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National response for Petito was appropriate, but should apply to Indigenous people too, Colorado advocates say

Lertjuntharangool family continues search after six months of no leads
Missing and murdered indigenous women mural in Colorado Springs
Posted at 4:22 PM, Sep 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-28 15:03:13-04

Denver7 will have in-depth coverage of this story Friday night on Denver7 News at 10. Jon Ewing contributed to this story.

Six months of silence.

Friday marks just over half a year since Kim Lertjuntharangool has contacted her family but their hold on hope hasn’t relaxed as days turned to months.

Kim, 34, disappeared on March 20, 2021 with almost no updates on the case since her family in Maryland called local police and said they couldn't contact her.

Kim Lertjuntharangool

In April, her brother, Todd Lertjuntharangool, told Denver7 their family was trying their best to stay positive. Now, almost half a year after she disappeared, her case is one of the many that are being brought back into the public eye.

Todd said their mother was the first to become concerned about Kim’s whereabouts. She regularly talked with her daughter, and when she told family members she couldn't reach Kim — and they also reached out with the same result — it became a sure sign something was wrong. Kim’s social media went quiet. She wasn’t using her bank accounts and her phone was disconnected, according to her missing person report. Her phone died around midnight.

“It was, I would say, beyond out of character for my sister,” Todd said.

Kim was dropped off at the Belleview Light Rail station around 2:40 p.m. on March 20 by Greenwood Village police following a domestic dispute with a man. Video surveillance shows her leaving the station on a footbridge over Interstate 25.

She has not been seen or heard from since.

Kim Lertjuntharangool_RTD station
This is the last known picture of Kim Lertjuntharangool at the Bellevue light rail system in Greenwood Village on March 20, 2021.

Todd said his family are members of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico, a federally recognized tribe. Kim, his youngest sister, has visited throughout her life, he said. Some of their family and cousins in New Mexico were in direct contact with her right up until when she went missing, he said. But they never heard from her after that day either.

Some family, including Todd, came out to Colorado to search with what little information they had in April. They passed out flyers, scoured homeless camps and searched places where she frequently visited. A few people recognized her photo, but none of the leads led to any new information.

Over the past six months, as days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months, it has become difficult to fend off feelings of exhaustion and discouragement, but the family has supported each other and is marching forward in their fight to bring her home.

“Until we do hear some confirmation about my sister's whereabouts, we are going to continue to exhaust all our energies and all our resources to try and identify where she is or what happened to her,” Todd said.

"There needs to be that same sense of urgency"

Around the country, cases of missing people are being thrust back into the spotlight — some returning and some for the first time — as authorities continue to investigate the case of Gabby Petito. The 22-year-old influencer's disappearance sparked a nationwide outburst and online frenzy leading up to and beyond the Sept. 19 discovery of her remains in a remote area in Wyoming.

The national response for Petito was appropriate, said Monycka Snowbird of Colorado Springs's Haseya Advocate Program, a Native women-led urban response team helping Indigenous survivors of gender-based violence. She is of Ojibwe descent.

“That's the response that should be the standard for every time someone goes missing. And it's not,” she said. “For Indigenous people, women of color, across the board — there's obviously disparities on that.… It shouldn't take a white woman dying for native voices to be uplifted.”

Abigail Echo-Hawk, head of the Urban Indian Health Institute, said the state of Wyoming, where Petito went missing, published a report earlier this year that found more than 700 Indigenous people were missing or murdered in the state.

“We didn't get near the coverage of active cases of missing and murdered people that one white woman received,” she said. “And I grieve for her family, and nobody deserves to go missing. Nobody deserves to be murdered. But what we see is an inequity when a young, blonde, white woman goes missing and compare that to 700 native people — our 700 people — never counted.”

While more of these cases are coming to the spotlight, Echo-Hawk said it’s not enough.

