Denver7's Meghan Lopez and Jon Ewing contributed to this report.
DENVER — A new bill introduced Tuesday in Colorado aims to create an office to focus solely on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) epidemic in the state, something that advocates say is a long-time coming.
The Senate bill, titled End the Epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives, would create an Office of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives (MMIR) within Colorado's Department of Public Safety to improve the coordination and response, as well as awareness, around MMIR cases.
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Jessie Danielson (D-Wheat Ridge), and Reps. Monica Duran (D-Wheat Ridge) and Leslie Herod (D-Denver). As of now, 15 other states have taken legislative action to address MMIR, including Utah, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Kansas.
According to the National Institute of Justice, more than four out of every five Indigenous people in the United States experience violent crime, which is a significantly higher rate than other people in the country. The murder rate for Indigenous women is almost three times higher than white women, and is the third-leading cause of death for Indigenous women and girls between the ages of 15 and 24, according to the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center.
Danielson said she's been working with leaders in the Indigenous community over the past year and a half to learn more about MMIR, the breadth of the issue, and the need for a program to address the problem head on. They worked together to ensure "we were doing this the right way, the way that the Indigenous community needs the state of Colorado to respond to MMIR," she said.
"The stories from the community are very compelling, and really, really difficult to hear, difficult to understand," she said. "But mostly, it's really hard to understand why the state of Colorado continues to condone this kind of thing. When we don't acknowledge or attempt to solve these cases, it adds an incredible additional burden to these families."
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The bill acknowledges the unique challenges that stem from MMIR cases, which includes poor and inconsistent reporting, lack of interagency cooperation, and misclassification of racial identity. This has, as a result, meant less coverage in the media.
To combat these problems, the bill would create an Office of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives, which would collaborate with the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, Colorado State Patrol, federally recognized tribes, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies, and indigenous-led organizations, according to the bill. The Colorado Bureau of Investigation would also work with those agencies and would create a secure database on missing Indigenous people in the state.
The bill also outlines the following protocols:
- Improve responses to MMIR cases by establishing a MMIR alert system, training first responders and improving how people can report a missing person
- Improve interagency coordination by developing best policies and best practices, and improving data tracking and accuracy
- Serving families of MMIR by reviewing cold cases, providing sentencing recommendations and educating law enforcement on best practices (including notifying CBI once they receive a MMIR report)
- Supporting Indigenous communities by improving relationship with law enforcement, developing prevention measures and increasing public awareness about MMIR
"Personally, it has been one of the biggest honors of my life to work with the community on this bill," Danielson said. "It means a lot to me, it means a lot to the Indigenous community across Colorado and across the country.... And I sincerely hope that the legislature will respond accordingly and begin to solve this problem for the Native people across the state."
The move is something that advocates across the state border have applauded.
Wyoming created a task force in 2019 to address the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people. Cara Chambers, director of the Division of Victim Services in the Office of the Wyoming Attorney General, said they determined the issue in their state was lack of data. Without the data analysis and numbers that showed the very real human stories, the issue "was going to get ignored," Chambers said.
She acknowledged that the state was "late to the game," but Wyoming is still one of the first states to take such extensive measures.
"We're trying to get our arms around the numbers and data because I think it's so important," she said. "You can't put resources towards a problem unless you can understand the scope of the problem.... But I do feel Wyoming is better off of this legislation. And I think Colorado will be better off with this legislation."
Cheryl Moretti, a mother in Alamosa County, said the Colorado bill's passing would be "amazing," since there are very few, if any, forms of support right now in the state for families of MMIR.
On Aug. 15, 2019, her then-30-year-old daughter Rashell Hammond, who is part-Cherokee, left their home in Mosca and has never been seen or heard from since. Thinking of her daughter and where she may be is an everyday occurrence, Moretti told Denver7 in December. The "what ifs?" cause nervous breakdowns and her appetite has dwindled.
Moretti said she and Hammond moved to a rural part of Mosca in July 2019. About three weeks after they arrived, Moretti headed out for some errands, including to get their cell service fixed at a local store, so she had both of their phones with her. While she was out, Hammond left the home for a walk around 11:30 a.m. Despite a search for her, Hammond was never seen again.
The two were close — the only time the mother and daughter didn't talk was when Hammond was a child and went to church camp. That has left Moretti with two conclusions: Hammond is dead, or she is being kept against her will. She said doesn't believe her daughter would put her through the everyday pain by not coming home or reaching out to her.
The lack of communication, plus absence of viable leads, has left Moretti without closure. She calls it "torture every day."
Having a community to share these struggles and resources to aid in her search for Hammond would help immensely, she said.
"There isn't even like someone to call, like a group you could sit down with other parents and share your feelings," she said. "There's nothing, nothing at all. I mean, these police officers don't even call to say, 'Hey, you know, it's been about a month, how's things going?'... It's just like, she doesn't exist anymore."
Anybody with information on Hammond's whereabouts can call the Alamosa County Sheriff's Office at 719-225-5824 with case #190963.
Across the country in Maryland, Todd Lertjuntharangool is working through the same struggles and frustrations. His sister, Kim Lertjuntharangool, was last seen and heard from on March 20, 2021 at the Belleview Light Rail at E. Union Avenue and Interstate 25 near Greenwood Village.
Todd and Kim, plus more of their family, are members of the Pueblo of Laguna, a federally recognized tribe in New Mexico.
“All of us are really kind of just doing our best to stay positive, and pray and hope that maybe she is out there and that somebody knows where she is,” Todd told Denver7 in April. “We are going to continue to see what other additional resources we can bring in locating my sister.”
Now, he is working with an advertisement company — Mile High Outdoor — which offered to post Kim's missing person flyers on a few billboards around the Denver metro area at no cost.
"And so it's just another avenue — I was trying to try to keep my sister's image visible," Todd said. "But that's the last thing that I've had."
There haven't been any new updates on the case since then, he said.
Hearing about the bill on Monday gave him renewed hope.
"To hear that a state has taken that approach, and that intentional approach to support families that are in a similar situation to me — I can't even put into words how happy that makes me and how supportive of those families an approach like that would be," he said.
Todd, who works as a part of Operation Lady Justice (The Presidential Task Force on Missing and Murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives), said the creation of an office to specifically aid in MMIR cases would help families well beyond just his own.
"To know that a state has taken that approach to support those families, and allocate resources and create this particular group of people who will be supporting those families — that's amazing," he said. "I mean, I can't put into words what that's going to do for those families. And hopefully, it does come to fruition.... I thank God for anybody who is willing to take their time to support those families and help guide them on the correct approach to bring the loved ones home."
"I'm definitely excited to learn that this legislation is coming up there in the state of Colorado," he continued. "It's going to be invaluable to those families who are impacted by the missing and murdered indigenous people epidemic that's really happening across the country, and specifically there in Colorado."
If you have any information on Kim's whereabouts, contact Det. Carr with the Greenwood Village Police Department at 303-486-8236.
The Senate bill is supported by the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Relatives Task Force of Colorado, Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Denver American Indian Commission, Haseya Advocate Program, Not Our Native Daughters, Red Wind, Southwest Indigenous Women’s Coalition, Sister Nations Color Guard, Utah Domestic Violence Coalition, Ute Mountain Honor Guard, Violence Free Colorado, and Womxn of the Mountain.
In addition, legislation to improve missing persons investigation sponsored by Reps. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, D-Denver, and Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, passed the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. It would clarify when Colorado law enforcement must accept a missing persons report. If the missing person is an adult, the agency must notify the CBI within eight hours — down from 24 hours — and if the missing person is a child, the agency must notify the CBI within two hours.
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