True crime meets forensic science
Dec. 21, 2022

E20 Seeking Justice for Indigenous Women and Girls

Why are crimes against indigenous women rarely solved?


Indigenous woman are ten times more likely to be murdered than the rest of the population in some parts of the US. More than 4 in 5 indigenous women experience violence in their lifetime. These are simple facts, facts that Brittany Hunt and Chelsea Locklear who are members of the Lumbee Tribe are trying to understand. They started “The Red Justice Project” podcast to shed light on these cases. In this episode, they share their insights on why they believe indigenous women are more often murdered and the cases are rarely solved. We also dive into the case of an indigenous woman whose skeletal remains were found in a storage unit in Durham, North Carolina in 2016, but were not identified for five years.

Find episodes of The Red Justice Project here https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-red-justice-project/id1529944821

Transcript

This podcast contains frank descriptions of human remains and physical violence. Listener discretion is advised.  

Amanda: People have voracious appetites for true crime, and it’s for so many reasons. There’s the edge-of-your-seat storytelling, the excitement of trying to figure out the mystery of “who did it,” and for some, there’s a deeper reason—true crime taps into that disturbing, primal, and yet captivating fear that violence, and even murder, can happen to any one of us. Or even scarier, to someone we love.  

And yes, violence COULD happen to anyone, but violence also discriminates. Some communities, and some groups of people, see it and experience it far more than others. 

CHELSEA LOCKLEAR: I know tons of people that I personally went to school with who have been murdered. 

Amanda: Chelsea Locklear is a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and grew up in Robeson County, about a hundred miles south of the capital, Raleigh.  

I spoke with Chelsea earlier this year, along with Brittany Hunt. Brittany is also a member of the Lumbee Tribe. Brittany and Chelsea have been thinking for a long time about how murders of indigenous women and girls in their area, and nationwide, have been covered in the media compared to the tragedies of white females. Here's Brittany: 

BRITTANY HUNT: I just remember. Even from being a young child, learning about JonBenet Ramsey... 

News Archive: One of the country’s most famous unsolved murders 

BRITTANY: and that story captivated international media attention.  

News Archive:  It’s been nearly 26 years since Jon Benet Ramsey was killed in her home in Boulder and the police appear no closer to solving the case now than they were back in 1996. 

BRITTANY: And even still now there's still documentaries, still books, still podcasts being dedicated to finding out who killed JonBenet. 

Amanda: Even if you don’t follow these kinds of crimes, you probably know some of the names... 

BRITTANY: Natalie Holloway or Lacey Peterson or Holly Bobo or Madeline McCann. And we can all, many of us can recite in intricate detail, what happened to them and, and, you know, the kind of the circumstances of either their death or their disappearance, but then you will find very few Americans. Or especially, I think very few white Americans who can name a missing or murdered indigenous person. And even if they can name one, they can give you barely any information about the case. And so, we don't see that same kind of media captivation with cases of indigenous or Black women as well that we see with white women. And we see a total kind of national investment in finding them and in finding out what happened to them. And, and we are certainly not saying that that's wrong. We all want these cases to be solved, but we also believe that indigenous women deserve that exact same kind of justice both in the media and then also with police and in the justice system. 

Amanda: Brittany and Chelsea are working to bring more attention to these cases on their podcast The Red Justice Project. 

Red Justice Project Audio montage: This is the story of the killing of Matthew Oxendine, Tabitha Anne Gowens, Donald Wayne Davis, Helen Marie Gibbs, Sharletha Maynor was a .... 

I'm Chelsea Locklear and I'm Brittany Hunt and this is the Red Justice Project. 

Amanda: In this episode I talk with Brittany and Chelsea about how the handling of a missing person case can be affected when that person is indigenous. We also explore the factors that may lead to an indigenous woman vanishing and never being found. And, a case of a missing indigenous woman who did end up being identified, eventually. 

From WRAL Studios, this is What Remains—stories of connecting unidentified human remains to the missing and the murdered. I’m Amanda Lamb. 

