Shacaiah Harding had been living on the streets of Billings, off and on, for most of the last spring and summer, when her family realized no one had seen or heard from her for nearly a month. The 19-year-old had been struggling with addiction and mental health, but those close to her said it was unusual for her to go more than a week without checking in.
“From her being in and out of our lives, it took us a while to say, ‘Hey, nobody’s heard from Shacaiah,’” her 25-year-old sister, Shawnae King, said recently. “We all got together and started looking for her. We made posters and posted them downtown and asked people. We got little tips from people, here and there. But it was never Shacaiah.”
On Aug. 20, 2018, Harding’s mother, Tamera Bearcomesout, went downtown to the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office to file a missing person report. It would be one of the nearly 300 cases of missing Native American women and girls reported to law enforcement agencies in Montana last year.
More than 5,400 reports of missing people have been filed in Montana during the past three years, according to state Department of Justice data reviewed by The Billings Gazette.
But indigenous people — and Native women in particular — go missing at a vastly disproportionate rate than the general population.
Native Americans make up 6.7 percent of Montana’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But they accounted for 26 percent of missing person reports from 2016 through 2018, the only years for which comprehensive data on those cases were available from the state. Nearly two-thirds of those cases involved women or girls.
The majority of missing person cases were closed within a day or two; a runaway teenager returns home, police find the person walking down the road, or a child custody dispute is safely resolved. But by the end of 2018, Native Montanans still made up 26 percent of those who remained missing at least a month after they disappeared.
Like other agencies in the state, the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office enters those reports into National Criminal Information Center. After Bearcomesout met with a sheriff’s deputy to discuss her daughter’s case, Harding’s information was entered into the NCIC the same day, state DOJ data show. That national network populates the state’s public database of missing persons and allows nearly all law enforcement agencies in the country to view the same information.
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Harding, also known by her middle name “Blue,” remains listed as last seen or heard from six months ago. Bearcomesout smiles when she remembers her daughter’s propensity for spontaneous dancing — no matter where she was.
“She had her own style,” Bearcomesout said, smiling through tears. “She dressed the way she wanted to dress. She didn’t care what people thought. She didn’t care if people saw her singing and dancing, you know. ‘That’s me. If they don’t like it, they don’t get me.’
Her family members acknowledge their relationships with Harding had become strained by her increasingly erratic behavior. But in the months since her disappearance, fears about Harding’s safety have gripped her family, Bearcomesout said.
“I don’t feel like she’s gone, like dead. I don’t feel that kind of … ” she said, trailing off. “ ... At first I didn’t want to believe it, I didn’t want to know the outcome. I wasn’t ready to find out, was that the end? But now I’m ready. I just want to find my baby.
“I know someone out there knows something.”
After an initial report is filed, an officer or detective with the lead law enforcement agency follows up with family members to pin down where the missing person was last seen, who they were spending time with and where they may have been headed.
“We’ll look at if they’ve disappeared under suspicious circumstances,” said Lt. Dan Paris, who oversees the six-person detectives division at the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office. “It depends on the information we can get, and we get kind of a profile of their life leading up to that” disappearance.
Depending on whether the person appears to be in immediate danger, the agency can also request a regional or statewide alert to be sent out by the Montana DOJ. Amber alerts, distributed to local media and as text messages to anyone in the region with a mobile phone, are used specifically for cases involving minors in which an abduction is believed to have occurred.
Failing those criteria, the lead agency can request a Missing Endangered Person Alert, which similarly is sent to local media and law enforcement agencies. But those alerts must meet what Megan Martin, with the Montana Missing Persons Clearinghouse, termed an “endangerment factor,” which is subject to the discretion of the law enforcement agency requesting it.
“If they believe that person is in danger, that’s enough for us that we’ll go ahead and issue it,” Martin said. “They really try to make sure that it’s a justified alert and that they have enough information to give the public so they can assist with it.”
A total of 78 MEPA and AMBER alerts were issued in Montana from 2016 through 2018. Of those, 25 alerts, or more than 30 percent, were for Native Americans, and women and girls made up 15 of those, or 60 percent of alerts for Native Americans. AMBER alerts are infrequent; a total of eight were issued during the same three-year span.
In an email, DOJ spokesman John Barnes said the 1,000-plus missing person reports generated each year in Montana preclude the state from issuing alerts unless the person reasonably appears to be in danger.
