SEQUIM — Police Chief Sheri Crain said police are focusing on several potential suspects in the unsolved murder of Makah tribal member Valerie A. Claplanhoo, whose body was found in her one-room Sequim apartment two years ago Saturday.
“The number of individuals we are in contact with or have an interest in is a small number,” Crain said Wednesday, describing them as persons of interest in the case.
“It’s not a dozen.”
Claplanhoo, who grew up in Neah Bay and is a relative of the late former Makah tribal Chairman Edward Eugene Claplanhoo, had contact with “a small group of folks” the night of her murder, Crain said.
Police believe the assailant was “in her circle of acquaintances,” Crain said. “This is not a general, at-large individual that others need to be concerned about.
“This was someone familiar to her.”
Crain said her department, which is conducting the investigation with assistance from FBI and State Patrol crime labs, has yet to narrow down the identity of the killer to one or two suspects in a case she described as complex.
“We have made significant progress,” she said.
“We’re not close to actually closing it out, but we are certainly closer than we were a year ago.
“This is a complicated case that is involving trace and DNA evidence that we continue to work with various labs to get analyzed.
“We have active evidence at the lab being processed right now,” Crain said.
“It is not a cold case.”
A cold case is a case in which all probative, or substantiating, investigative leads have been exhausted, according to the National Institute of Justice.
Claplanhoo, who would have turned 59 Wednesday, died from a knife or other sharp weapon or object that caused deadly injuries to her head and neck, said Mark Nichols, Clallam County prosecuting attorney-coroner.
He and Crain declined to be more specific this week.
“We are still trying to make a prosecutable case, and we don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that,” Crain said.
“It’s inappropriate to go into certain types of details.”
Crain denied a Peninsula Daily News public records request for incident and investigative reports, saying they are exempted under the state Public Records Act because they pertain to a case under investigation.
Rebecca Ruby, 62, lived three doors down from Claplanhoo when her friend was murdered at the subsidized-rent 505 S. Fifth Ave. apartments run by Serenity House of Clallam County.
Ruby said Claplanhoo’s body was found early the morning of Jan. 2 by a Sunbelt manager after Claplanhoo’s next-door-neighbor, now deceased, told the manager he had earlier heard “a commotion” coming from Claplanhoo’s apartment and was worried about her.
Ruby said Friday the one-story complex was filled with people partying on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1, 2019.
“There were so many people in that building,” Ruby recalled.
“It wouldn’t be unusual to hear noise coming out of her apartment,” she added.
“She would be yelling sometimes, and it was her own little thing. It wasn’t a distress kind of thing. It was just Valerie. She was unique and special and my friend, and I miss her a lot.”
Crain said the department has been submitting evidence for crime lab analysis for two years.
The Sequim Police Department, which has three detectives and covers a 2020 population of 7,900, is the sole Peninsula agency investigating the case with help from agencies such as the State Patrol Crime Lab, which processed the crime scene.
“This is not a manpower issue. It’s not a lack of equipment issue at all,” Crain said of the two-year investigation.
“It’s been an evidence journey that is wending its way to the lab, that is taking longer than any of us want.”
Clallam County Sheriff’s Detective Eric Munger said standard, multi-agency cooperation between the two departments was initially complicated by the sheriff’s office focusing on the Dec. 26, 2019 murders of Darrell Iverson, Jordan Iverson and Tiffany May seven days before before Claplanhoo’s death.
The trial of Dennis Marvin Bauer 52, on three aggravated murder charges is March 15.
Sheriff Bill Benedict said his office has had “very little” involvement in the investigation of Claplanhoo’s murder.
“I seem to recall a year ago they had some DNA they were going after, but I never heard if anything came back on it,” Benedict said.
Cindy Lee Claplanhoo, Valerie’s sister, said she has urged the Sequim Police Department to keep the case open, calls the department every Tuesday for updates and hears from them once a month. She said they always tell her the same thing.
“I answer the phone, and one of the officers will say, ‘We are continuing to work on it and we just stay hopeful,’” Claplanhoo said.
“I just have faith in the Sequim Police Department, because they always keep the communication open, and they are always available.
Crain said Sequim Police Detective Sgt. Mike Hill, who was out of the office this week, has talked to tribal members about the case but did not know how recently or to what extent.
Claplanhoo grew up in Neah Bay.
Pacific Northwest tribal police veteran David J. Rogers, the newly named coordinator of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Program in Washington state for the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Department of Justice, said this week there are challenges faced by both tribal law enforcement and non-Native law enforcement agencies when working cases involving tribal members.
“For me, it’s all about collaboration and working together and information sharing, and all that requires a lot of trust,” said Rogers, the Makah police chief from 1982-1983.
“The biggest part of it is getting all the stakeholders to the same table.”
State Patrol Tribal Liaison Patti Gosch said Tuesday in an email that 19 percent of Native American homicides — totalling 68 victims — between 1973-2019 were unsolved in King, Yakima, Pierce, Spokane, Okanogan, and Snohomish, the top five counties for those crimes.
Crain was confident Wednesday that her department is making progress toward not adding Valerie Claplanhoo to the statewide list.
“We are getting close to a conclusion,” she said.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at [email protected].