Yakama Reservation’s 40+ missing person cases could be solved by forming WA cold case unit

YAKAMA NATION — Washington State Patrol’s latest list of missing indigenous persons has at least 40 cases involving people missing from the Yakama Reservation, including the oldest reported MMIW cold case in the state.

A little over 50 years ago, then-16-year-old Janice Marie Hannigan vanished shortly before Christmas in 1971 and hasn’t been heard from since. Little is known about her disappearance or what investigators know about her case.

In a newly-released report, the Washington State Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force recommended changes to the justice system to help address the MMIWP crisis — including creating a cold case unit to help solve cases like Hannigan’s.

“If funded, a cold case unit will direct critical resources toward these cases and help address the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and people,” Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a news release.

Another recommendation made by the task force is for authorities to address jurisdictional issues and improve coordination between local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement agencies.

Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell said he believes his deputies have done well navigating the confusion of boundaries that exist in the Lower Yakima Valley, but it’s still a struggle.

“Let’s say someone calls us for a shooting and there’s blood, right?” Udell said. “Everybody goes, and then after everything is settled down, safe, secure, then the officers and the deputies will decide who will have the case.”

Udell said it’s taken agencies across the valley years to get to the point they are now, where they’re better able to share information and support each other in investigations.

“We treasure those relationships,” Udell said. “There is no one jurisdiction — be it us or anybody else that has the ability to truly affect crime on their own, but together, that’s where the magic happens.”

Part of that magic includes deputies, tribal police officers and other agencies partnering with the FBI for a task force targeting the most violent offenders for arrest in the hopes of preventing MMIW cases and other crimes of violence.

FBI Seattle Assistant Special Agent in Charge Kelly Smith said that’s important for public safety on the Yakama Reservation, which has the highest number of missing indigenous person cases of any reservation in the state.

Smith said population is part of the reason, but it also has to due with the prominence of drugs and gangs. He said anyone engaging heavily in those activities could be targeted by the FBI task force.

“They focus on gangs, particular individuals who are causing problems in the community and try and hold them responsible to prevent further crime,” Smith said.

Smith said while violent crime has increased significantly across the country and the state, in the two-and-a-half years the FBI task force has been operating, crime has held steady in Yakima and on the Yakama Reservation.

A recent issue causing headaches for FBI agents is the increasing number of juveniles engaging in gang violence on the Yakama Reservation and their inability to quickly arrest and prosecute them.

“For us to charge a juvenile federally, there’s a lot more rigor and a lot more review in that, so it does create some specific challenges,” Smith said.

According to Smith, in addition to the task force, they’ve doubled the number of agents working out of their Yakima office in the past few years and have been able to “deputize” deputies to assist in their investigations.

While they do occasionally request additional help from agents in Seattle, Smith said the majority of agents in the area are people’s friends and neighbors.

Smith said that gives them a vested interest in keeping the community safe, beyond their job duties, but it also steepens the emotional toll for agents.

Unlike other law enforcement agencies, the FBI doesn’t have patrol officers: just investigators who are constantly looking into crimes that are serious enough to rise to the federal level.

Smith said that means agents working on reservations are usually dealing with sex crimes, serious assaults or worse — like a 2019 incident where two brothers murdered five people in White Swan. 

“These are some of the most horrific crimes that an FBI investigator would observe during their career,” Smith said. “So these cases do have an effect on the investigators. They are members of the community and they care.”

However, Smith said the biggest barrier they face isn’t the stress of the job, their resources, personnel or funding, but a lack of cooperation from witnesses.

“There may be a misconception that the FBI is all knowing,” Smith said. “But we do rely on witnesses and rely on the community and the community is our biggest resource in helping solve cases.”

Community members can submit tips about cases online at tips.fbi.gov.

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