SEGMENT 2 

Amanda: Chelsea Locklear has been thinking about how violence is portrayed in the media for a long time. 

CHELSEA: I grew up as a child of the nineties with my mom watching Dateline and 20/20 and 48 Hours Mystery and all of those shows. True crime was something I kind of grew up with. But as I started listening to a lot of true crime podcasts, I realized that most of the stories I was hearing did not feature native people and specifically indigenous women. 

Amanda: Despite says Chelsea some alarming statistics.  

Here are a few... 

More than 4 in 5 indigenous women have experienced violence in their lifetime. 

Ninety-seven percent of female indigenous violence victims have been attacked by non-indigenous people. 

A study of four sites surveyed in the US and Canada showed an average of 40 percent of the women involved in sex trafficking were indigenous, far outweighing their share of the general population. 

And, in some US counties, indigenous women face murder rates over ten times the national average. 

CHELSEA: Our numbers are just staggering compared to every other racial category in America that I was like, why are we not featured on like, pretty much every single podcast that I'm listening to? I don't hear us on any of them. And so, you know, I realized there was a gaping hole, so that’s when I reached out to Brittany and was like “Do you want to do this podcast with me”? 

Amanda: Chelsea and co-host Brittany Hunt started their podcast, The Red Justice Project, in November of 2020. Chelsea works at an investment firm by day, and Brittany is a post-doctoral research associate – and they have produced dozens of episodes so far. The mission: to bring awareness to the many missing and murdered indigenous people in North America. 

Amanda: Brittany says none of this is new.... 

BRITTANY: I read a quote a few years ago that said to refer to missing and murdered indigenous women, or people in general as an epidemic is a fundamental misstatement of the problem because an epidemic is relegated to a specific time period. So, it may be a 10 year or a 20 year or a 30-year period. Whereas this issue has been happening from the onset of colonization. So, immediately when colonizers or settlers arrived to what is now known as America. Women were the initial targets because women are the centers of tribes. So, um, even though in European societies, males were the landowners, males were the workers, males were the heads of the family and of the nation. In indigenous communities it was kind of flipped. So, women were the landowners, women were the head of the family. And I think colonizers knew immediately that in order to conquer the area, they had to first conquer that matriarchal spirit. And so, women were immediately targeted. So, even with Christopher Columbus, um, one of the first things they did was set up a sexual slavery trade of girls as young as eight to nine years old, indigenous girls. 

And so, we see this very initial targeting of native women and native girls that happen since 1492. And I think that's just a trend that has not stopped. It's something that continues and it changes shape over the years.  

Amanda: When Chelsea and Brittany set out to make their podcast, there was unfortunately no shortage of stories to choose from, even just in their own backyard. One of the stories they focused on was the murder of Marcey Blanks... 

BRITTANY: ...who I knew because I worked with her at a high school when I worked as a school social worker and her case is one of the most brutal, horrific cases that we've ever covered. She was stabbed I think over 80 times...raped and then her house was set on fire while she was in it. And somehow, she managed to exit the house, make it to the neighbor's house, who was a police [officer], name her killer, and then she died on his doorstep. And then that case got maybe three or four articles in the local news. Whereas there was a very similar case that was covered on the Oxygen Network of Jessica Chambers. And it was very similar. She was burned. And then she named her, uh, assailant and then she died. 

Amanda: Just to put this into perspective, when you Google “Jessica Chambers,” more than 19 million entries pop up. When you Google Marcey Blanks, you get 14,400 results. In their podcast, Brittany and Chelsea explore the idea of “Missing White Woman Syndrome” – the idea that the mainstream media is hyper-focused on stories of white women and don’t pay nearly as much attention to the tragedies of women of color. Brittany and Chelsea compare similar cases of white women and native women to highlight the different treatment they receive by both media and the police.  