“We have a nationwide crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls,” she said. “And this isn't a crisis that started five years ago or ten years ago. We're talking about hundreds of years ago.… So while we may have a story of a horrific murder be covered once, 95% of the cases never get media coverage, and so our people are just going missing.”

In reports across the country, Echo-Hawk said they found a problem of underreporting race and ethnicity of victims, and Indigenous women can sometimes be racially misclassified. In the Greenwood Village police report for Kim’s disappearance, her race is listed as “W.”

Snowbird said this erasure problem means an accurate list of all missing Indigenous women may never exist.

“How are we supposed to coordinate these things nationally if we can't even get our numbers in our own backyard, or even in our own city or county?” she asked.

Reports of the total number of missing Indigenous people in North America range from 6,000 to 9,000 and beyond, especially when including Canada, Snowbird said.

Native American women are murdered or go missing at a higher rate than any other ethnic group in the United States, according to the National Congress of American Indians. Echo-Hawk said this has forced her, and many other Indigenous women, to go as far as having a plan in place in case they disappear.

“I'm a college-educated woman leading a national organization and I have a plan for what my family needs to do if I go missing because I expect that law enforcement would never look for me, regardless of my qualifications,” she said. “It's unfortunate and it's killing us.”

Echo-Hawk said in some cases, the women are blamed for their own disappearance or murder. This can include abusing alcohol and drugs, a problem that many, like Kim, have struggled with, according to her missing person report.

“They're called sex workers, or folks who are abusing drugs, or that they may have been runaways,” Echo-Hawk said. “And these labels are assigned to them and what happens is law enforcement doesn't investigate them. They don't take them seriously.”

In turn, serial killers and human traffickers take advantage of this inequity, she added.

“Even if they are sex workers, even if they are runaways, they're still human beings,” Snowbird said. “We still need to bring them home. And when they don't come home, we need to make sure that there's justice. There needs to be that same sense of urgency, and there just isn't.”

Echo-Hawk said families end up searching on their own — a burden that shouldn’t land on them.

“We shouldn't have to fight this hard for the lives of our people,” she said.

Lertjuntharangool family chooses to remain thankful for support they have

Just like those who worked in the early stages of the Petito case, Todd also reached out to the FBI to see what else they, or his family, could do in the search for his sister. A nation rallied around finding Petito. Todd’s family was left with little to nothing.

“My heart goes out to that family," Todd said. "You always wish that there is a different outcome whenever somebody is looking for their daughter or their sister. But, yes, also, it does make me think about the fact that that case did receive a lot of national media attention. It seemed to receive a lot of very urgent action from local authorities, as well as national authorities with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”

Remembering his own plea to FBI Denver, he said it is disheartening that his sister’s case didn’t receive more support.

However, he’s choosing to stay thankful for those who have lent a helping hand.

“I have to be thankful for all the folks who have given my family a platform to tell my sister’s story and to get the story out there, to make it visible,” he said.

He acknowledged the huge lack of information in the case of his sister’s disappearance.

“I think, any family in this position — you're always going to feel like the people who are there to help you out are not being as urgent, or not taking it as urgently, as you feel they should,” he said.

The family’s $10,000 reward, which they initially offered up in April, still stands for any information leading to her return or location.

MISSING PERSON - Kim Lertjuntharangool

He said while he is hoping for new details to arise or a witness to come forward, he believes the Greenwood Village Police Department has exhausted every lead so far. They have added Kim's name and description to different national databases for missing people, like the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).

At the time she went missing, Kim was wearing a gray Nirvana hoodie with a smiley face on it, blue jeans, and a black backpack. She has brown hair, brown eyes and stands 5 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs 105 pounds. She has floral tattoos on her left arm and the back of her neck.

The Greenwood Village Police Department confirmed the case is still open and active.

Det. John Carr, who was recently assigned to the case after the previous lead detective retired, said unfortunately, there have been no developments since she was reported missing. He said Kim has not used her bank, her phone, or contacted family since March. It’s one thing for a person to disappear, but another for them to not access their bank for any funds, he said.

