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On the sunny spring day of April 18th, 2017, with a gentle breeze hardly blowing more than a whisper, neighborhood residents found the naked body of 36-year-old Rhonda Jones, a Lumbee woman, stuffed in a trash can in East Lumberton, North Carolina.
The “People of the Dark Water,” also known as the Lumbee Nation, are still demanding answers. Generations ago, this resilient Indigenous community took refuge from white settler massacres in the swamps of southeastern North Carolina. They eventually adopted their name from the river that runs through the swampland. Now, another threat of violence hangs over the community.
Shatter the Silence members have confirmed at least 31 Native women have gone missing or been murdered in eastern North Carolina since 1998.
The same day Jones’ body was found, her acquaintance Kristin “Christina” Bennet, was also found dead in a nearby abandoned house. And three weeks later, the body of Megan Oxendine—Jones’ friend and fellow Lumbee member, who came forward to be interviewed by police—was discovered three blocks away.
In the U.S., and internationally, there is an epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW). More than four in five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and more than half have experienced sexual violence.
But this crisis is not limited to the western states, where Native populations are largest. It’s also plaguing the Lumbee Nation, a state-recognized tribe in North Carolina with more than 55,000 members, the largest Native population east of the Mississippi River.
Despite their numbers, Lumbee tribe members say they feel invisible, as law enforcement and legislators have turned a blind eye to the MMIW crisis in their backyard.
Shattering the silence
“These murders would be solved if they had been rich and white,” insists Rhonda Jones’ mother, Sheila Price.
Price founded an advocacy group, Shatter the Silence, which has a Facebook group of more than 4,000 members seeking answers. Shatter the Silence members have confirmed at least 31 Native women have gone missing or been murdered in eastern North Carolina since 1998, and they’re still investigating more than 200 cases that stretch back to the 1970s.
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Price calls her daughter “a fighter.” Jones worked with American Indian Mothers, Inc., a nonprofit organization serving the education, health, social service and cultural needs of American Indians. After her own challenges with substance abuse, she supported other women seeking recovery.
Co-workers and friends say Jones feared for her life and disappeared in January 2017, after it was suggested that her cooperation with a law enforcement investigation would put her in harm’s way. Police have declined to verify whether she was actively working with them before her death.
Three years later, there have been no arrests or suspects targeted in the murders of Jones, Bennet, or Oxendine. Despite an FBI reward of $30,000, the deaths have been ruled neither crimes nor homicides, but “undetermined.”
Lumberton Police Lieutenant Vernon Johnson said “I cannot comment on an active investigation, but there was not enough physical evidence to determine the cause of death.”
Such statements spark outrage among family, friends, tribal and community members, and statewide advocates, who say that cases like these are going unreported in national MMIW databases.
“Tribes in North Carolina are being ignored… We have to create a statewide database and train police.”
Doctoral student Crystal “Red Bear” Cavalier Keck, Occaneechi, has been gathering and organizing data about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women for Shatter the Silence. She says that misclassification of these cases is a major issue in North Carolina.
“How could Rhonda’s case even be coded as missing and murdered, if the police refuse to admit that she was murdered?” she asked. “Women don’t just stuff themselves in trash cans.”
Sometimes missing and murdered Indigenous women in North Carolina aren’t even counted as Native. In her research, Keck has found that law enforcement relies on facial features to code victims based on outdated stereotypes of what Native Americans look like.
And MMIW cases are often left out of federal databases because many tribes aren’t federally recognized. Out of the eight state-recognized tribes in North Carolina, the Eastern Band of Cherokee is the only one with full federal recognition.
“Tribes in North Carolina are being ignored,” Keck said. “We have to create a statewide database and train police.”
Corruption, fatigue, and tarnished badges
In Robeson County, home to the small city of Lumberton, mistrust of local law enforcement runs deep. Both conspiracy theories and confirmed corruption related to drugs, prostitution and human trafficking are commonplace in this largely rural county, and have been for decades. Human-rights advocates call it “corruption fatigue,” while law enforcement claims “conspiracy fatigue.”
Years ago, suspicions of corruption were confirmed by a joint FBI and State Bureau of Investigations probe known as Operation Tarnished Badge. In 2002, state and federal agents started looking into allegations of foul play among county drug enforcement officers. The six-year investigation ultimately netted guilty pleas from 22 officers who were charged with a long list of crimes, from pirating satellite television signals to firebombing homes, kidnapping, perjury, drug trafficking, armed robbery, and money laundering.
Robeson’s current sheriff, Burnis Wilkins, worked for the Lumberton Police Department during the probe and later campaigned on a promise to halt drug trafficking and prostitution. Wilkins says he cooperated with federal officials and maintains a good relationship. Last year, his office was tentatively reinstated into an asset forfeiture program it had been kicked out of after Operation Tarnished Badge; now, the department gets a cut of the cash and other goods seized from people accused of crimes.
