New alert system aims to bring home missing Indigenous people

Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law creating the new system. Families of the missing and murdered say it’s a start.

LaVerne Jones brought a ribbon shirt with a photo of her son, Kyle, attached to the front to watch Gov. Jay Inslee sign legislation aimed at addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people.

Inslee inked House Bill 1725 alongside Indigenous leaders and state lawmakers March 31 at the Tulalip Resort Casino. The law creates a missing Indigenous persons alert system. When activated, an alert will broadcast information about a missing Indigenous person on highway message signs and distribute details to law enforcement agencies. It will be similar to “silver” alerts issued for missing vulnerable adults.

This is among the first reforms to come from Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People task force. It “certainly will not be our last,” Ferguson said.

“Getting the word out there early, where people might notice where that person is before something happens that’s really bad, is really important,” Tulalip Tribes Chairwoman Teri Gobin told The Daily Herald. “Just having all eyes out there and looking … to try to bring our people home alive and unharmed before they’re murdered or trafficked.”

Jones said it’s a step in the right direction.

The Urban Indian Health Insitiute in 2018 identified 506 missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls across 71 cities. Of those, 71 were in the state of Washington. Seattle had the highest number: 45.

There are 114 active missing person cases involving Indigenous people in Washington, according to the latest Washington State Patrol list.

On the Tulalip reservation, many people have known or know someone who has a missing or murdered family member.

“It brings me back to when I was young, when there were very suspicious deaths,” Gobin said.

Thanks to the work of advocates like Roxanne White of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People & Families, there’s more awareness now than ever, Jones said. But there’s not enough money or resources to begin to uncover the reasons why Indigenous people are murdered or disappear at disproportionate rates, or to begin bringing family members home.

State Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Anacortes, the only Native American woman serving in the Legislature, sponsored the groundbreaking bill.

“What was really important,” Lekanoff said, “was to really bring an understanding that the crisis and the atrocities of what was happening with Native American women was not just an Indian issue.”

She said she ran on a platform that tribal, state and federal government officials need to work together on all issues — that collaboration is going to help pave the path forward.

“Our sisters, our aunties, our grandmothers are going missing every day,” Lekanoff said. “As my good mentor, my auntie Patsy Lightfoot, tells us, it’s been going on way too long.”

Kyle’s story

Kyle Jones-Tran died in Marysville on April 3, 2018. He was 22.

“None of the agencies contacted family,” Jones said. “They contacted Tulalip tribal police. … To them, I feel like, he was just another Indian that died.”

Before Jones-Tran’s death, his mother, a domestic violence survivor, said she recognized signs of abuse in her son.

After an argument that began March 31, 2018, Jones-Tran was kicked out of the apartment where he lived with his girlfriend of one year. He moved his stuff into his uncle’s home.

A few days later, he went back to the apartment. His girlfriend told police he became upset and died by suicide, according to the report.

Jones-Tran, who had “family is forever” tattooed on his right forearm, did not leave a note.

His family does not believe it was suicide.

The Tulalip Tribes Board of Directors is looking at what they can do to ensure “the investigation was done properly and thoroughly,” Gobin said.

“If they don’t do the proper investigation to make sure that it wasn’t foul play,” she said, “people get away with murder.”

Mary’s story

Mary Ellen Johnson-Davis (FBI)

Mary Ellen Johnson-Davis (FBI)

Tulalip tribal member Mary Ellen Johnson-Davis has been missing for nearly 17 months.

On Nov. 24, 2020, she got a ride to the Tulalip Tribal Court. Then 39, Johnson-Davis had hoped to get legal advice about filing for divorce.

A friend was supposed to pick her up and drive her to stay with a family near Oso the next day. Her last text, around 2 p.m. Nov. 25, alerted him she was “almost to the church” on 140th Street NW, also known as Fire Trail Road. But he didn’t hear from her again. Her cellphone later connected to towers around north Snohomish County.

Two weeks later, her estranged husband, Eric Johnson, reported her missing. He then left the state, Johnson-Davis’ sisters Gerry Davis and Nona Blouin told The Herald in December.

After the Tulalip Tribes Police Criminal Investigations Unit received the case, they searched Johnson-Davis’ last known location, the nearby wooded areas and walking trails, and spoke with people close to her, Tulalip Police Chief Chris Sutter said in a statement. The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have been working in partnership with tribal police in the search.

In December, Johnson-Davis’ sisters organized a gathering to pray, share songs and spread awareness about their missing sister.

The sisters then said they have felt mostly alone in their search. But White, who is serving as the sisters’ advocate, has connected them with legal help and spent many days sharing the word about the missing Tulalip tribal member.

Tips regarding Johnson-Davis can be directed to the dedicated tipline: 360-716-5918. The case number is #20-3063.

William and Cole

Terry Fast Horse, a Tulalip resident of Lummi and Lakota descent, said the disparities in concern for missing and murdered Indigenous people became blatant when Native American brothers William, 10, and Cole Neer, 11, were molested and murdered on Sept. 4, 1989.

Fast Horse and the boys’ father, Clair Neer, set out to find the boys after they failed to show up for dinner. They had been gone since the afternoon. They said they planned to go to a nearby golf range to pick up balls outside the fence.

William’s body was found in a ditch by a passerby that evening. His brother was found hours later off a nearby trail.

When their killer, Westley Allan Dodd, abducted, raped and murdered 4-year-old Lee Iseli of Portland almost two months later, “the world erupted in panic,” Fast Horse said.

“You can send out every legal agency in the world looking for a white kid, but you can’t send one out for an Indian,” he said.

Fast Horse’s son was 17 when he went missing. Had there been a missing persons alert for his son then, he may have been found much sooner.

“I got my son back, wounded, different,” Fast Horse said. “San Juan, Texas — that’s where we picked him up.”

The new alert system might not end all, he said. “But it should help because Amber alerts sure help, don’t they?”

Kyle Jones-Tran (Family photo)

Kyle Jones-Tran (Family photo)