Carr said they are now working with Kim’s family to obtain DNA samples should police find remains of an unidentified person. The DNA samples, preferably from Kim’s mother, will also go into national databases for missing people, Carr explained.

Todd confirmed his family is working to get that DNA to police. They're also trying to locate the last dentist Kim visited to see if they can send her dental records to detectives.

Anybody with information on this case or Kim's whereabouts is asked to call Det. Carr at 303-486-8236.

The police department’s missing person report for Kim lists her attorney as Elizabeth Frawley, deputy public defender with Arapahoe County. Denver7 called Frawley, who said she could not disclose anything about the case or Kim.

“If Kim is out there, and if Kim does see this, I just hope that she knows that we all are worried,” Todd said. “That we're all looking for her. That we're exhausting every effort and resource. That we have to try to identify her and identify where she is and bring her home.”

Kim Lertjuntharangool

Efforts toward a solution and change

The conversation about missing Indigenous people will circle around again next year in the wake of another missing non-Indigenous person, Snowbird said, and she’s not optimistic anything will change between now and then.

“When people say it's an epidemic — an epidemic is something that's naturally occurring. It's something that's outside of your control. That's not what this is,” she said. “This is a crisis. This is intentionally happening, and we need to rally around it. But I don't know how to motivate people from outside of our communities to do that.”

She said changes can start with something as small as authorities correctly identifying the race of a missing or murdered Indigenous person, which is a problem not only in Colorado, but surrounding states. This also includes law enforcement across the local, state, and federal levels better communicating with one another.

“Our grants and our programs are all dependent on the data that we're able to obtain,” Snowbird explained. “If we are erased from that data, I can't get funding in order to do more services (and) other agencies can't get funding to justify more preventative services to stop this.”

It’s difficult to follow through and seek justice for a family that you don’t know exists, she said.

Another emotionally exhausting part of her career with Haseya Advocate Program is the work against certain mascots.

“If the only way you think of us is in a mascot capacity, then you dehumanize us, and you objectify us,” she said. “That will then contribute to the hyper-sexualization of Indigenous women. So, it's all connected.”

This past June, the 25 Colorado schools that still had American Indian mascots were told they would have 11 months to remove them or face a monthly fine of $25,000. But that fight continues in other western states.

Then there's the problem of schools and a major road in Colorado Springs being named after Sand Creek massacre participants, Snowbird said. In the 1864 massacre, U.S. soldiers attacked a village and killed 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, mostly women, children and elderly people.

Echo-Hawk said it’s crucial to keep Indigenous people in conversations about solutions to their problems.

“When we are at the table, when we are shaping the interventions, the preventions, and what is needed to support the families of those who have loved ones, of those who are missing or murdered — it is then that we see meaningful action. And Colorado has that opportunity,” she said.

In 2019, Colorado’s northern neighbor created a task force to uncover more information and data about missing and murdered Indigenous people to better understand how to prevent future incidents. The Division of Victim Services for the Wyoming Attorney General's Office, led by Director Cara Chambers, uncovered some flaws in their system.

First, like Colorado, authorities weren’t always tracking missing people by their race properly and that meant the state was lacking accurate data, Chambers said. Second, agencies from the local level to the federal level had to communicate better. Third, news reports tended to focus on the grisliness of the crimes and the crime scenes. Meanwhile, reports were published when white residents went missing — not just if they were found deceased — which could aid in their rescue, recovery or to bring in tips, Chambers said.

This work with the task force will continue highlighting missing Indigenous, brown, Black, and Hispanic individuals, and Chamber said the responsibility will then fall on the media to share that information.

Snowbird said she hopes the public — in Colorado, Wyoming and beyond — can readjust the view of Native individuals and learn to see them as a modern people.