AMANDA: We've found throughout our research that in a lot of marginalized populations the cases are not taken as seriously? Not necessarily today, but cold cases, cases that may be 10, 20, 30 years old. When that person went missing people just kind of shrugged their shoulders and said, well, she probably walked off or, you know, she's probably doing drugs or she's probably a sex worker, you know, something that put her in harm's way, so, we're not going to be that concerned. Do you see that in some of these cases that you look at that, that, you know, they might not have put as much into looking for that person as they could have? 

CHELSEA: If you listen to our podcast, we cover a lot of episodes in Robeson County and as far as media coverage and the types of cases that we cover, you know, some people were former sex workers. Some people might have been involved with drugs. And I do find that there was a small correlation between like the number of articles (compared to some of the other cases). Then it could be someone who's not involved in any of those things, and they still will maybe get one news article. And I'm like, it's a missing woman, someone who has children and, you know, is a mother and has other family members and they'll receive literally one to two news articles. And I think it goes back to murder and missing people are almost just common where we're from that, you know, the local media even doesn't really...they don't bat an eye. There's not a lot of media coverage or anything, even when we know because we speak to these families, when we interview them, they're like, you know, we go to the media, we go to the police, we ask them to cover, we ask for this and, and it just falls on deaf ears. So on a local level, it's really hard to say why it isn't besides, you know, it's kind of just a, a complacency. It almost feels like at this point, um, and Brittany can add to that.  

BRITTANY: Yeah, I was just gonna say a few specific cases. So, there's one, we covered of a Lumbee girl who lived in Maxton, North Carolina. Her mother reported her as missing. And then the police very quickly identified her as being a runaway. And then three years later, her body or her, her remains were found a hundred feet from her house.  

Amanda: When I looked up this story on our website, WRAL.com, there was a very brief story about it from January 9, 2009. It read: Lisa Hohman,16, of Maxton, disappeared in May 2005. The remains were found by several men late on New Year's Day in some woods not far from where Hohman lived. The cause of death hasn't been determined, but authorities said they are treating the case as a homicide. 

The coverage I found from all media sources I researched was after-the-fact, about Lisa’s remains being identified, not about her disappearance. 

Brittany says police are very quick to label teenage indigenous girls, and teenage Black girls as well, as being runaways and not take their cases as seriously. 

BRITTANY: I think sometimes police look for anything, any blight on a person's life when it comes to an indigenous person. And then they may use that as an excuse. Oh, well, they were involved in crime, so they probably died due to some kind of crime or maybe she stole something and someone killed her. 

I think that for indigenous people, in order to be covered in the news, oftentimes you do have to be kind of perfect or, or kind of perceived as, as perfect or have a more pristine history. But even sometimes that's not the case as well. 

AMANDA: It's almost. You have to be considered worthy of the attention. 

Amanda: My mind goes to a case of that happened in my area. On October 22, 2016, a 911 caller said they had made a very disturbing discovery at a self-storage facility in Durham, North Carolina.  

WRAL News Archive: Sgt. Quincey Tait, Durham Police Department: The caller told officers they were cleaning out the storage unit when they noticed a plastic storage container with bones sticking out of it. 

Amanda: Who was person whose remains were stuffed in that storage bin? How would investigators find out? And how long would it take? After the break... 

SEGMENT 3 

WRAL News Archive: Sgt. Quincey Tait, Durham Police Department: In 2005, Melissa Poitra would have been 28 years old. She was a Native American woman from the Turtle Mountain Chippewa located in North Dakota. She had straight black hair, brown eyes, a tattoo of a rose and a tattoo of “Missy” on her arm. She was known to frequent the East Durham area. She was also a mother. 

Amanda: That’s Sgt. Quincey Tait of the Durham, North Carolina Police Department’s homicide unit, speaking at a press conference on May 6, 2021. They announced that after five years, the body in that storage bin in 2016 had been identified as Melissa Poitra. Her friends and family called her Missy. 

Here's what happened between 2016 and 2021 in the case... 

