Families searching for loved ones bring criticism of law enforcement to first Missing in NM Day

State event officials say they’ll need a bigger venue next year

By: - October 24, 2022 5:05 am

Family members of Zachariah Shorty embrace each other at the Missing in N.M. Day event in Albuquerque on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, in Albuquerque. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

Rose Yazzie said it’s been months since she’s heard any updates about her daughter, Ranelle Rose Bennett. She disappeared in 2021. 

Vangie Randall-Shorty is also waiting for a phone call with new information about her son, Zachariah Juwaun Shorty, who was killed in 2020. 

Two mothers, bound by a trauma, were suddenly in front of the top FBI agent in New Mexico discussing their children’s cases after struggling to navigate a criminal justice system that moves slowly, if at all.

Rose Yazzie talks to Raul Bujanada on Saturday afternoon in Albuquerque. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

The last time Rose saw Ranelle, she told her to come over to decorate for her daughter’s birthday.

“And she said, ‘I’ll be up there mom, because I’ll never miss my daughter’s birthday,’” Rose said. “Then we hugged. She hugged me for a long time. I can still remember that hug. And she had kinda tears in her eyes, but I didn’t think anything of it until I started driving off. And then I was wondering why she held me that long.”

Saturday’s Missing in New Mexico Day event in Albuquerque was designed, in part, to bring law enforcement face-to-face with people like Yazzie (Diné) and Randall-Shorty (Diné), many of whom are critical of their work investigating missing persons or homicide cases. The first-ever gathering succeeded in that way.

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

The two women talked directly with Raul Bujanda, the FBI special agent who leads the Albuquerque field office, and they outlined not only the timeline of the investigation but significant errors they’ve viewed during the process. 

Yazzie told Bujanda that it took the Navajo Nation Police more than two weeks to complete the missing persons report and more than a month to visit the home where her daughter was last seen on June 15, 2021. 

Yazzie said in the first few weeks her daughter was missing, “I talked to the criminal investigator, and he said there was nothing in the system on that. So another week went by, and he said: Still nothing.”

She’s also upset that the person Ranelle was last with was arrested on a federal warrant in an unrelated case, and she has yet to be told if that person is a suspect in the disappearance.

Vangie Randall-Shorty discussed monthslong delays in finding out the circumstances around her son’s death. She was also seeking any updates to the $10,000 reward the FBI is offering, seeking information on an arrest.

Zachariah Juwaun Shorty was killed in 2020. His case is still open with no arrests. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

To top it off, she also presented a list of 15 missing persons gathered from families in the Four Corners area — hours away from Albuquerque by car — that are also seeking information. 

“They can’t be here,” Randall-Shorty said. “Somebody’s got to be their voice. I’m not only Zachariah’s voice, but I’m the voice for other families, as well.”

Bujanda said the FBI would review the cases and respond to the families, “within a month’s time. Because to me, they need to have some sort of answer.”

“It brings it home and makes it real,” he said. “If that was your family that went missing or something happened even worse, right? They were murdered, and you knew what it is that happened. And it’s gone years, and you didn’t have any closure. I don’t want that for myself, I wouldn’t want that for you. And don’t I want that for them.”

Being told they would hear back from the FBI within a month was relieving for both Yazzie and Randall-Shorty.

“I’m glad that they’re finally listening and realizing that this is happening,” Randall-Shorty said. “I hope that this continues, and it’s not just today.”

FBI Special Agent in Charge Raul Bujanda talks to family members of Zachariah Shorty at the Missing in N.M. Day event on Saturday, Oct. 22, in Albuquerque. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

What’s next for elected officials and law enforcement leadership is outlined in various studies and publications, such as the strategic plan from the state’s task force on  Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives.

The reform proposals echo what people like Randall-Shorty, Yazzie, and other families have been saying for years: There are problems with consistent communication on active investigations, compassionate and non-discriminatory policing. and some resolution to the jurisdictional issues that hinder justice in these cases.

“It’s just all back and forth,” Yazzie said, between federal agents and tribal police.“They just throw it back and forth,” she explained, with each agency saying they’re waiting to hear from the other before they can act. 

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said, “Inconsistent jurisdictions and issues only exacerbate dark problems” during her opening remarks for the event.

“‘We can’t actually put it together. And while we could argue today, and I hope you will do that, we’ve got to fix that system of jurisdictions where it’s too complicated,” Lujan Grisham told a room of law enforcement from state, local, county, federal and tribal offices.

Rose Yazzie listens to FBI Special Agent Raul Bujanada on Saturday afternoon in Albuquerque. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

Bujanda said the FBI is working to train local law enforcement on technology tools that can be useful in communicating between agencies. He pointed to the FBI’s list of active missing persons cases in New Mexico and the Navajo Nation as one tool that benefits from agencies effectively talking to one another.

Jurisdictional issues are a severe and common hurdle for Native American communities reporting crimes. However, the Missing in New Mexico Day was set up for all active missing persons cases in the state. According to state police, 984 cases are under investigation.

The event brought out so many people, Lynn Trujillo with the state’s Indian Affairs Department is already discussing a bigger venue for next year.

Rose Yazzie approaches Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (right) after the signing ceremony for legislation on missing and murdered Indigenous women Thursday at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

“If it is bigger, it means that more partners are getting involved. And it means that more families and communities trust us to come out and share their stories and get answers,” Trujillo said.

Her work on this topic began in earnest with the creation of the state’s MMIWR Task Force. That group — composed of more than 30 people from tribal nations, victim’s advocates, attorneys, law enforcement and members of the public — recommended the state establish an annual Missing in New Mexico Day. A measure to make it happen was passed by the Legislature this year and signed into law in February.

Besides law enforcement, the event also linked families to  mental health resources.

Justice for Relatives

It’s obvious a positive outcome from all of the work by the task force and events like the one Saturday is the community it builds among people facing similar challenges and personal loss.

For instance Yazzie said she was unaware of the scope of the problem with reporting missing person cases until she sought help for her daughter’s case. She’s found some relief with others who are struggling by sharing experiences and rallying together for the same cause.

“It really helps talking to the people,” she said, “to know that you’re not the only person going through this.”

RESOURCES

New Mexico Crisis and Access Line: 1-855-NMCRISIS (662-7474)

24 hours a day, 7 days a week

TTY 1-855-227-5485

New Mexico Peer-to-Peer Warmline: 1-855-4NM-7100 (466-7100)

Call 7 a.m.–11:30 p.m.  |  Text 6 p.m.–11 p.m. every day

Language services always available

StrongHearts Native Helpline: 1-844-7NATIVE (1-844-762-8483)

Rape Crisis Center of Central N.M. 24- Hour Crisis Hotline: (505-266-7711)

The Life Link 24-Hour Crisis Response Line: 1-505-GET-FREE (1-505-438-3733)

You can also text “HELP” or “INFO” to BEFREE (“233733”)

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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. Most recently he covered Indigenous affairs with New Mexico In Depth. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.

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