to check if she was there. She was not.

Peshlakai believes that her sister’s death was no accident and that the police must continue investigating her case because of all the suspicious circumstances surrounding her disappearance.
To date, Peshlakai said she wasn’t sure what happened because a criminal investigation and the FBI tell her the other law enforcement agency has her case.

Lewis was retired on April 9th. Her family said they would attend National Awareness Day for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls, held across the country on Wednesday.

The FBI works for local, state, federal, and tribal officials, according to Jill McCabe, a public affairs specialist with the FBI’s Phoenix Field Office.

“The FBI has investigative responsibility for federal crimes committed on approximately 200 Indian reservations nationwide,” Agent McCabe wrote in an email. “We share our federal jurisdiction with the Office of Justice Services of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”

Federal agencies, including the FBI, handle serious crimes such as murder, child sexual and physical abuse, assault, kidnapping, drug offenses, public corruption and financial crimes, McCabe explained.

McCabe sent three current cases that the FBI is still investigating: Jamie L. Yazzie of Pinon, Arizona, last seen on June 30, 2019; Caldwell D. Smith of Shonto, Arizona, who was murdered September 15, 2013; and Matthew and Philip Reagan, the Cleveland brothers who were murdered on March 21, 2020.

“The FBI is committed to fulfilling our mandate to investigate the most serious crimes in the Indian country,” she wrote.

Arizona State Representative Jennifer Jermaine, a member of the White Earth Ojibwe Tribe, understands all too well what families experience when a loved one is missing.

She said her family lost a loved one and took “decades” to find “his or her body”.

Study committee established

Jermaine co-sponsored House Bill 2570 with Rep. Victoria Steele, which established a 21-person study committee on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey signed the bill in August 2019.

“We have come a long way in the last two years,” said Jermaine.

“We have a bill that is in the final stages of state law to completely reform the way Arizona reports and tracks missing children,” she said.

Jermaine said the reform would make it easier for tribes to get in touch with the state of Arizona and require all missing children to go into federal databases.

“When people cross jurisdiction lines, other law enforcement agencies can help them with missing children, which we found a major problem on our study committee,” she said.

The problem, Jermaine explained, was tribes who did not have access to government databases. She also said that jurisdiction was another issue that the study committee highlighted.

“We can do a lot by creating a collaborative task force, a multi-agency task force,” said Jermaine.

Valaura Imus-Nahsonhoya of Honwungsi Consulting and Paula Flores of the Salt River Pima Maricopa Community Family Council told the committee that there is a difference in the way tribal and federal authorities have responded to crime in the Indian country.

Imus-Nahsonhoya and Flores said if a crime is committed in the Indian land, tribal, state, BIA and county law enforcement agencies would respond first.

If the crime was a serious crime, as McCabe pointed out, the FBI would respond too.

Versatile problem

According to a November 2020 study by LeCroy & Milligan Associates Inc. of Tucson in collaboration with the Arizona Attorney General, the handling of missing and murdered cases in the Indian country is a “complex, multi-faceted problem that necessarily involves multiple jurisdictions. “

Through the study, the Arizona MMIP Study Committee assessed the jurisdiction problem. They identified problems that led to colds, missed opportunities to act quickly and save people, and systemic problems with accessing victim services.

Jermaine said the Salt River Pima-Maricopa had a group called the East Valley Crisis Response Team, led by Salt River Pima-Maricopa Police Department chief Karl Auerbach, which had a good success rate in finding missing people.

“We have a model that we can work on to build the multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional task forces so we can really focus on finding our missing people before the worst happens,” said Jermaine.

For Peshlakai, who has asked the Crownpoint Navajo Police District, Navajo Criminal Investigations, and the FBI to investigate further into her sister’s death, she hopes this won’t turn out to be another statistic.

For the past three years, Lorena Halwood, General Manager of Amá Dóó Á? Chíní Bíghan Inc. that the Chinle-based nonprofit handled 814 domestic, verbal and sexual abuse cases from 2018 to 2020.

Nationally, the Arizona Missing Murdered Tribal Peoples Study Committee stated in its 514-page report that more than 4 in 5 Native American and Alaskan women, or 84%, have experienced violence in their lifetime.

In total, more than 1.5 million Alaskan Native American and native women have experienced violence in their lifetime. More than one in three experienced violence in the past year.

Roxanne Pergeson, director of victim services at the Navajo County Prosecutor’s Office in Holbrook, said her office had handled a total of 673 domestic-related issues in Navajo County alone in the past two years.

Prevention is the key

Halwood said fighting MMIW is not just about tackling the criminal aspect, it’s also about how to prevent it in the first place.

“How do we stop the abuse? It does this through prevention for these young children, ”Halwood said. “I know there was a prevention program called GREAT (Gang Resistance Education and Training) or DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education).

“I know the police used to go to schools,” she said. “And that was so great. Now all of these things are gone. “

She wasn’t sure why the Navajo Nation programs were going away, but assumed funding was a factor.

She added that instructors from the Navajo Nation Police Academy brought police cadets to her office where they were asked how they would deal with a domestic violence situation.

“And we would ask the cadet, ‘What would you do if this happened?'” Halwood said.

She was concerned about how experienced police officers downplayed domestic violence calls to inexperienced police officers.

She said she would ask how a cadet would deal with a senior cop downplaying a domestic abuse call.

“When they get a call, a training officer might say, ‘Oh, it’s the same family again. It’s the same couple again. You may go to this family every week. ‘How will you deal with it as a new cop? “Said Halwood.

On May 4, President Joe Biden issued a proclamation in which the federal government’s failure to allocate the necessary resources “has degraded the dignity and humanity of any person who is missing or murdered”.

“Today thousands of unresolved cases of missing and murdered Native Americans cry out for justice and healing,” said Biden.

Anyone with information that could lead to the arrest of the person or persons related to Jamie L. Yazzie of Pinon, Caldwell D. Smith of Shonto, and Matthew and Philip Reagan of Cleveland, Ohio, can tip the FBI enter Phoenix Field Office at 623-466-1999 or tips.fbi.gov.

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