After the remains were found in the storage facility, they were immediately sent to the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for an autopsy. A DNA sample was taken and sent to the University of Texas to create a profile. That profile was then uploaded into CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, in February of 2017. They didn’t get any hits on the DNA.  

In 2018, they sent the skull to the FBI to perform facial reconstruction which the FBI used to create a composite of what the woman may have looked like. Durham Police released the FBI’s picture to the public in 2019. Along with it, investigators also released a description of the woman saying they believed she was white, 25 to 35 years old, and approximately 5-foot-5-inches tall with red hair. The FBI tells us they did not come up with the description. Durham Police explained there were red tinted hairs in the storage box where the remains were found. 

SGT. TAIT: This image was released to the media in the hopes of identifying Jane Doe, but investigators didn’t receive any viable leads. 

Amanda: In 2020, investigators entered the case into the VICAP database, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program—a division of the FBI which catalogues violent crimes and tries to connect them to missing person cases and unidentified remains. No luck there. 

BEAT 

Amanda: And then...there was a break.  

Durham Police tell us they were looking into an unrelated case and learned that a woman named Melissa Poitra was missing from North Dakota, and that she was last seen in Durham in 2005. Remember the initial description was that the woman was WHITE. It wasn’t until they connected the dots with the North Dakota case that they realized she was an indigenous woman.  

Investigators still don’t know how Missy died. But based on where her remains were found—hidden in a plastic bin in a storage unit--they’re sure it’s a homicide. 

Durham police for the most part are staying tight-lipped about the details of this case. When reporters asked them specific questions about the investigation at the press conference, they didn’t get any real answers. 

SGT. TAIT: We’re trying to keep a lot of that to ourselves right now because we don’t want that to get out. If information comes in we want to make sure it’s not something we said to the public and now the information is coming back to us. We do have a couple of leads on that, but again, I can’t share everything to protect the integrity of the case.  

Amanda: WRAL News made contact with Missy’s daughter on Facebook and received a brief response from her about the case.  

WRAL News Archive: Leslie Moreno, Reporter: I have been in contact with Melissa Poitra’s daughter who watched that live press conference that happened right here at the Durham Police Department earlier today. She tells me she’s glad her mother was finally identified, but she tells me she still has a lot of questions regarding the way her mother’s case was handled. 

Amanda: We’ve reached out to Missy’s family to get more details about their concerns and haven’t heard back.  

But we found this: According to a 2021 Native News Online article Missy’s sister Jessica saw an article the year the remains were found, and thought the remains might be Missy’s.   

The Native News Online went on to say that even though Durham Police investigators described the unidentified woman as being white with red hair, Jessica recognized the gap in the teeth as being similar to the one that Missy had. Native News Online quotes her saying “But the police wouldn’t believe us.”  

We reached out to the Durham Police for a comment on what Jessica said about her interaction with them. We also asked them if they think the misidentification of the victim as white hindered the case. And to be clear, figuring out the race of skeletal remains is not a perfect science. We’ve covered several instances of this in our past episodes. It usually takes the skills of an experienced forensic anthropologist to get this right. 

While Durham Police didn’t respond to specific questions about the racial misidentification, Lt. Quincey Tait did say cases of indigenous women aren’t treated any differently. “The Durham Police Department investigates all missing person and homicide cases with the same level of intensity, commitment and dedication” she said. 

Tait says identifying Missy was just one step in the investigation—that they are continuing to try and find out what happened and why.  

Brittany told me she and Chelsea were aware of this case 

BRITTANY: I think I read that police had identified the body initially and said that she was a white woman and that she had red hair, even though the pictures of the actual person or the actual woman, she's a brown skinned native woman, I think with darker hair. And so, it was always very confusing to me, that part and just the misidentification. 

AMANDA: Saying, you know, definitively that somebody is white changes, the whole perception of who you're looking for. Correct? I mean, right. That, that misidentification probably cost some time in terms of identifying her.  

