“We just want her to be alive”: Family desperate for answers after Yakama woman disappears
WAPATO, Wash. — Rachel Norris is many things: a mother, a friend, a niece, a coworker, a Yakama woman. Her loved ones describe her as outspoken, bold and independent, with dimples and an infectious smile.
Her coworkers joke about how health-conscious Rachel is at 38; she has a penchant for huckleberry-picking, chia seeds, homemade smoothies and working out at the gym … a lot.
But while she may be all those things and more, those who love her are now thinking about one more thing Rachel is: missing.
“I just want her safe,” Rachel’s aunt Kathryn Schwartz said. “Regardless of where she’s at or what she’s doing or if somebody’s with her … I just want her to be alive and I want her to be safe.”
A few days before Rachel’s disappearance, Schwartz got a call from her.
“She was crying on the phone. She was pretty upset,” Schwartz said. “She just asked me to pray for her, which was a first, to be honest.”
Schwartz is part of a women’s ministry in the Dalles, Ore., where she lives. She says she didn’t really ask what was going on with Rachel, but just prayed with her.
“[Rachel’s] like, ‘I’m just, you know, I just feel like I need prayers, that’s all,” Schwartz said.
Still on the phone, the two prayed together, said ‘Amen’ and then told each other goodbye, Schwartz said.
“She told me that she loved me,” Schwartz said. “I told her that I loved her and that if she needed anything, just to call me.”
Shortly before Rachel went missing, her coworkers at Legends Casino in Toppenish say she had a red mark on her forehead. Some thought it looked like an allergic reaction or a burn, others say it might have been a bruise.
Coworker, friend and cousin Samantha Miller says she asked Rachel where the mark had come from; she said she didn’t know and asked to borrow makeup to cover it up.
Rachel’s long-time boyfriend reportedly told Schwartz and police that he and Rachel had an argument the night before she went missing; she asked him to leave her apartment, and he did.
Schwartz said on the day her niece went missing on Nov. 14, she awoke just before 3 a.m. to flames: her apartment was on fire.
About 25 people living at the apartment complex near East Third Street and Simcoe Avenue were evacuated. One man reportedly jumped out a second-story window to escape the blaze.
No one was injured and the fire was quickly extinguished. An investigation by the apartment’s insurance company determined the whole thing was an accident, according to fire officials.
Investigators say the fire was caused by a candle that had somehow come into contact with a mattress in Rachel’s apartment.
“There was no indication — either on the scene that night or after the investigation — that this was any type of arson,” Wapato fire Chief Bob Clark said.
Rachel’s apartment was one of three in the complex with substantial fire damage; while others are still recovering from water and smoke damage, the three second-floor apartments were destroyed.
“There was nothing left,” Clark said. “It was totally uninhabitable.”
Rachel’s friends say she talked about her apartment frequently; she was proud to have saved up enough to have her own place, to pay for it with her own money. Her friends say she’d lived there for at least three years.
Clark says firefighters, Wapato police and people from the apartment complex spoke to Rachel shortly after the fire.
“Of course, as you can well imagine, she was upset,” Clark said.
Along with other displaced residents, firefighters offered to connect Rachel with the American Red Cross to help find a place to stay, food and clothing. Clark said she “adamantly and politely” declined.
“She said that she was able to take care of herself,” Clark said. “I didn’t see where she went after that.”
Clark said she did leave a cell phone number. He said he’s heard that when people call her, they never get an answer.
From there, Schwartz said Rachel’s mother told her that she showed up at her nearby Wapato home and saw her and Schwartz’s brother.
“They said that she had showed up there and was very distraught and shocked,” Schwartz said. “She was very scared that she almost didn’t make it out of there.”
Rachel’s mother, Schwartz said, is now in the hospital due to recurring health issues.
At some point that morning, coworkers say Rachel called her supervisor to let her know what happened.
“She had lost everything … Our supervisor told her to take the rest of the week off and that she would call her in a few days,” coworker Michelle Briseño said.
But a week after the fire, Rachel still hadn’t come into work or answered her supervisor’s calls or messages.
“She has not shown up for work and it’s not like her,” Briseño said. “She is a very dedicated worker at Legends Casino.”
That afternoon, Schwartz says she received a message from Rachel’s younger sister, who lives in Goldendale, more than 50 miles away from Wapato. Schwartz sensed something was up and asked what was going on.
Rachel’s sister reportedly sent her a picture of the burned-down apartment and said Rachel had come to see her in Goldendale. Schwartz said that’s the last time anyone heard from her niece.
“I went into panic mode,” Schwartz said. “I was freaking out.”
Schwartz filed a missing person report with Yakama Nation Tribal Police. On Wednesday, she and her nephew traveled from the Dalles to Toppenish, to meet with Rachel’s friends and put up missing person fliers.
“This is so unlike her, at all,” Schwartz said. “I understand that she’s a very independent person and that she’s always kept to herself in a way where she doesn’t want drama; she doesn’t want chaos.”
However, Schwartz says she can’t understand why Rachel wouldn’t show up to work.
“She loved working at the casino: she would talk about it all the time,” Schwartz said. “She’s always worked hard at what she does and she’s really good at it.”
After working with Rachel for several years, Samantha said they’ve become close. She was pregnant when she first met Rachel and their coworkers didn’t think they’d become friends.
“And then she just became a part of my family: it was just automatic,” Samantha said. She later found out they were actually cousins.
Samantha says when she was pregnant, she sometimes struggled to get her baby to kick: Rachel, however, did not.
“She was the only person who was loud enough to get the baby to move,” Samantha said.
Samantha said she and the other employees at Legends are really missing Rachel and want more than anything to find her.
“She’s a good friend and this is not like her to be missing this long,” Samantha said. “We just want her home and safe.”
Rachel’s loved ones say they’ve heard rumors about where she might be, but nothing they can confirm and still no word from her.
“I’m asking for a divine intervention on finding Rachel and letting family members and friends know that she is safe and alive,” Schwartz said.
Rachel is 5’4”, weighs 125 pounds and has brown eyes; her black hair is usually put in a ponytail, and she wears prescription glasses. She drives a newer white Subaru Outback with tribal plates.
No matter what the circumstances of her disappearance, Rachel’s loved ones all agree that they just want her safe and home.
“I know the fire was very scary and for whatever reason, in Jesus name, it’s not your fault: accidents happen,” Schwartz said. “I just don’t want you to be afraid. I don’t want you to be alone. I love you so very much.”
Anyone with information about Rachel’s whereabouts can contact Yakama Nation Tribal Police at 509-865-2933.