Nicole Walksalong was at her son’s school in Billings last December when she took a break and saw on Facebook that police had found a body at the Super 8 motel in Missoula. Her heart skipped a beat. Her mother had worked there for the past 21 years, and barely ever missed a day. Unable to reach her mom, she texted other family members, but they hadn’t heard anything. So she went on with her day.
The sinking feeling became more acute when her husband called to tell her a police officer had stopped by their house to do a welfare check. When she got home, the officer circled the block and then came to the door, asking for Walksalong by name. He started to talk, explaining his role and that there had been an incident in Missoula. Before he finished, Walksalong collapsed on the floor, screaming.
Most people in Missoula really only knew two things about Lonette Keehner: that she was stabbed to death by a meth-fueled killer and that she worked as a housekeeper at the Super 8.
For Walksalong, the injustice of her mother’s murder was aggravated by the fact that the details of her rich, full life — her unwavering devotion to her children, her Native American heritage and her contagious laugh — were lost in the reporting of her death. Lonette Keehner became simply the name of a victim. In the minds of many, she was a murdered housekeeper. For Walksalong, that exacerbated the tragedy.
In the days and weeks after the attack on Dec. 21, 2015, the stories were focused on the details of the crime and the backgrounds of the two people arrested for her murder.
Scott Austin Price, a Great Falls man with white supremacist ties, pleaded guilty to deliberate homicide and other crimes. His accomplice, Sara Rae McKnight, also pleaded guilty in May to deliberate homicide.
Prosecutors say both admitted they were on meth when they went to the motel looking for a car to steal and found Keehner cleaning a room. Keehner’s last moments — forced into a bathtub by a drug-addled stranger with a knife — surely were spent in terror. She died even after volunteering her car keys.
The bloody knife tied Price and McKnight to the murder, and the two were tracked down in Idaho. Last week, Price was sentenced to life in prison for fatally stabbing a 78-year-old Miles City man, Ed Martin, a week before he came to Missoula.
On Monday, Price and McKnight are scheduled to be sentenced in a Missoula courtroom for murdering Keehner.
As much as the crime shocked the Missoula community, where murders are extremely rare, it was unimaginable for Walksalong.
After the police broke the news to her, she and her husband piled their four children into the car and raced to Missoula, making it by 2 a.m.
“My 6-year-old daughter took it the hardest,” Walksalong said. “I just had to tell her that Grandma’s an angel now.”
Walksalong wants people to know how much her mother meant to the family and that she was more than just a victim of a random, inexplicable crime.
Lonette Marie (Sangsland) Keehner was 56 when she died. She was born a triplet, actually the first set of triplets born to the Blackfeet Nation. She and one of her sisters were adopted together and spent as many birthdays as possible with each other. Lonette and her husband, Dave Keehner, settled in Missoula, where they raised Walksalong and her siblings. Walksalong graduated from Big Sky High School in 2005 before attending Rocky Mountain College.
“Mom was really involved,” she said. “We would get home from school and right away have to sit down and do our homework. Mom would have us do work out of workbooks, and we would go to the library all the time. She would check out books and read to us.”
Putting others first
Keehner had an associate’s degree, and she pushed her kids to work hard and get a college education.
“She worked as a housekeeper at Super 8 for 21 years,” Walksalong said. “I think she was maybe sick once in the 21 years she worked there. But she mentioned that specifically. She told us, 'Get an education because you don’t want to do the work that I do.'"
Walksalong said her mother never complained about work, and even won a regional award — and was featured in local newspapers — for her bed-making speed and precision.
“She did the work that nobody wanted to do, and it was for her family,” Walksalong recalled. “I hated that job. I wanted her to quit. I would tell her, 'Just take time off and I’ll pay your salary.' But she didn’t want to. She thought of the other girls. She didn’t want to leave the other girls with more work. She always put others before her. She was a great person. She was so much more than just a housekeeper. She was smart and she was full of life.”
Walksalong paints a portrait of a kind woman who liked to go fishing or four-wheeling and who barbecued with her husband almost every day.
“My mom wanted — despite living in Missoula and being raised in a non-Native home — she suggested we go back and get in touch with our culture,” Walksalong said. “She introduced me to powwow dancing. My mom made my first dress. So I continue that tradition with my children, having them dance.”
Walksalong admits she was far from perfect during her rebellious teenage years.
“I definitely put my parents through a lot of stuff growing up,” she said. “I would sneak out and party. But my parents always pushed the education. So when I got a full-ride scholarship to Rocky (Mountain College) and earned my college degree, it was a big deal for me to do all this despite what mistakes I had made. They were both really proud.”
Walksalong began in October as the Indian Child Welfare Act program coordinator for Yellowstone County's Court Appointed Special Advocates. Part of her job is helping agencies and programs understand the cultural background of Native American children.
After Keehner's death, Walksalong said she wasn’t surprised that her mother’s life was boiled down to the bare minimum.
“That’s the style of journalism and how our media is today,” she said. “But we know who our mother was. We know how great she was. We know how caring she was, and how she would help anybody. It didn’t matter who. Anything, she was willing to help. She loved her children and loved her grandchildren.”
Before she agreed to an interview, she wanted to make sure it was focused on her mother.
“I grew up in Missoula and she had a lot of friends, they know who my mom was,” she said. “But it’s good to do pieces like this that let people know who crime victims were. Yes, a crime was committed, but it puts that in perspective. They had a family. They had this many kids, they did really well. Instead of that person that was stabbed or killed.”
For her mother’s killers though, Walksalong has no sympathy.
“I am still angry because I work in a field where I am around addicts and people with mental health issues,” she said. “There are a lot of people struggling at the bottom or feeling like they are at the bottom. But this was pure evil. They are pure evil. It can’t be the excuse of drugs or meth, when their lifestyle echoes that white supremacy lifestyle. They both have tattoos that signify they are a part of that. So, I have not forgiven them.”
Walksalong said she felt little relief when the suspects both pleaded guilty.
“I felt some relief, but they are just a sorry excuse,” she said. “That’s all they are. They are not human. It’s just a sorry excuse for taxpayers to fund them to keep them happy in prison for the rest of their lives.”
As time has gone on, Walksalong has focused on healing and making sure her children have fond memories of their grandmother.
She found some closure when she and about 30 other family members spread her mother’s ashes at Chief Mountain, a sacred Blackfeet site on the eastern border of Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
“It felt good,” she said. “That was always her wish, and we had her family there. It felt really good.”