Unsolved Murders at Yakama to be Reopened

From the Yakima Herald (H/T Teresa):

More than 15 years has passed since Shari Dee Sampson Elwell’s strangled and sexually mutilated body was found in a remote area of the Yakama reservation, but the family is still awaiting closure in the case.

Her homicide capped a decade-long string of more than a dozen mysterious deaths of women on the
1.2 million-acre reservation, which not only stymied authorities but instilled fear in this otherwise close-knit community.

Speculation of a serial killer targeting Indian women worried many, and two investigators revealed they saw links in some of the deaths. But other investigators said inconsistencies in the manner of deaths ruled out any serial killer.

“Nobody knew what was going on, and even today we don’t know,” said Yakama Tribal Council Vice Chairwoman Lavina Washines. “Nothing was ever resolved.”

Now, nearly three years after the U.S. Justice Department promised to review all unsolved cases on the reservation, a number of the victims’ families may see some closure.

A draft report probing 16 unsolved deaths — all of them involving female victims — will soon be released to all law-enforcement and other agencies involved by the middle of the month, said U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt in Spokane.

Federal investigators began reopening the cases about two years ago. They decided to begin the cold case review with the string of women’s deaths because they were under the most mysterious circumstances. Later, the probe may be broadened to other unsolved cases, McDevitt said.

A spokesman with the FBI said there may be as many as 32 unsolved cases on the reservation involving missing persons and deaths.

Various law enforcement agencies involved will have a chance to comment on the case once a final report is issued, he said.

The report comes after former U.S. Attorney General [Alberto] Gonzales during a visit here nearly three years ago promised to have investigators review all of the unsolved homicide and mysterious death cases on the reservation.

But tribal members who had for years lost their faith in law enforcement doubted his promise.

The FBI has jurisdiction on all serious crimes involving Native Americans on tribal lands, but tribal members have questioned whether the agency is fulfilling its commitment on the reservation.

Authorities planned to release the report by the first of the month, but it was delayed after a human skull and bones were recently found in a remote area of the reservation, McDevitt said.

Investigators are now trying to identify who the remains belong to and whether they tie into any of the unsolved cases, he said.

With an investigation pending, he said he couldn’t give further specifics on the discovered remains.

McDevitt also wouldn’t elaborate on what is in the report. “I don’t want to jump the gun,” he said.

While several of the deaths were obvious homicides, some may have been accidental deaths, investigators have said. They range from homicidal violence to exposure and drowning.

In a few of the cases, only human remains were found.

Time, exposure and wild animals led to the erosion of evidence in many of the cases, investigators said.

But investigators banked on new technology to help them reconstruct each death in hopes of determining what happened.

Any closure would help families, some who have gone more than two decades without any closure.

“It would be appreciated by all families of the Yakama Nation,” Washines said.

This entry was posted in Author: Matthew L.M. Fletcher, Criminal, News and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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