Indigenous women in this country are more likely than any other group to be raped or murdered. The salt in this gaping wound is they are also least likely to see justice. These are very passive terms, but there are no others, because the amount of data available about violent crimes against indigenous women is dwarfed in comparison to those of other groups. Last year, there were 5,646 Native American women entered into the National Crime Information Centre (NCIC) as missing. As of June 2018, there had been 2,758 reported missing. Many of their families have claimed no one bothered to investigate.
The jurisdictional issues surrounding cases occurring on reservations is a giant knot of Christmas lights; difficult to unravel, involving federal, state, and tribal law. It can sometimes be unclear to investigating bodies exactly who should be looking for answers. These cases become stillborn while law enforcement plays jurisdictional musical chairs—trails go cold, witnesses disappear, or develop amnesia, evidence is eroded. These women are not likely to be found, nor are their cases likely to be prosecuted. The disappearance of Ashley Loring HeavyRunner is a chilling example. She went missing from the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana in June of 2017. Her sister begged for help from the Indian Bureau of Affairs, and the FBI did not investigate until March of 2018, nine months later.
Despite the fact tribes on the reservations are guaranteed self-government by the Constitution, the more serious crimes fall under the jurisdiction of the FBI. The FBI is not obligated to notify them if a member of their tribe is reported missing or murdered. On top of that, the crimes do fall under tribal jurisdiction are placed in the hands of a woefully understaffed force. “A lot of times it doesn’t go beyond the missing persons report,” said Marita Growing Thunder, a 19-year-old murdered and missing indigenous women (MMIW) activist.
In fact, the work being done to preserve information about murdered and missing indigenous women is being performed in large part by private citizens, like Annita Lucceshi, a PhD student at the University of Lethbridge in Southern Alberta. “I realised how difficult it is to get a sense of just how many murdered and missing women there are because it changes constantly and there is so little official information,” Annita told Independent. The database she has compiled goes back a little over a century, and she described her experience with obtaining accurate information to be heavy labor. “The police are not helpful. Typically, I get no response at all. If I do, they say they don’t collect the data, or that they won’t be able to pull that information.”
It gets worse. In preparation for his film Wind River, director Taylor Sheridan paid a handful of lawyers to compile a statistic regarding murdered and missing indigenous women. After three months, they came back empty-handed, but had learned some disturbing facts along the way. As recently as 2013, sexual assault of a Native woman by a non-Native could not be prosecuted because it was a state crime on federal land. Natives accused of crimes against non-Natives can be prosecuted twice, by the federal government and by tribal police. This was rectified when the Violence Against Women Act gave criminal jurisdiction over non-indigenous people who commit sexual violence against Native American women.
In 2015, the Department of Justice announced they were developing the Tribal Access Program for National Crime Information (TAP) so tribes can enter and view information in the federal NCIC database, thereby streamlining muddled communications between investigating bodies. Ten tribes were selected for the beta-test of this new system, but as of 2016, some had not received their TAP terminals. Once again, the wheels of justice turn at a glacial pace for missing and murdered indigenous women.
Every week there are new stories in the news about teenagers who have either run away or been kidnapped. When parents see these tragedies play out through media coverage, there’s usually one common thread running through their minds, “This could not happen to my child.” Despite statistics on the demographics most often affected by missing or runaway teens, no family is immune. Parents of a missing child or teen will most certainly have never found themselves in these frightful circumstances before and be at a loss for how to proceed. In addition to filing a report with police, the parents might also consider hiring a private investigator to conduct an independent, concurrent investigation. Finding missing teens is not always the speciality of an individual law enforcement agency, which means your child could fall through the cracks. Finding missing teens is not easy, especially when they do not want to be found. That’s why many families rely on the independent tenacity of private investigators to find their missing teens. Should you hire a private investigator to locate your missing or runaway child?