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“Those are times we prefer not to recollect,” Wilkins noted shortly after his 2018 election, “But in brief, a few bad apples tarnished the whole bunch at the sheriff’s office.”
However, recent events suggest things haven’t changed much. Last August, former Robeson Deputy Eric Saber Gavaghan was charged with multiple crimes, including second-degree Forcible Rape, second-degree Forced Sex Offense, and second-degree Kidnapping. He was detained in the Bladen County Detention Center. But after his arrest by the State Bureau of Investigation, which issued his $1.1 million bond, Gavaghan was quietly granted pretrial release on March 27, 2020 with no court date.
In a statement to Scalawag, Shelton Hill, Assistant County Manager, said “Any complaints or other personnel-related information specific to Mr. Gavaghan is not being released yet by the sheriff’s office.” The sheriff’s office also declined to comment.
In January, two law enforcement officials were ousted following an internal probe that revealed the department ignored a rape kit which held DNA evidence of a man who was later accused of kidnapping, raping, and killing a teenage girl.
The sheriff’s office had received results from a 2016 rape kit that pointed to Michael Ray McLellan as the culprit in an attack on a Lumberton woman. But the department didn’t take action. In 2018, McLellan was charged with the murder of 13-year-old Hania Aguilar, a harrowing crime that could have been prevented if those DNA results hadn’t been neglected.
Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt said that the DNA match should have prompted investigators to obtain a new DNA sample from McLellan, but no one followed up. He told a local news station “Unfortunately, there was a gap here of some kind. I don’t know what happened—if [the report] got lost at the sheriff’s department, if it got buried on somebody’s desk, if it got placed in a records division there. It just vanished.” Sheriff Wilkins called the situation “a breakdown.”
As a result, Major Anthony Thompson, a 34-year department veteran, resigned on January 9, 2019, followed by the retirement of Darryl Ray McPhatter in the department’s Criminal Investigations unit. But the department never explained to the public what exactly went wrong.
At the time, North Carolina led the nation in its backlog of untested rape kits. Robeson County typically held kits for more than 20 months before submission to the state database. Examination of SBI crime data suggests many rape cases go unsolved there. In the last five years, the sheriff’s office reports clearing only 26 of the 86 cases.
In 2019, North Carolina lawmakers passed the Survivor Act (H.B. 29). Now, medical facilities and other agencies that collect rape kits must notify law enforcement within 24 hours of collection. The new law also mandates law enforcement pick up the kit within seven days and submit it to the lab within 45 days, with swift fines and penalties for failing to do so.
Lieutenant Vernon Johnson, who heads a division of detectives overseeing violent crimes, said the law has helped with processing. “I don’t want to speak for the state, but the new paperwork does make it easier to process rape kits.”
Johnson didn’t supervise the department at the time of the deaths of Bennett, Jones and Oxendine, but said the department had been in regular contact with families.
Yet many family members still feel these cases are being mishandled.
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“Somebody knows something about what happened to our girls,” said Sheila Price. “The way those girls were murdered was to make an example out of them. But ain’t nobody come forward, because they’re afraid, and the police know why.”
A larger epidemic
On April 25 of this year, an online rally highlighted the problems fueling the MMIW crisis in North Carolina and nationally, including racism, misclassifications, and the nation’s deeply-rooted history of settler colonialism. Family members of MMIW victims spoke about their experiences and called for action from public officials.
Mary Crowe of the Eastern Band of Cherokee talked about growing up on a North Carolina reservation. Crowe’s father worked as a police officer, and she recalls early stories of young women being kidnapped.
“People think we were killed off but we are resilient.”
“It always weighed heavy in the back of my mind as a young girl,” Crowe said. Her father often told his children not to go anywhere alone. “To start having to be cautious in our daily lives was something that was very concerning as a young kid––something I even told my daughters.”
After seeing too many cases go unprosecuted, Crowe’s daughter, Lou Montelongo, got involved with the Sovereign Bodies Institute to research issues related to the MMIW crisis. She plans to study law at UC Berkeley.
“I feel it’s important for us to continue to tell the stories and tell these women’s names and try to just seek justice… for these women, who honestly have been let down so badly by the system that is supposed to protect them,” Montelongo said.
Cavailer Keck said the cold cases on and off tribal lands are examples of why the state should create a MMIW task force, law enforcement training, and a database that acknowledges the number of victims who have been mostly invisible in this epidemic.
“People think we were killed off but we are resilient,” said Jane Jacobs, of the Tuscarora Nation. Her sister, Katina Locklear, was raped and stabbed 14 times on a dirt road in Lumberton in 2018. Two suspects await trial in that case.
“Many people don’t even know that we are here. But we have a special place, and we are not going away.”