Families gather to speak for MMIW in Old Town

Bernalillo County DA launching a cold-case unit to investigate these cases, plans to seek state funding

By: - October 4, 2021 11:47 am

A young person slowly releases balloons with the names of missing and murdered Indigenous women written on them as part of the MMIW rally at Tiguex Park on Oct. 3. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

Pepita Redhair was the name and face on the flyer for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives awareness event in Albuquerque. 

She wasn’t the only person with family demanding answers during Sunday’s event. 

Shawna Toya. Ranelle Rose Bennett. Zachariah Juwan Shorty. Wilhelmina Denise Whitewater. Jamie Lynette Yazzie. Ella Mae Begay.

All these people are missing or murdered. In their absence, they brought friends and relatives to Tiguex Park in Old Town on Oct. 3, for an afternoon event to cry, try to heal, find community with one another and keep asking questions about what happened.

“It gives everyone a chance to tell their story,” Redhair’s sister Shelda Livingston (Diné) said. “We just want to be heard. And we want to make sure we bring our loved ones home. We want closure. We want to make sure our sisters, our brothers and our relatives come home.”

‘She’ll come up’

Redhair, last seen at her Albuquerque home on March 24, 2020, was preparing to leave an abusive relationship after she was hospitalized with a head contusion the weekend before she went missing, her sister said. Her family on the Navajo Nation in Crownpoint were preparing for her return.

One day, she didn't call. She always calls home.

– Shelda Livingston, Pepita Redhair's sister

The family contacted her boyfriend who’s only statement to family and police was that Redhair left, her relatives said. COVID-19 was shaping into a global pandemic, and Livingston said police were hesitant to interview Redhair’s boyfriend.

Anita King, the mother of Pepita Redhair, thanks the crowd for coming out in support of her missing daughter and others like her at the MMIW rally at Tiguex Park on Oct. 3. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

“I reached out to the cops numerous times, and they kept telling me, ‘She’ll come up,’ ” Livingston said. “ ‘Because of COVID we can’t interview. Because of COVID, we’re not able to go into (boyfriend’s) house. Because of COVID, we’re not able to do a search warrant.’ Because of COVID, they were limited to do a lot of things, and I kept telling them it doesn’t matter. Bring him in, question his entire family.”

That hasn’t happened, the family said. So Redhair’s family took to the streets, posting flyers and organizing events like the one in Old Town. Their efforts got the attention of Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez. He said Sunday a new cold-case division in his office will investigate Redhair’s disappearance. 

“We basically had to brainstorm and go back to the timeline and basically, tell him what happened from our end,” Livingston said, “(Torrez) wanted to know where she was, how she was, how she went missing, who she was living with.”

Torrez said the DA’s Office will be assisting the Albuquerque Police Department. “We’ve picked up Pipita’s case,” Torrez said. “We’ve offered them assistance to fill in the investigative gaps in that case. And we will bring in other cases where we can. But my hope is, by expanding the capacity of the unit, we’ll be able to do this at scale.”

By scale, Torrez means he wants to see multiple agencies offer any and all resources at the beginning of missing or murdered cases. He gave the example of the Gabby Petito case, which sparked national news coverage of the multi-state police investigation in part through constant pressure on social media.

Not giving up

Shawna Toya was missing for hours when her body was found in her vehicle at Phil Chacon Park in Albuquerque on July 31. 

She left home with laundry and at least $800 cash to go get a money order for her rent payment, said her mother Geraldine Toya (Jemez / Laguna). When she was discovered, she said, the money was gone, a purse and ID from an unknown woman was left in her vehicle.

That morning I spoke with her she told me that was gonna go to the store to get some laundry soap because we’re supposed to go school shopping.

– Geraldine Toya, Shawna's mom

“That night, I guess she left about 11 p.m. because when I talked to her at 9:30 p.m,. she was talking while she was soaking (in the bath),” Toya said. “She said she was taking a bath because we got sore from bowling. We’re laughing about that.”

Police said Shawna Toya died from a methamphetamine overdose, so her case is not investigated as a homicide. The Office of the Medical Investigator did not complete a full toxicology report before her body was sent home to Jemez Pueblo with relatives, Toya said. 

Geraldine Toya, the mother of Shawna Toya, stands by the stage at Tiguex Park with a sign for her daughter and other missing women at the MMIW rally on Oct. 3. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

“(Investigators) told me, they’re going to do an internal and external autopsy on my daughter,” Toya said. “Once they found out she was a Native, what did they do? ‘Oh she’s ready,’ didn’t even touch her at all, Just threw her in the freezer. And we didn’t even find out why she passed. So that’s not fair.”

Toya has no reason to believe her daughter used substances. Police also suggested that Shawna was homeless, leaving her family to wonder why police would make that assertion when she was on her way to pay rent. 

This all contributes to an investigation Geraldine Toya considered botched from the beginning due to police discriminating against her family for their appearance and background. She argues police did not fully investigate the case and expect her to give up and accept their rationale for Shawna’s death. Her determination is emboldened by the police inaction.

“Because they think that we’re so dumb,” she said, “Like, we’re not knowledgeable, we’re not educated, we’re not gonna continue searching or looking for (Shawna), we’re gonna eventually just give up and say whatever.” 

Torrez couldn’t comment on the Toya case but did say he spoke with the family and the new unit could look deeper into cases such as this one. 

Funding investigations

Of course, money is an issue, one Torrez hopes to address during the next legislative session where he will request funding for the cold case unit in Bernalillo County to investigate missing and murdered indigenous women and relatives cases.

Six people were represented by their family at the event in Old Town. Due to issues with consistent and accurate reporting, even Torrez is unsure exactly how many MMIW cases exist in New Mexico. So families are left to continue wondering if justice will arrive for their missing or murdered relative.

“I need them to know that we are going to continue to pursue what we need,” Geraldine Toya said.

I told my daughter, and I promised her when she was laying there, I'm gonna find answers.

– Geraldine Toya, Shawna's mom

Redhair’s relatives echoed the sentiment.

“We’re going to continue fighting for our families,” Livingston said. “I really became my sister’s voice. The families, the moms became their voices, their families, their loved ones voices, their missing ones voices. That’s what it’s about. Who’s going to tell my story if I go missing?”


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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.