June 4 might have been just another hot day in Albuquerque but for Anita King, it was a day meant to light a fire under a community and someone, anyone who will listen to her plea. The Tiguex Park event drew a small crowd of about sixty supporters who marched with signs in hand through Old Town chanting “justice for Pepita!” Pepita Redhair, a Navajo woman from Crownpoint, NM is still missing. Since March 24, 2020, Anita has searched for her daughter. Pepita was last known to have been visiting her boyfriend in Albuquerque; she was never heard from again. Anita to this day continues to follow up on leads personally, mainly because as she puts it, “APD has done nothing.”
“Yeah, like I said, they failed the investigation and they didn’t do a proper investigation. They didn’t do an interview with the entire family or the boyfriend. And we are still doing the footwork and it seems like the detective and APD is not very helpful at this time, but we are gonna, I’m gonna keep fighting, continue doing my rallies and awareness for her and all the others. And even though I might have to foot search on my own, I’m still gonna do it. I need to have my daughter home,” said King. She was busy packing up after a long day and preparing for the nearly two-hour drive back to Crownpoint.
King’s is not alone in her pain and the constant struggle to find answers. New Mexico has the highest rate of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women cases in the nation. Albuquerque’s rank is among the highest cities. The rally for MMIW Awareness on June 4 brought together mainly families of those missing and murdered and concerned community members. Geraldine Toya is from Jemez Pueblo, just northwest of Albuquerque. She too was in attendance to honor her own daughter, Shawna Toya, who was found deceased in her car just hours after telling her family she was going to make a quick run to the store.
Toya’s need for answers from the Albuquerque Police Department echoes the experiences of King: no help and missed opportunities. Shawna’s family voiced their concerns that APD did not do a thorough investigation. They themselves found more evidence in Shawna’s vehicle than APD ever did, including the wallet of another woman who was never questioned. Her death was ruled an overdose, and her car was released in less than 24 hours to the family, complete with evidence of suspicious activity and possible foul play still inside.
“Yeah, I’ve been going through a lot,” Toya said. “Every time I call to try to get a report from them, they keep saying that the original hasn’t been turned in, they only have the supplement because the original hasn’t been turned in. I won’t be able to retrieve anything according to someone that worked with that same department. They mentioned that there was only like two paragraphs in the report and it wasn’t really nothing and it was in the full report. Unfortunately, them stating that there wasn’t foul play closed up the investigation right away.”
The Tribal Liaison was not available for comment this week. After many calls to an APD representative, a summary police report was received from his office. It reads, in part:
“On August 1, 2021, Shawna Toya was found in her vehicle deceased from apparent natural causes.”
Shawna was 40 years old at the time of her death. The report goes on to say:
“On August 1, 2021 I was conducting random patrol in the area of Phil Chacon Park when I noticed a suspicious vehicle that had been within the parking lot of the park after the park had closed. When I approached the vehicle, I located a female and it appeared that she was unresponsive, not conscious, and not breathing. AFR was called to the scene immediately after and began conducting life saving measures on her. AFR worked on her for roughly 20-30 minutes (sic) but unfortunately was not able to bring her back. A crime scene specialist was called to the scene where she ruled the death not suspicious. The Office of the Medical Investigator went on scene shortly after as well and ruled the death not suspicious. A Coroner picked up the deceased body of Shawna once the investigator completed his investigation. When I initially walked up to the vehicle, there was a car seat in the back. I utilized RTC to find relatives of Shawna in a hope to locate the whereabouts of her child. I called all the numbers provide but no one answered. Officers went to the home that was on Shawna’s drivers license where they located her husband and children. Shawnas (sic) vehicle was secured and was advised by her parents that they were going
to go pick it up the following day. After the keys were handed off to her husband to the vehicle and OMI conducted their investigation, I had no further involvement with this case. My OBRD footage was uploaded to evidence.com and a natural death sheet will be completed within tracs (sic)”
APD Public Information Officer Rebecca Atkins stated, “We do not determine the cause of death and when OMI responded, they determined the death was not suspicious. As this is only the incident report for when she was found, it doesn’t indicate cause of death, but I did see a story done about her recently with her family stating her death was ruled an overdose.”
Hevyn Heckes is the MMIW case contact person for Darlene Gomez Law, who represents the families of the women in this article. She shared that there has not been an official “overdose” designation. She reiterated that the cause of death is determined by OMI. A blood test for substances has been done, there may have been small traces of controlled substances found, but the official cause of death has not changed from “natural causes” at this point.
Jamie Yazzie went to work in late June of 2019 and never came home. She was described as a reliable worker at the local clinic and a loving single mother of three kids. People suspected foul play but the main suspect, her boyfriend, was never questioned. He was witnessed that day driving her car with Jamie in the passenger seat. That car was found on July 5, 2019 abandoned only a mile from her work. Jamie’s remains were found in November of 2021 on the Hopi reservation, not far from her last known whereabouts in Piñon, NM.
Marilene James is Jamie’s aunt and came on June 4 to honor her niece and support King. She also mentioned her frustration and the family’s with the investigation by the FBI and local Navajo Police. “Our frustration lies with the police department and with the FBI and the US Attorney. When we sat down with them, they basically told us, ‘We’re no closer to charging anyone in Jamie’s case, nor will we ever be.’ That’s what they told us. And to me, that was just like, we have nothing for you, so we don’t care. So we’re not gonna go any further.” Their principal investigator retired prior to Jamie’s remains being found and there have been no efforts to inform the family about how the case will proceed or if it even will.
Even just these few cases above reflect the concerns and the struggles Native families across this nation endure in regards to MMIW. It is unnerving to know that the third leading cause of death for young Indigenous women is murder.
It is also upsetting to see an entire nation activated to look for a single white woman in the case of Gabby Petito, the woman who went missing and was found murdered by her boyfriend while on vacation. Why are our sisters not afforded this sort of effort? MMIW cases barely even reach the local news.
APD PIO Atkins said she is working on getting The Paper. the latest update on Pepita Redhair. At present, APD and the Attorney General’s Office are collaborating on 15 MMIW cases.
For the next six months, we will follow up on these stories and also talk to the various stakeholders including families, law enforcement, tribal leaders and community groups.
When asked what message she wanted to give Albuquerque, King simply replied: “you know, please help, you know, spread the awareness and spreading the pictures! Please help to find my daughter, if anybody sees something, say something, please come forward. I really want my daughter home.”
A simple request. Even as adults we are always someone’s child. Imagine your child not coming home; you would search to the ends of the earth. These families do this every day, and their search for answers will continue. For the next six months, we will follow up on these stories and also talk to the various stakeholders including families, law enforcement, tribal leaders and community groups.
**This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Fund for Indigenous Journalists Reporting on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, Two- Spirit and Transgender People (MMIWG2T).