LAME DEER — Malinda Harris Limberhand paused and the crowded house went quiet, except for the sound of her grandson, 18-month-old Jeremiah Harris, chattering and playing close by.
Four generations of family members were packed into a little, wood-heated house on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation to talk about Jeremiah’s mother, 21-year-old Hanna Harris, who was found dead last summer in a ditch south of the rodeo grounds in Lame Deer.
Officials still haven’t said how the single mother died, but some members of her family are convinced she was murdered.
“The last time I ever seen her alive was at 5:30 in the afternoon,” Limberhand said, launching into her recollections of Tuesday, July 3, the day her daughter went missing.
Harris had told Limberhand she was going downtown and would be back later so they could go to a fireworks show that night. She never returned.
Family and friends spread out, searching the area through the weekend. They found Harris’ car, a 2006 white Chevrolet Cavalier, in Big Horn County on Muddy Creek Road a couple of miles west of Lame Deer near a housing development called Muddy Cluster.
On July 8, searchers found her body a few miles away in Rosebud County. She was less than 50 yards from a dirt road roughly a quarter-mile south of the rodeo grounds in Lame Deer.
“We knew something was up with that because she would never let her baby starve or anything,” Limberhand said of her daughter’s disappearance. “After she passed away, we had no choice but to put him on the bottle.”
Seven months later, Limberhand and her other daughter, Rose Harris, say they’re still waiting for answers.
“What am I going to say when he gets older?” Rose Harris said of Jeremiah, whose native name is Nellie’ek Singsinthemountains. “I’m supposed to be the auntie. What am I going to tell him about his mom, you know?”
The FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs, the agencies involved in the case, still haven’t released a cause of death — or even said if Harris’ death is considered suspicious.
Limberhand said she reported Harris missing on Friday, July 5, to police in Lame Deer. She said they declined to do anything until the following Monday, telling her that Harris had probably just been out drinking and would turn up.
“I pretty much don’t have any communication (with the BIA police),” Limberhand said. “They weren’t really willing to help in the first place … Nobody has ever apologized to me on that part.”
And she said Wednesday that she spoke recently with an FBI agent, who — same as always — told her the investigation is ongoing.
“All they keep telling me is that it’s an ongoing investigation and that they’re looking into leads,” Limberhand said.
Local law enforcement officials declined to comment for this story and referred questions to the FBI and BIA.
Nedra Darling, a BIA public affairs officer in Washington, D.C., said the FBI is the lead investigator on the case and that she had no information to provide.
Patsy Speelman, a spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City Division of the FBI, replied to numerous inquires by only confirming that the investigation into Harris’ death is ongoing and that a toxicology analysis of samples taken from her body is being done at an FBI lab in Quantico, Va.
Other FBI and BIA agents declined to comment or didn’t respond.
Limberhand says she has “no doubt” that her daughter was murdered. She admitted she doesn’t know if her daughter’s body showed signs of a violent death.
Rose and Brice Harris, Limberhand’s brother, also said they think Harris was murdered and that they have two suspects in mind.
Limberhand says she reviewed surveillance taken at about 1:30 a.m. July 4, 2013, at the Jimtown Bar that shows her daughter in the company of a man and a woman.
There are also reports, which Limberhand couldn’t confirm, that Harris was seen a short time later at a gas station in Lame Deer in the company of the same two people.
However, she said she talked with the people she saw in the surveillance footage, and found that they had the keys to Harris’ car.
Limberhand said she made officials aware of the two people and of her suspicions, but didn’t want to say more. “Everybody is innocent until proven guilty,” she said.
The family is convinced someone must know more about what happened to Harris, and they have set up a reward fund to encourage people to come forward with more information.
“We’re … just hoping and praying that somebody has a heart and comes forward and tells the truth,” Limberhand said. “Because the people who did this to my daughter are cowards. They’re not taking responsibility for their actions.”
An organization called Wolf Mountain Search and Rescue is hosting a poker run on March 1 to raise money for the reward fund, which the family said will compensate anyone who provides information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people involved in Harris’ death.