“I made the mistake of reading the comments on Facebook on some of these posts over the last few days,” Snowbird said. “And someone actually said, ‘I'm sorry that your people aren't getting the exposure you're wanting, but people pay attention to things they care about.’ And that really was like a gutshot.”

Much of the public has Native people frozen in time in their minds, she said.

In addition to these long-term fights for justice, she’ll continue her advocacy work at the Haseya Advocate Program, where she can give food, clothing, and regalia to those in need, offer support with court accompaniment and transitional housing, and provide culturally centered activities and land-based activities.

“The reason we're working on all of these things is to make sure that we're always on the radar, that you're realizing that you have to acknowledge Indigenous people,” Snowbird said. “You have to acknowledge that history and you have to acknowledge that we are still here. And we aren't going to just sit by while all of these things continue to happen anymore. We have to do better.”

List of known missing and murdered people in Colorado

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation said 13 indigenous people are missing in the state according to data from the Colorado Crime Information Center and National Crime Information Center on Monday.

Snowbird provided the following list of known missing and murdered Indigenous people in Colorado. Bolded names represent individuals who are missing. Non-bolded names are individuals who were murdered. Dates represent when they went missing or were found deceased.

1. Margaret Goggles | Denver, 6/22/1983
2. Aaron Standing Bear | Missing from Denver, 01/01/1984
3. Jonelle Matthews | Greeley, 12/20/1984
4. Debbie Charging | Denver, 5/24/1992
5. Regina Lansing | Capitol Hill, 1996
6. Polly Sullivan | Denver, 12/25/1998
7. Odell Vest | Missing from Towaoc, 4/11/2000 (FBI website says he was a murder victim)
8. Fred “Beyonce” Martinez | Cortez 6/16/2001
9. Raina Lansing | Denver, 3/27/2002
10. Agnes Jeri Foland | Colorado Springs, 6/2002
11. Dawn Deherrera | Denver, 1/2/2003
12. Avery Whiteskunk | Towaoc, 1/30/2004
13. Tracy Lopez | Towaoc, 4/5/2005
14. Felix “Phil” Hammond | Towaoc, 7/30/2005
15. Tonya Fast-Horse Bennett | Denver 11/3/2005
16. Tasha Kimberly Posey | 2006
17. Anita Tsosie | Cortez | 4/12/2007
18. Nicole Redhorse | Durango 6/7/2007
19. Tracy Lynn King | Towaoc, 11/7/2007
20. Spencer Posey | Towaoc, 5/23/2011
21. Natalie Hatch | Cortez, 9/19/2013
22. Pamela Matthews | Missing from Denver, 2/14/2014
23. Paul Castaway | Denver 7/12/2015
24. Sioux Feather Nightwalker | Aurora, 9/2/2015
25. Sheree Barker | Colorado Springs, 7/28/2016
26. Cerae Christian | Denver, 10/18/16
27. Tyrone Orvy Peabody | Pleasant View 7/4/2017
28. Mary Horsley | Denver, 7/5/2017
29. Sameria Travis | Denver, 7/11/2018
30. Kyler Grabbing Bear | Thornton, 12/7/2017
31. Gabrielle Mingo | Thornton 8/14/2018
32. Laura Perez-Gomez | Canon City 8/25/2018
33. Brenda Chavez | Ignacio, 2/9/2019
34. April Matteson | Denver, 07/15/2019
35. Shaina Rose Castillo | Denver, 8/12/2019
36. Unidentified Male | Denver 08/29/2019
37. Gloria Casias | Ignacio, 3/10/2020
38. Angeles Taylor | Missing from Durango, 5/17/2020
39. Antonio Black Bear | Denver, 9/9/2020
40. George Sands | Ignacio, 11/24/2020
41. Rachel Ream | Ignacio, 1/1/2021
42. Kim Lertjuntharangool | Missing from Denver, 3/20/21
43. Geraldine Castilleja (Israel) | 4/14/20