Lower Elwha Police Chief Sam White was on a task force that explored the issue of missing and murdered indigenous people statewide. (Paul Gottlieb/Special to Peninsula Daily News)

Lower Elwha Police Chief Sam White was on a task force that explored the issue of missing and murdered indigenous people statewide. (Paul Gottlieb/Special to Peninsula Daily News)

Missing, murdered indigenous legislation signed

Task force to seek answers to unsolved cases

OLYMPIA — Makah artist Wade Greene was barely 20 when a woodcarving knife became his paintbrush, his baton, his pen.

Greene’s uncle, renowned Port Alberni, B.C., and First Nations carver George Cecil David, gifted Greene the implements 31 years ago.

The path the two traveled, bonded by family ties and life’s work, was turned sideways March 28, 2016, by David’s still-unsolved murder in a Port Angeles apartment.

Green recently discussed the homicide amid hopes the cold case that roils his soul when he sharpens his knives could turn warm with help from a new cold-case investigative unit newly established in the state Attorney General’s Office.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this, gone through anything like this, and the feelings that have been fermenting,” Greene said last week.

“All these years, just not knowing, it’s horrible. It’s aggravating, heartbreaking. Nothing about it is fair.”

The pain-tinged hope blossoming for David springs from new state legislation that lends a hand to law enforcement agencies stymied by unsolved murder and missing person cases, which plague Washington’s indigenous communities in crisis, epidemic proportions, say state and tribal officials.

House Bill 1177 (leg.wa.gov), which Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law April 20, creates the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People (MMIWP) Cold Case Investigations Unit in the state Attorney General’s Office.

The $1.2 million annual program will fund an assistant attorney general, four senior investigators, a victim advocate case navigator and a legal assistant, increasing the number of criminal investigators in the AG’s Office by 50 percent.

It was recommended in a 54-page August 2022 interim report (ago.wa.gov) by the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & People Task Force, which was created to assess systemic causes behind the high rate of disappearances and murders of indigenous women and people.

Badly needed

The cold case unit is “desperately needed,” said Sen. Kevin Van De Wege of Port Angeles. “Not everything we do is so front and center.”

Two North Olympic Peninsula authorities have said they will seek the task force’s assistance.

Deputy Chief Jason Viada of the Port Angeles Police Department said last week he will reach out for help in solving David’s murder.

Clallam County Sheriff Brian King said he would seek help from the cold case unit on the disappearance of Makah tribal member Dean, 38, who went missing more than three years ago.

Dean’s snowbound Toyota Camry was found Jan. 15, 2020, in a shallow ditch on state Highway 112 southeast of Clallam Bay, snowy shoeprints leading away from the vehicle toward the reservation at Neah Bay.

“I see it as a peer review process as well as looking to generate new ideas,” King said. “This is another tool in our tool chest, and I’m always excited about that.”

Lower Elwha chief

Chief Sam White of the Lower Elwha Klallam Police Department, a task force member, praised the efforts to have the legislation passed but said it is only the beginning of what is needed.

“It’s all the families that made this an issue, brought it to the Legislature’s attention and made it happen,” White said in an interview at the tribe’s justice center. “So hands up to all the families in the state that made this happen.”

White said standardizing missing persons forms is a priority for the committee, but much more needs to be done, including having a more vigorous cold case unit.

The cold case unit is “a baby step,” he said.

“It would be nice, and this is just still just a concept, to have an active investigative unit set up by the state that could come out when you have somebody missing,” he said.

“When we originally voted on a cold case unit, the information presented, and I can’t control politics, was the concept of a good idea of a cold case unit being one that would investigate crime.

“What it turned out to be is a step in the right direction, but it’s not where it needs to be. It still needs more work.

“There are so many state laws and jurisdictional issues and communications issue, restrictions to information access, and then you’ve got your runaways to juveniles to your human trafficking to your domestic violence abuse to your missing off rez, your missing on rez,” he said.

“There are so many different, wide-spanning issues that it’s a daunting task. It’s a good beginning, but it’s just the beginning.”

Sponsor

HB 1177 was sponsored by 40th District Rep. Debra Lekanoff, a Tlingit tribal member and the second Native American to serve in the state Legislature.