An Overwhelming Task
The Office of Justice Programs estimates the first 48 hours after your child goes missing are the most crucial in the timeline of any investigation. During these moments, your instinct might be to go find the child yourself or help conduct searches; however, as a parent or guardian of a missing child, your information is the most crucial. A 1982 congressional mandate requires law enforcement to immediately take a report following the disappearance of a child under the age of 18. However, recent reports estimate the excess of some 800,000 missing persons cases reported every year, 85-90% of those cases are individuals under the age of 18. What this statistic tells us is law enforcement, in most parts of the country, are overwhelmed by a caseload (with some departments averaging over 40 cases per investigator) leaving your missing child as a file amidst a stack of equally devastating missing child cases. As law enforcement agencies across the country remain stretched, missing child cases—especially ones where the child appears to have run away—are not always the first priority, as investigators attempt to perform a triage regarding which case requires their attention the most. Private investigators only average between three and four cases at any given time, meaning your child’s case will be at the top of their list of priorities. During the crucial FIRST 48 hours, having a private investigator treat your case as a priority can be the difference between acquiring invaluable information and losing a lead.
Constitutional Red Tape
One of the glowing advantages of hiring a private investigator to find your missing child or teen is the fact PIs possess far more autonomy than the average law enforcement officer or investigator. For instance, when a suspect has been identified, law enforcement often must secure a warrant for them to be tracked as the investigation unfolds. Paperwork and bureaucracy within the chain of command can cause the wheels of justice to turn slowly in regards to local or state law enforcement. Not only are PI’s not required to file this sort of paperwork, but they can also do so without the supervision of a governing law enforcement administration, so the case progression is not stalled for lack of warrant or administration approval.
The Binds of Jurisdiction
With a private investigator conducting an independent, concurrent investigation, there will never be any issues of jurisdiction when pursuing leads. Say your family lives in Indiana, but while on an out-of-state family vacation, your child goes missing in a crowd. As missing and abducted children across state or even international borders, local law enforcement exponentially lose power to follow leads maybe illuminating the child’s whereabouts. It is also not uncommon for two or more law enforcement agencies to enter a tug of war when it comes to who has jurisdiction over a particular case based on the specific circumstances. This can lead to the loss of leads or time as agencies hash out the details. Private investigators are never bound by jurisdictional bureaucracy. They can travel between states following the trail of a missing child, all without having to file any paperwork or obtain special permissions from superiors.
While law enforcement may have a wealth of experience and exclusive tools at their disposal, it’s important to remember that these civil servants are often overwhelmed with an immense case-load and can only do so much when it comes to the constitutional and jurisdictional boundaries they cannot cross. Private investigators have the expertise and similar tools of law enforcement, while also having the time to treat your case as a top priority.
Carie McMichael is the Communications and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, writing about investigative topics such as missing persons and corporate investigations. For more information on missing persons topics, please visit our website.
In the weeks following the capture of the infamous Golden State Killer, in which the survivors of the victims were finally given some closure, the family of a missing Florida man may finally have some answers as well after seventeen years of silence. Denise Williams, 48, was arrested on May 8th, 2018 for the first-degree murder of her first husband, Mike Williams. Her ex-husband, Brian Winchester, who is currently serving time for kidnapping her at gunpoint in 2016, was also identified in the court documents released on Tuesday as the person who shot his best friend, Mike Williams, on December 16th, 2000. The murder came just six months after Winchester had sold Williams a one-million-dollar life insurance policy, which his wife was able to collect, despite the fact his remains would not be found for seventeen long years.
In an astonishing coincidence, WCTV Eyewitness News in Tallahassee was able to locate archived footage from the year 1999, in which both Denise and Mike Williams appeared in a segment in early May as part of Mother’s Day. Their daughter was born in said year on the eve of Mother’s Day, prompting the media outlet to cover the new family as a human-interest story. In the footage, Mike Williams expresses how much more respect he has for his wife and women in general for their ability to bring a child into the world. This eerie footage is now being re-examined, with investigators and armchair detectives alike, wondering how this picturesque nuclear family unraveled in a story of greed, betrayal, and murder.
Investigators postulate Denise Williams and Brian Winchester started conspiring to kill Mike Williams less than a year after the human-interest piece aired on WCTV in Tallahassee. Six months before the fateful duck-hunting trip, Winchester sold Williams a life insurance policy in the sum of $1 million dollars, a decision raising no eyebrows at the time. Williams had a wife and 18-month-old daughter who would need caring for if something were to happen to him, so he purchased the policy.