“I don’t want those kind of people living in my community, and I’m sure other people don’t want those kind of people living in their community,” Limberhand said.
The poker run is expected to raise about $3,000, 95 percent of which will go to the reward fund, while the remainder goes to Wolf Mountain, she said.
Harris is buried next to her grandfather, Raymond Harris Jr., about 100 yards behind her grandmother’s house, where the family had gathered to talk.
The granddaughter and grandfather were close, their family members say, and would often attend tribal functions together.
“Yeah, that was grandpa’s girl," said Lyle Harris, Harris’ uncle, as he walked out to her grave, which is decorated with prayer flags, plastic flowers and a couple of stuffed bears.
Her nickname was “Hanna Bear.”
“Let’s hope justice will be served,” he said. “I think about her all the time. When I drive (by the graves), I say 'Hi, Hanna. Hi, dad. See you later.’”
Harris was born May 5, 1992. When she was 13 months old, she survived a tornado, losing only a tooth, her mother said.
“The whole trailer house was picked up … ,” Limberhand recalled. “She went through her whole adolescence (missing) a tooth.”
After Harris graduated from Hardin Middle School, her family moved to Billings so she could attend Billings West High School. She graduated in 2010.
“She really liked working with kids,” Limberhand said, explaining that Harris spent time as a teacher’s aide and wanted to eventually be a teacher.
She and her family moved back to Lame Deer from Billings after she became pregnant with Jeremiah Harris, who was born Aug. 28, 2012.
Harris was outgoing and liked to be around other people, Rose Harris said.
“You can always see her from a mile away (and) hear her laugh from a mile away — especially her SpongeBob laugh,” she said.
Harris also was a proud mother.
“She only got to hold him for a little bit,” Rose Harris said. “But I know that deep down inside she just loves him. That’s all I could probably ever tell him.”
Rose Harris said the last time she spoke to her sister was in a phone conversation on July 2. She remembers her sister talking about Jeremiah, who was getting bigger, starting to smile and developing his own personality.
The sisters agreed to spend time together when Rose Harris got into Lame Deer from Billings for the Fourth of July.
“She was like, ‘Good, I can teach you how to change diapers,'” Rose Harris said.
‘Justice for Hanna'
The initial search for Harris and the subsequent “Justice for Hanna” movement have drawn the family closer.
“It brought us all back together,” Myra Fisher, Harris’ aunt, said. “In the pain and suffering it showed me that we’re here for each other. Family is all we have.”
When Harris went missing, family, friends and community members mobilized to search for her days before local police got involved, according to Limberhand.
“When we realized the cops ain’t gonna do nothing, we all banded together and had this big search party,” said Brice Harris.
The following Monday, July 8, local police and other agencies got involved and the search efforts expanded. At about midnight that night, the family got word that Harris’ body — identified at least partly by her tattoos — had been found in the ditch behind the rodeo grounds, according to Limberhand.
She said she has “nothing but praise” for Ed Joiner and the other members of the local search and rescue team who found Harris.
An autopsy was done, samples sent off for toxicology analysis and Harris’ remains were turned over to her family for burial.
They held a well-attended funeral at Harris’ grandmother’s house and a mourning ceremony at the site where the body was found.
“We just released her spirit that morning,” Limberhand said.
A prayer cloth covered by rocks scrawled with messages and more prayers covers the site. Temperatures in Lame Deer reached 100 degrees in the days after Harris went missing, her family recalls. Now, seven months later, the site is blanketed in snow, and the messages scrawled on the rocks there have faded.
But her family is still fighting for answers. Since her death, Harris’ family has been involved in three rallies aimed at bringing attention to her case.
A “Justice for Hanna” rally in Lame Deer last August drew hundreds of supporters, who called for local, tribal and federal officials to improve efforts to solve not only Harris’ death but the unsolved deaths of numerous tribal members across the country.
“It hurts. It really does, and it tears all of us up,” Rose Harris said, as she sat with her extended family. “And her son, he gets to grow up without a mom.”
“But now he has a whole bunch of moms and dads,” she said.