“Most of those reports were resolved without a public alert,” Barnes stated. “If we did an alert for every missing person record, the alerts would be less effective as the public would quickly get desensitized.”
‘Brushed off’ by law enforcement
For the families left to wonder when or whether they will see their loved ones again, however, the response by law enforcement can feel underwhelming.
Harding’s family and Yellowstone County Detective Frank Fritz, who since November has been assigned Harding’s case, provided substantially different accounts of the agency’s handling of the case. It’s a recurring theme for the families of missing Native women and girls, as is the perception by many families that law enforcement agencies have been slow to act on their loved one’s disappearance.
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Ashley Heavyrunner Loring was reported missing from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in June 2017, and her family has since criticized the local police department’s handling of the case in Browning. The FBI joined the investigation nine months later, but the agency said Friday that Loring’s whereabouts remain unknown.
“When the family reported her, nothing was done, I think, until mid-July. We started doing our own posters,” Ashley Loring’s cousin, Lissa Loring, told The Billings Gazette.
The family of Henny Scott has also said their concerns were initially dismissed by law enforcement. The 14-year-old Northern Cheyenne girl’s immediate family previously told The Billings Gazette the local BIA police hadn't taken previous concerns seriously, so they filed the missing person report in Crow Agency, about 45 miles away. Three weeks later, the FBI asked the state to issue a MEPA for her. She was found dead by a volunteer search party two days after that.
In Yellowstone County, Paris noted that while many families, both Native and non-Native, often feel like their cases aren’t prioritized, that doesn’t mean his office isn’t pursuing leads and continuing its investigation.
“It’s very common actually, for them to feel like we’re not doing our job,” Paris said. “It’s frustrating on both ends, because if they don’t think we’re doing our job, they won’t tell us information.”
In Harding’s case, the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office in August entered her information into the state’s database the same day her family reported her missing, DOJ data shows. Her family, however, contends it wasn’t until three months later, in November, when they heard back from Fritz, once he had been assigned to the case.
“What’s frustrating is yeah, we know how it looks, and yeah, we know she was into her drugs and all that, and I know it took us a long time to realize she was missing,” said King, Harding’s sister. “But it doesn’t mean — to get brushed off, that’s what it feels like. It feels like we’re on our own, trying to find her.”
Fritz disputes that the family has been “brushed off.” While he declined to provide any specifics on how the report was handled in the three months prior to his involvement in the case, Fritz said the sheriff’s office would have begun investigating the report immediately.
A news release from the sheriff’s office went out to local media Nov. 30, describing Harding and some of the circumstances of her disappearance. It noted that “her direction of travel is unknown,” but said she had previous connections to locations in Montana, Kansas and New Mexico.
“For me, it would be standard to do that. The more people that see this out in the public, maybe somebody’s run across her,” Fritz said. “As soon as I got assigned to the case, that media release went out.”
Because Harding is a tribal member, Fritz said he also contacted the FBI to check out other places she may have wound up. (The FBI declined to comment.) Every time he attempts to reach the family members of a missing person, Fritz added, he leaves a number where they can reach him.
'Just not even knowing'
Fritz declined to say whether his investigation has turned up any reasons to believe Harding may be in danger, citing the confidentiality of the investigation.
But since so much is still unknown about Harding’s disappearance, her family is haunted by worries about her safety.
Compounding the alarming rate at which Native women and girls disappear in Montana and other Western states, studies indicate the rates of violence they face may be even more disproportionate. A federally funded, nationwide study released in August found that in some communities Native women are more than 10 times more likely than the general population to be the victims of homicide.
It’s an issue that ripples through many, if not most, Native families in Montana.
Henny, the 14-year-old found dead near Lame Deer in December, was King’s cousin.
And Bearcomesout, who grew up on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, remembers Hanna Harris as one of her son’s friends when he was growing up in the Lame Deer area. Harris went missing for several days in 2013 before she was found murdered at the age of 21 outside the reservation town.
For now, Bearcomesout said she’ll keep sifting through the scant clues left behind in the wake of her daughter’s disappearance, while trying to stay hopeful as her family clings to the memories of Blue.
“It just seems unreal, just not even knowing. Some days you just wonder, is she hurt? Is she cold? … Is she hungry?” she said. “Every day.”