Families of missing people in NM can urge action from law enforcement Saturday

The Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque will host the state’s first ever Missing in New Mexico Day event

By: - October 21, 2022 5:05 am

Seraphine Warren walks from the west toward Shiprock carrying a pray stick and burning sage on May 21, 2022. Warren organized the, “Reunite our Missing,”event to raise awareness on MMIWR and her missing aunt, Ella Mae Begay. Warren recently completed a walk from the Navajo Nation to Washington D.C. in honor of all missing and murdered Indigenous people. (Photo by Cyrus Norcross / Source NM)

Pepita Redhair disappeared from Albuquerque in March 2020. 

Her sister Shelda Livingston knew something was up when Pepita didn’t return calls. “She always called us on a daily basis. My mom always waits by the phone, waits for the call saying she’s coming home. She always reached out to me if she needed help or anything.”



Saturday Oct. 22, 2022

Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, Albuquerque

9 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Open to the public, but registration is required. You can do that online here.

People are encouraged to bring birth certificates, photos, dental records or any other documents related to a missing persons case. Documents are not required to speak with officials.

When Livingston went to file a missing persons report with the Albuquerque Police Department she said the reaction from officers was cold and potentially discriminatory.

She said officers were rude about Pepita’s personal shortcomings, and insisted she would return home but offered no resources to conduct a search. It took weeks for an official missing persons report to be filed. In that time, Livingston and her mom drove from the Navajo Nation to the city to conduct their own foot searches. They interviewed dozens of people, found people who knew Pepita, and generated media attention for the case that recently culminated in an episode about her on the series “Disappeared” a show on Investigation Discovery.

“We feel like there was no investigation done, or completed,” Livingston said.

The Pepita Redhair case is a glaring example of a consistent issue of police failing community and the lengths families will go seeking justice when the systems aren’t moving for them.

New Mexico is taking steps to rectify the issues. Saturday’s first ever Missing in New Mexico Day is an attempt to begin a dialogue, bringing together in one room the families of missing or murdered people, law enforcement and mental health providers.

MMIWR demonstrators hold up their signs despite the rain outside the UNM School of Law prior to U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland giving a speech inside on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (Photo by Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)

The bill creating the day was signed into law by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in February at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque. Fast forward a few months and the same venue will be hosting the Missing in New Mexico Day.

Justice for Relatives

Right now, 984 missing persons reports are active in the state, according to Department of Public Safety Bureau Chief for Law Enforcement Records Bureau Regina Chacon.

And according to a recently updated list from the FBI, 192 Indigenous people are reported missing from New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.

Saturday’s event is not specific to cases involving Native Americans. It’s open to anyone in the state with information or seeking info about a missing person’s case in New Mexico. The event, though, is rooted in the actions of groups like the state Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women & Relatives Task Force.

That group, formed in 2019, presented a list of actionable plans that include compiling accurate data to get a true picture of how many people are actually missing, connecting families with support resources, building greater communication channels with law enforcement and finding solutions to the jurisdictional maze that slows down investigations.

“That was another objective of this event, having all the law enforcement in the same room, being able to have all the key players, the investigators together,” Chacon said. “We’re trying to build those contacts and network, and make sure that they know who they’re able to call if those situations come up.”

People are encouraged to bring any documents such as birth certificates or photos that could assist a missing person case. State officials are also encouraging people to provide DNA samples that will be submitted to the federally run blood database called CODIS, a tool that allows police across the country to help identify missing people, as well as serial offenders. The state’s Department of Public Safety will host a panel and answer questions on that program.

From there people will have the opportunity to to talk directly with Attorney General Hector Balderas and other law enforcement agencies. The day will conclude with information on how to access mental health services.

Governor signs MMIWR bills

Chacon said each panel was created with the awareness that the relationships between some of these families and police are in need of repair.

“We want the community to start feeling more comfortable to show that, you know, law enforcement really does care about their family members,” she said. “We want to make sure that the families are getting the information that they need in order to understand what’s going on with the cases.”

Geraldine Toya is experiencing first-hand the benefits of what can happen when law enforcement listens and takes action on these cases. Her daughter Shawna Toya was reported missing before her body was found at Phil Chacon Park in July 2021.

Geraldine Toya’s grandchildren look up at her as she speaks about the death of their mother Shawna Toya at a MMIWR demonstration in front of the UNM School of Law prior to U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland giving a speech inside on the evening of Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022. (Photo by Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)

Despite family objections, police did not rule the case a homicide, becase drugs were reported in Shawna’s toxicology report. Geraldine Toya, much like Pepita Redhair’s family, felt police were not serious in their investigation and discriminatory.

“I felt like they were very negligent and irresponsible on that part,” she said. “We didn’t matter. Natives didn’t matter. And it was just like, kind of labeling her. It was just her lifestyle, which it never was, you know. So that’s why I’m fighting.”

Families of missing and murdered Indigenous people call for help at Haaland event in Albuquerque

With help from a victim’s advocate, Toya has gotten her daughter’s case into the hands of the Bernalillo County District Attorney Raúl Torrez, who created an MMIWR division within the office to review, investigate and possibly reopen.

Toya said investigators did another sweep of the car where Shawna was found, taking additional evidence, including her cell phone, and are now trying to obtain reports from the Albuquerque Fire Department, which was on scene at her time of death.

The DA unit is also looking into the Pepita Redhair case.

Toya said updates are still slow, but she is grateful to have a line of communication with an agency wanting the same thing she wants — justice.

“We need people that are responsible for their jobs and what they look into to be here to help us,” she said. “Her kids don’t deserve to be without her.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

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.