Cold case units to focus on missing, murdered Indigenous women in U.S.

Ida Rose Jacomet, 37, was last seen Oct. 2, 1975, at the Circle M Bar on an old highway near Fairbanks, Alaska. The only clue left behind was that her purse was found in the parking lot. If she is alive today, she would be 82.

Valerie Sifsof disappeared from a campground about 105 kilometres southeast of Anchorage, last seen by her boyfriend about midnight on July 7, 2012. Search teams tried in vain but never found Sifsof or her body. She would be 51 years old, if she’s alive.

In the village of Fort Yukon, located just above the Arctic Circle about 644 kilometres north of Anchorage, 62-year-old Lorraine Juanita Ginnis was spotted walking near her home Oct. 4, 2018. She hasn’t been seen since.

These women are among the hundreds of Alaska Native or American Indian women who have gone missing over the years, and in many instances, their cases have gone cold.

Now the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services is opening seven Operation Lady Justice Task Force cold case offices across the country to concentrate on the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Tara Sweeney, the Department of Interior’s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs and an Inupiat from Utqiagvik, the nation’s northernmost community and formerly known as Barrow, opened the Anchorage office Wednesday.

“I think as an Alaska Native woman, it’s extremely humbling to be able to work on an initiative that has impacted our community at levels beyond, I would say, the national level,” Sweeney said.

I’m just going to put it in very simple terms: Justice for victims and resolution and closure for families.– Tara Sweeney, Department of Interior assistant secretary for Indian Affairs

Cases for investigators will be pulled the FBI’s National Crime Information Center. In late July, when the first cold case office opened in Bloomington, Minnesota, the database indicated there were more than 1,500 unsolved cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women.

Alaska has about 300 cases. “That number leads the nation, sadly,” Sweeney said. Alaska also is among the states with the highest rates of violence against women.

Sweeney said she recently went through the database and could identify by last names alone where in Alaska they came from or family members that she personally knows.

“And I’m one person, and there are so many Alaska Natives that are impacted because of this epidemic,” she said.

She was very direct when asked what success for this initiative would look like.

“I’m just going to put it in very simple terms: Justice for victims and resolution and closure for families,” she said.

Cold case team created by Trump’s executive order

The cold case teams stem from the Operation Lady Justice Task Force, which was created by an executive order from President Donald Trump in November.

It is a multi-agency effort led by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and U.S. Attorney General William Barr.

There will be a special agent in charge of the Anchorage office and investigators. But it will require co-operation at every level.

“It’s a a multi-disciplinary team, which is going to include folks from all the different law enforcement agencies, our partners at FBI, the U.S. attorney’s office, as well as their state and local partners,” said Charles Addington, the deputy director for Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services.

He added that personnel from social services agencies and tribal governments, people who “can be a help to bring these cases to bear,” will also be included.

Sweeney said the duties for the cold case officers will be to gather intelligence on missing and murdered cases, prioritize those cases for assignment to investigative teams, and develop plans to help guide investigators. This will include identifying outside resources, including social services, which could provide meaningful input and coordinating that with investigators.

“It’s important to manage expectations because the need is so great,” she said.

Tara Sweeney, the Department of Interior’s assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, speaks Wednesday during the opening of a Lady Justice Task Force cold case office in Anchorage, which becomes the sixth such office to open in the U.S., with the seventh and final office to open later in Nashville. (Mark Thiessen/AP)

Greg Razo with the Alaska Native Justice Center said at a news conference announcing the opening of the cold case office that historically, the federal justice presence in Alaska has been intermittent and inconsistent, and the state of Alaska has failed to meet the challenge of public safety.

He asked federal agencies to look at new and innovative ways to bring public safety services to Alaska, and to pay particular attention to both prevention and intervention in cases of missing and murdered Native persons.

“Opening this office is a great first step,” Razo said. “And we stand ready to partner with all of you as we work to reverse the disproportionality that has put so many of our Alaska Native people, families and children at risk.”

Besides Bloomington and Anchorage, other offices have opened in Rapid City, South Dakota; Billings, Montana; Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Sacaton, Arizona, just outside Phoenix. Arizona has the second highest count of cold cases, at about 240.

The seventh office is scheduled to open next month in Nashville.

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