Signs for Pepita Redhair, Jamie Yazzie, Ella Mae Begay and others line the front of the stage at a MMIWR rally in Albuquerque. (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)
Nearly two years after Pepita Redhair went missing, and the circumstances around her disappearance are still unclear to law enforcement.
If you talk with her family, the clues are obvious.
She was trying to leave an abusive relationship, family members said, and interactions with police were common. Her ex-boyfriend had a controlling hand on how she communicated with family until the moment in March 2020 when they stopped hearing from her, and there was suddenly silence.
Redhair’s sister Shelda Livingston recounts those key moments. She does so in part to keep focus on finding her sister. She started the timeline when Redhair’s case caught the attention of advocates who wanted to help, which led to Redhair’s case getting an investigation by the Bernalillo County District Attorney’s Office.
“We want to know what happened. We want her home,” Livingston said. “She came from a good family, from seven of us, and this is not like her, and that’s why it’s so upsetting.”
Now, the Bernalillo County DA’s Office and the state’s Indian Affairs Department will combine efforts as part of a sub-unit specializing in cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives.
The sub-unit was created under a memorandum of understanding between the two government agencies where their work in these types of cases often intersects, though historically they do not coordinate. The state agency oversees the New Mexico MMIWR Task Force, a volunteer group of mostly Indigenous women that has identified problems that often start the moment police are contacted, such as insubstantial law enforcement resources, poor collaboration between agencies and inadequate data collection.
Bernalillo County has the most MMIWR cases in the state with at least 37 reported in Albuquerque. That makes the county second worst in the United States, according to a 2017 report from the Urban Indian Health Institute. Overall, New Mexico has the highest number of these cases in the country.
With the coordination, the sub-unit intends to also fix flaws in the research and data, like the racial misclassification of victims, and outdated or non-uniform record-keeping protocols.
“It is clear that steps need to be taken to help bring resources to the victims, families and communities affected by this crisis,” Bernalillo District Attorney Raúl Torrez said. “Working with Native communities and law enforcement say collecting actionable data is crucial to moving these cases forward and preventing future violence.
The effort could provide clear direction with potentially accurate accounts for how many MMIWR cases exist in the state.
The agreement between the state and county DA is a major — if not obvious — step to forming a partnership between two groups doing significant work on these issues, said Indian Affairs Cabinet Secretary Lynn Trujillo.
It also should be the first of potentially other agreements between agencies across the state to further explore why MMIWR cases are prominent in New Mexico and fix the systemic issues that exacerbate the yearslong crisis.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to advise and assist the sub-unit as they start on an important endeavor that will give much-needed oversight and assistance to families who are still searching for answers,” Trujillo said.
Livingston would like to see change in how law enforcement gets information and records from family. She said her sister’s background was immediately questioned by reporting officers which she argues led to discrimination. She wants the sub-unit to address these issues.
“Just because you have a police record and you go ask for help, they’re like, ‘Oh, she’s not calling. Oh, she’s just a drug addict. Oh, they smoke meth.’ You know, it’s a stereotype,” she said. “It’s like we’re being judged, before they even get to know you or get to know that person. That’s the hard part, to say my sister is missing and hear that. People always say forget the past and move on. And that’s exactly what my sister was doing.”
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