BRITTANY: Right. Certainly that's I thought the exact same thing, and I think this is also why a lot of natives have a lot of hesitation around any kind of DNA profiling because it's so often inaccurate when it comes to indigenous people.  

Amanda: Submitting DNA can be particularly fraught for many indigenous people. There can be distrust of white medical professionals, rooted in a long history of medical atrocities including, not too long ago, forced sterilization,as well as more recent experiences of health care discrimination. 

And specifically when it comes to DNA, scientists have often used samples of indigenous people without their permission. 

So, sharing private genetic information in the form of DNA is something many indigenous people just will not do. And DNA profiling, which depends on detailed genetic information, may be less precise. 

There is a LOT to parse about how the coverage of these cases is different, and the issues at play when cases don’t get solved quickly...or often not at all. 

AMANDA: Are there solutions to this? I mean, it seems like a huge overriding problem in terms of a cultural shift that would need to take place for people to understand or believe that every victim is important, no matter what their ethnic background, no matter what the color of their skin. Correct? 

CHELSEA: Yeah, I mean, that's exactly what we need is that cultural shift it's uh, like folks like you, Amanda Lamb, interviewing indigenous podcasters, but also featuring indigenous people in your podcast. It's more national media attention, not just at a local level. And then it's also having people understand the complex history that Britanny kind of touched on at the beginning of like, why is this an issue? Why are indigenous women more likely to be raped and murdered and beat? Why will 50 some percent of us experience violence in our lifetime? And actually, that's just like partner violence, but like four out of five native women will experience just plain violence in our lifetime, over 80% of us. So not just like saying those statistics, but understanding why those statistics even exist in the first place. 

BRITTANY: And I also think another thing is hiring more indigenous journalists to work for newspapers or different media outlets. I also think that there are a lot of podcasters who have massive platforms and so covering indigenous cases frequently on their podcast, not just during native American heritage month or something like that. And there are a lot of podcasters who are doing that more often. And so that's something that we feel really happy and excited about. 

I think the police force needs, I don't, I don't know the answer about the police, actually. I don't know what could happen to overhaul this kind of hyper focus on only solving white cases and really totally ignoring indigenous cases. I don't know if you can teach people empathy. . So that means 91% never get solved. And so, again, this is not just a North Carolina issue. This is certainly a national issue. And in Canada, the numbers are also very, very horrific for the tribes there. So I don't know, I think hiring more indigenous journalists, also not putting the burden on indigenous people, white podcasters, and other podcasters as well, recognizing that they should be covering cases of missing and murder indigenous people. And that this is kind of all of our burden to carry, not just indigenous people's burden. 

Again, I don't know about the justice system. I don't know. I would have pray more about that. 

Amanda: In the meantime, there is unfortunately no shortage of stories for Brittany and Chelsea to follow... 

CHELSEA: It would be great to run out of stories. That means the problem is solved, but you know, just as like Dateline will continue and 20/20 and you know, 48 Hours Mystery. Our, our issues will continue as well. 

Amanda: Thank you to the Red Justice Project podcast for permission to use audio from their show.  

As we reach the end of this episode, I want to let you know this is also the end of season one. We'll be taking a break from What Remains for a while to report on other stories. Our next podcast series is in production now and I'll be sure to hop back into this feed and let you know when it's ready. Thank you for all your reviews, emails, and story recommendations this season. We intend to bring you more stories like this next year. 

And remember, please rate and review us on your podcast app. Those reviews go a long way. And tell your friends about What Remains. Share it in a group chat or just actually tell them about it. Those are the best ways to get these important stories in the ears of others. 

Today’s episode was written and researched by me, Amanda Lamb. It was produced and edited by Rachel McCarthy, with final mix by Doug Miller. Zenobia Dowdy edits our episode transcripts, which can be found on our website, whatremainspodcast.com. That's also where you can find links to our social accounts where we share photos of the people from each episode. 

Our Director of Podcast Operations is Anita Normanly and our Executive Producer is Ashley Talley. 

...thanks for listening.