When Williams did not return from his duck hunting trip on December 16th, the authorities were called. When the police found Williams’ abandoned boat on the water, the investigation tapered off after the theory was floated he was eaten by alligators. Despite dragging Lake Seminole, police were not able to recover a single trace of Mike Williams’ remains.
From the jump, there were people who did not believe the story police had given as an explanation for Williams’ disappearance, most significantly his mother, Cheryl Williams. In 2016, Cheryl Williams told The Daily News she did not believe her son was the victim of an alligator attack, but rather the victim of a black widow. She told her story to the media outlet as part of the coverage of Brian Winchester’s 2016 kidnapping and holding Denise Williams at gunpoint. It was her assertion from the beginning, she said, her daughter-in-law was involved, “I lost my son, his daughter lost her father and Denise is the only one who got millions of dollars,” Cheryl Williams said. “She and Brian are the only ones who profited from his death.”
The theory of Mike’s death, in which he’d been eaten by alligators, left a loophole allowing Denise Williams to collect on her husband’s insurance policy despite the fact authorities never recovered a body. A complete search of the lake left law enforcement and Mike’s mother without answers. In an additional tragedy to losing her son, Cheryl has also lost contact with her granddaughter, whom Denise Williams has barred Cheryl from visiting for the past ten years after Cheryl convinced law enforcement to open an investigation. These devastating losses were what propelled her to go to the police with her suspicions. Cheryl was finally able to persuade law enforcement to open an investigation into her daughter-in-law, but only for insurance fraud. It was a start, Cheryl told the media, and ever since, she has been championing for those responsible for her son’s disappearance to be brought to justice.
Five years after her husband went missing, Denise Williams married Brian Winchester. The couple separated in 2012, which sparked a series of domestic incidents ultimately culminated in Williams filing for divorce in 2015. The ongoing investigation into Mike Williams’ death left law enforcement with little recourse other than to turn up the heat on Brian Winchester.
According to the Tallahassee Democrat, friends reported Brian Winchester was acting strange around the time of the kidnapping, “In an interview with investigators, anesthesiologist Dr. Stephen Mnookin said he went to lunch with Brian Winchester hours after the Aug. 5, 2016 incident involving Denise Merrell Williams…At Village Pizza off Thomasville Road, Mnookin said a nervous Winchester told him the police were “after him” and kept contacting him, warning once their divorce was final, “his wife is going to say something about this guy who died 10 or 12 or 15 years ago.” The increased pressure on Winchester as a suspect, the news of his mother’s terminal cancer, and rejection from his son, who wanted to live with his mother, Winchester’s first wife, allegedly triggered his ex-wife’s kidnapping. On August 5, 2016, Winchester snuck into his ex-wife’s car and laid in wait for her to return. When she did, he held a loaded gun against her ribs for almost an hour. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2017.
Now with Winchester behind bars, negotiating with law enforcement, it seems investigators might finally be closing in on the truth behind Mike Williams’ cold case. In late December of 2017, Mike Williams’ remains were finally found—not in Lake Seminole where he allegedly drowned and was devoured by alligators—but in northern Leon County. Armed with this new evidence, the state was finally able to secure an indictment against Denise Williams. She was arrested on May 8, 2018 at her office at Florida State University. She is officially charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder and accessory after the fact. Presentation of the state’s case to a grand jury resulted in jurors naming Williams as the mastermind of the insidious plot to have her husband murdered for the insurance money. Ethan Way, Williams’ attorney, addressed the public about the innocence of his client in court, “My client had absolutely nothing to do with Mike Williams’ disappearance and had absolutely nothing to do with any of the crimes that Brian Winchester committed. We will fight this until the end.” Judge Nina Ashenafi Richardson of Leon County denied Williams’ request for bail, resolving to detain her in the Leon County Detention Center. Ethan Way has filed a motion seeking bail to be heard at an impending court date later in May.