Feds open Billings office to solve missing Indigenous people cold cases

A federal task force to investigate cold cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous people opened an office Thursday in Billings.

This was the third of seven offices of Operation Lady Justice Task Force, Tara Katuk Sweeney, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, said.

President Donald Trump established the Operation Lady Justice Task Force on Nov. 26, a multi-agency effort co-chaired by U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt and U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr.

It will focus on missing and murdered American Indian and Alaska Natives in tribal communities and staffed with law enforcement and newly appointed special agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services.

The task force will collect data across jurisdictions; establish protocols for new and unsolved cases; establish multi-jurisdictional cold case teams and improve the response to investigative challenges.

It will also provide a report to the president of its work. The first cold case office opened July 27 in Bloomington, Minn.

“In Montana and across our nation, we’re facing a devastating crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people,” said U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont. “That’s why I’m glad to see the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services leading this charge and establishing this important new office.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., applauded the opening of the Billings’ office.

“Indigenous peoples — particularly women — are far more likely to experience violence, and human trafficking rates in Indian Country are exponentially higher than other parts of the United States,” said Tester. “I’m glad to see this BIA Cold Case Team office opening its doors in Billings, because far too many missing person cases in Indian Country have fallen by the wayside. We need to bring justice and closure for the families of those whose cases have gone cold while upholding the federal government’s trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribes—and that’s exactly what this office will work to accomplish.”

According to the National Crime Information Center, 116 of the nearly 6,000 cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women were listed in the Justice Department’s official database in 2016, he said.

Tribal leaders also voiced support for the new office.

”The Blackfeet Nation is in full support of the Cold Case Murder Task Force Office opening in our region and are hopeful that this will be a path forward for providing justice to the many Indian families who have lost loved ones to either murder and or abduction,” Blackfeet Chair Timothy Davis said in a news release.

Andrew Werk Jr., president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community, said it will help to answer questions that have gone unanswered for years.

“It will be a great help in bringing comfort and settlement to the families of those who have been missing for years,” he said in a news release. “The Fort Belknap Indian Community is supportive of efforts to help Indian Country assist their members in finding closure and bringing individuals to justice.”