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Rapid City MMIW group offers to help new federal cold case task force
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MMIW federal task force opens in Rapid City

Rapid City MMIW group offers to help new federal cold case task force

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A local group says it wants to help a new Rapid City-based federal cold case unit with the emotional and spiritual needs of relatives of missing and murdered Indigenous people.

“We want to be able to be there to support those families” when law enforcement searches for or finds their loved one, Lily Mendoza, founder of the Red Ribbon Skirt Society, told the Journal on Tuesday.

When investigators find missing people, “we want to be there to send that spirit off in a good way," Mendoza told local, state and federal officials.

Mendoza was one of about 35 people who attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Rapid City for a new federal task force focused on solving cold cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people.

Molanna Clifford and Jeremy Mendez, special agents with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, will work full time to solve these cases by collaborating with other BIA officials, the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office and tribal law enforcement. Clifford was previously assigned to the Pine Ridge Reservation while Mendez most recently worked at the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona.

The Rapid City task force is one of seven that make up Operation Lady Justice Task Force, created by President Trump in a November 2019 executive order. An office in Bloomington, Minnesota, opened last week while others are set to open in Billings, Nashville, Albuquerque, Phoenix and Anchorage. 

The event was attended by the special agents, members of the Red Ribbon Skirt Society, BIA and other federal officials, the U.S. attorney in South Dakota, the top FBI leader in South Dakota, the Pennington County sheriff and the acting Rapid City police chief. Also in attendance were Tribal Relations Secretary David Flute and representatives from the offices of the governor, attorney general, Sen. John Thune and Rep. Dusty Johnson.

Tribal leaders and law enforcement officials were invited but did not attend.

Task force goal

The event began with a prayer by Whitney Rencountre, development coordinator for the Rapid City-based Rural America Initiatives.

Jeannie Hovland, a member of the national Operation Lady Justice Task Force, spoke about the need to prevent factors that make Indigenous people more likely than other groups to go missing or be killed.

“Substance abuse, unstable housing, limited financial resources, historical and modern trauma, and exposure to violence are all contributing factors that put our relatives at a higher risk of going missing, being trafficked or being murdered,” said Hovland, a member of the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe in eastern South Dakota. 

Law enforcement and activists agree that data on missing and murdered Indigenous people is incomplete. But a 2008 study funded by the Department of Justice found that in some counties, Native American women face murder rates more than 10 times the national average.

“We welcome all additional resources designated exclusively to address cold cases involving missing and murdered Native Americans,” said Ron Parsons, the U.S. Attorney for South Dakota. Solving such cases is “one of the most difficult and challenging duties in law enforcement, but it’s also one of the most important.”

“Cooperation, communication, a delineation of responsibilities to prevent overlap, and community support are all critical to the success of this undertaking," said Troy Morley, a prosecutor and the tribal liaison with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Dakota.

Morley, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, said the task force is exciting since the Native Americans have been “historically underserved” by the federal government.

Mendoza, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, told the audience about just one of the dozens of cold cases in South Dakota — Richynda Roubideaux of Mission.

Richynda’s mother Elizabeth tried but failed to get law enforcement to search for her 11-year-old daughter when she went missing in 1997, Mendoza said. She eventually found her daughter, partially clothed, raped and murdered. No arrest has been made.

“Those are the kinds of families that we visit with on a regular basis, those are the kinds of families that we talk with, and help with the process of grieving,” Mendoza said. “Hopefully, that will be a component of this task force down the road.”

Mendoza also criticized Operation Lady Justice for not including local MMIW activists at its Minnesota event along with Ivanka Trump.

“There are many grassroots organizations across the United States that feel they have been left out, and I have to tell the truth because that's what I do. That most recently happened in Minneapolis, they were not invited to participate,” she said.

Mendoza told the Journal that her group can help introduce families who may not trust law enforcement to the task force and then support them throughout the investigation. She also hopes the task force doesn't forget about missing and murdered transgender and Two Spirit people.

Society member Carla Douglas said she hopes the task force doesn’t just focus on deaths that are formally labeled homicides. She said investigators should also focus on deaths with undetermined causes and cases where the family disputes that their loved one died by suicide, exposure or some other reason.

Two BIA investigators previously tried to solve the Roubideaux murder and the case of Ronald Hard Heart and Wilson Black Elk Jr., who were killed between Pine Ridge and White Clay, Nebraska, in 1999, according to Journal archives

Those cold-case investigations began in 2001 at the direction of Robert Ecoffey, who was serving as the top law enforcement official in the BIA at the time and is now police chief of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

The task force does not yet have a formal list of cases it will be working on.

— Contact Arielle Zionts at arielle.zionts@rapidcityjournal.com

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