“It’s a wonderful recognition in my years of serving in the state Legislature of how our Native American communities have really been brought into the policy-level decision of understanding that, when we ask for help, it’s not a Republican or a Democratic ask, it’s not a House or Senate ask, it’s an ask of sovereign nations asking for collaboration,” Lekanoff said while sitting in a waiting area off the House chamber.

“It’s important for us to realize that we are all pursuing personal relationships with our Native American communities, and we all live on the homelands of Native American communities. Therefore, when there’s a call for help, we should all be there together.”

A crisis point

The logjam that HB 1177 is meant to tackle: The disproportionate number of missing person and murder cases among the state’s 29 tribes, referred to as “a crisis” and “an epidemic” by Attorney General Bob Ferguson at two MMIWP Task Force meetings and referred to similarly by task force meeting participants.

Indigenous women go missing at a rate four times that of white women, according to the Urban Indian Health Institute in Seattle.

Four in five Native American and Alaska Native women nationwide have experienced violence, 56 percent of whom experienced sexual violence, according to the Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice research agency.

Homicide was the third leading cause of death among Native American males ages 1-44 and sixth leading cause among Native American females ages 1-44, according to a 2018 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study utilizing the agency National Vital Statistics System.

And according to the Homicide Investigation Tracking System in the Attorney General’s Office, 5 percent of unsolved homicides involve indigenous victims compared to the 2 percent portion of the state’s population that is indigenous.

A shaky system

White feels that more vigorous state investigative efforts should be applied to incidents of missing and murdered tribal members when those cases first arise instead of when they become cold.

White said tribal warrants often are not honored outside a tribe’s jurisdiction and, in a point hammered over and over again at task force meetings, missing person data that is so insufficient and so lacks uniformity from jurisdiction to jurisdiction that ethnicity is often not recorded in law enforcement reports, leading to the potential for many uncounted victims.

That’s an issue the task force hopes to deal with as part of its future work, White and Attorney General’s Office Policy Analyst Annie Forsman-Adams said.

John Hillman, the division chief for the AG’s Office Criminal Justice Division, who will oversee the unit, said it should be ready to take on cases by fall.

“A lot of this is dependent on what we hope local law enforcement wants, as we are able to assist them, and if they can lend their resources as well when, for example, and if we are able to develop new leads on a case.”

Cold case unit investigators can assist with a homicide or missing person case only at the request of the law enforcement agency with primary jurisdiction, but HB 1177 says the unit may “proactively” offer assistance, which Hillman said he would do, including in the murder case of George Cecil David.

Dean is one of two persons from Clallam County among 135 listed among the State Patrol’s active missing cases involving indigenous persons, information contained in the MMIWP Task Force report. Seventy are female and 65 male.

The task force’s recommendation was largely driven by families and their testimony.

“Throughout the process to date, families of missing or murdered loved ones shared powerful testimonies about how systemic and institutional barriers create and reinforce existing harm, trauma and pain,” the MMIWP report said.

“It’s all the families that made this an issue, brought it to the Legislature’s attention and made it happen,” White said in an interview at the tribe’s justice center.

“So hands up to all the families in the state that made this happen.”

White said standardizing missing persons forms is a priority for the committee, but that much more needs to be done, including having a more vigorous cold case unit.

Forsman-Adams said the task force will focus on data collection in the coming months and has hired a third-party team to understand how it’s collected for missing-person cases statewide. White said it could lead to more uniformity statewide.

The task force will release a second report in the fall that will provide content additional to that compiled and will continue to develop recommendations.

When he died, David was on his way to a friend’s funeral. He was buying household items to settle down in Neah Bay to be near his nephew and daughter, Maria.

David is buried in the Neah Bay Cemetery, which Greene passes every time he comes home.

During their sometimes stormy relationship — David would drink, Greene said, and Greene does not — they would carve together, linked. The last time they spoke, they said they loved each other.

“Carving side by side, you’re in a spiritual realm, being able to experience one spiritual realm in the same room, sharing the floor together, and the wood chips,” Greene said.

The cold case unit “brings a sense of hope, a sense of, I don’t want to say excitement, but almost like relief because of having closure,” he said.

“No amount of justice will bring him back and really [fill] that emptiness that I feel.”

________

Legislative Reporter Paul Gottlieb, a former senior reporter at Peninsula Daily News, can be reached at cpaulgottlieb@gmail.com.

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