The family of a pair of cousins who went missing near Manderson more than a month ago are struggling with not knowing what happened to their loved ones and are hoping they will be found soon.
"Oh my God, we're losing it. I cry every day," said Willene Kills Enemy, mother of Robert "RJ" Kills Enemy Jr. and aunt of Vincent "Stevie" Little Dog.
"We're not going to give up the search. We're going to continue the search until those boys come home," said their uncle Garfield Steele.
RJ and Stevie were last seen around 11 p.m. on Dec. 27 north of Manderson after a police officer pulled up to them and a third person, said Robert Ecoffey, chief of the Oglala Sioux Tribe's Department of Public Safety (OST-DPS). The group took off running and the officer chased after them but eventually had to return for other calls for service. And while the third person made it to safety, RJ and Stevie have yet to be found despite widespread searches on foot and with dogs, horses, drones, ATVs, helicopters and planes across a 3,508-acre area.
"We're finding clothing but we're not finding them," said Steele, Willene's brother and a former council member.
Both Steele and Willene say searchers have found RJ's hat and jacket (with his video game inside of the pocket) and Stevie's sweater and one of his shoes spread out across different locations. Photos of a jacket and hat sent to the Journal appear to match ones worn by RJ. Steele said searchers also found a plastic window cover with blood on it.
Ecoffey confirmed that clothing items have been found in the area and that some items look like RJ's clothing. He said the clothing has been sent for forensic testing to see if they belong to the cousins. Ecoffey said he couldn't confirm whether or not the item with blood on it was found.
"Nothing indicates any foul play," he said.
Ecoffey said officers have interviewed the cousins' family, the man they were walking with, and the people they were hanging out with before they started to walk towards Manderson.
"The investigation leads have not turned up any evidence that these young men are in neighboring counties, cities or states which has turned our search operations into recovery operations, although we always hold out hope," according to a news release provided by Ecoffey.
But both Steele and Willene are afraid someone hurt the cousins.
"We're starting to believe there was foul play," Steele said.
RJ, 23, and Stevie, 25, "are really close with each other," Steele said.
He described Stevie, who lives eight miles north of Manderson, as a "really quiet kid" who likes to play basketball. He and his twin brother were raised by their grandmother after losing their parents.
RJ, who lives in Manderson, recently started a new job at a packing plant in Gordon, Nebraska, Steele said. He is a "loving father" who helps support his two-year-old-son.
"They're both good kids," Willene said of her son and nephew.
Willene said the cousins are helpful to their families and greater community by cooking food for funerals, powwows and other events. And RJ brings water and food to his girlfriend and their son, who live with her parents in a home without running water. They also both enjoy participating in sweat lodges and other Lakota ceremonies.
Willene said she tries not to cry in front of her other children and grandchildren but it's hard since this is the fourth missing-person case in their family.
"It's the fourth time and it's taking a toll on our entire family, especially my mother," Willene said.
Willene said her brother-in-law Richard Kills Enemy went missing in 2012 but was found thanks to a law enforcement search. But she says there was no formal search effort when her brother John Wayne Apple and brother-in-law David Kills Enemy went missing in 2006 and 2007, respectively, and they were found murdered.
The cousins and Stevie's twin had been hanging out where Stevie lives the day they went missing, Willene said. She said a group of other people who didn't get along with the cousins stopped by the house and the cousins later started walking their familiar route to RJ's house. The third person walking with them was a another one of their cousins, Steele said.
Willene said she's afraid the group was attacked by the people who stopped by the house.
"It's starting to settle in with me that they're never going to come home" because if they were alive they would have called their family, Steele said. "It just doesn't make sense to me" why the clothing was found scattered around and why they wouldn't have ran back to a home in the area.
The cousins went missing the night of a storm that brought heavy snow, high winds and freezing temperatures, the news release says.
As soon as the storm ended, OST-DPS, OST Emergency Management and the Oglala Lakota County Sheriff's Office organized a search along nearby roads and in nearby outbuildings, abandoned structures and vehicles.
A command center was then set up at the St. Agnes Church in Manderson for daily searches conducted with the help of family members, OST agencies and districts, companies, community groups, volunteers and other tribes and first responder agencies.
Those involved in the search included Pennington County Search and Rescue, multiple horseback riding groups, the South Dakota Highway Patrol and Black Hills Life Flight which flew its aircraft over the area, and the Rosebud, Cheyenne River, Yankton and Flandreau tribes who provided drones. Other groups and people provided hot meals, water, Gatorade, fuel, port-a-potties and logistical support for the searchers.
These large-scale searches for the cousins have been suspended until warmer weather melts away a frozen creek, marshes and deep snow drifts, the news release says.
"It is impossible to declare these areas cleared" since we can't access them, the release says.
But OST-DPS will continue to search specific areas of interests, search by drone, and investigate any tips that come in.
Willene and Steele say they're thankful for all of the volunteers.
"It means a lot because I just keep thinking about my baby," Willene said.
"I just want people to know that we appreciate the prayers," Steele added.
RJ weighs 110 pounds, is 5 feet, 6 inches tall, and was last seen wearing Nike shoes, a black jacket with brown sleeves and a blue camouflage jacket. Stevie weighs 125 pounds, is 5 feet, 5 inches tall, and was last seen wearing pants and a sweater in unknown colors.
The Oglala Sioux Tribe is offering a $25,000 reward to anyone who finds the missing men or shares information that leads to their location. Anyone who finds them or has information about their disappearance should call 911. People or groups interested in volunteering in future search efforts should call or leave a message with Emergency Management at 605-867-5011.
— Contact Arielle Zionts at firstname.lastname@example.org.