Wyoming’s Select Committee on Tribal Relations is exploring a new strategy for addressing the backlog of unsolved crimes in the state – particularly those involving missing and murdered Indigenous people.
The committee heard an update this month from Wyoming’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Task Force showing that “Indigenous people continue to go missing and are victims of homicide at a disproportionate rate in Wyoming,” senior research scientist and report co-author Emily Grant said.
“The 2022 five-year average homicide rate for Indigenous people is 18.3 per 100,000, which is nearly six times higher than the homicide rate for white people in the state,” Grant said. “The Indigenous homicide rate continues to be consistently and dramatically higher than the rate for white people in the state.”
Indigenous people are also reported missing at higher rates than white people in Wyoming, Grant said, and they stay missing for longer periods of time.
She noted that it’s “really important to look at the length of time that people are missing,” because “the longer people are missing, we know that they are more vulnerable to crimes that could take place.”
Between 2021 and 2022, Grant said, law enforcement agencies in Wyoming created 360 missing persons records for 216 Indigenous people – mostly juvenile females.
“Does this speak to trafficking happening here?” Wyoming Rep. Sarah Penn, R-Lander, asked.
There is “a connection” between trafficking and the MMIP movement, Grant confirmed.
Cara Chambers, director of the Wyoming Division of Victim Services, expanded on that answer later, pointing out that she and Grant both worked on Wyoming’s statewide human trafficking report in 2013, 2015, and 2018, and that Chambers now chairs the state’s Human Trafficking Task Force as well as the Wyoming MMIP Task Force.
“There is a heavy presumed connection between human trafficking and the missing and murdered epidemic,” Chambers said. “(We’re) very cognizant of that likely nexus.”
Human trafficking is “becoming something we hear an awful lot about,” Wyoming Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, said, and “there are victims here from the reservation.”
“But,” Oakley added, “what I don’t seem to hear (is) the end story about finding them – busting rings of this. … Are you seeing that?”
Chambers agreed that “we’re not seeing large-scale sting operations,” but she also noted that most human trafficking cases fall into a jurisdictional “gap” because victims are usually taken to other states and then “worked through a circuit.”
Officials are intercepting victims of human trafficking, however, “so we do know it happens,” Chambers said, describing more localized “John stings” that apprehend “individual buyers” in Wyoming.
“That’s what my division has funded really heavily – training law enforcement to do these buyer stings,” Chambers said. “There’s a lot of evidence that, if we can stop the demand, we can try to stop the crime. If people aren’t buying, people won’t be selling.”
Penn said she was “disappointed” that the MMIP report didn’t offer “any end result” that might indicate “who is perpetrating these” crimes.
“That’s where we find an avenue to start going down as far as how do we start addressing this situation,” Penn said. “If all we know is Indigenous people are more at risk … then what?”
The committee’s next presenter offered a potential answer to that question, describing a new technology that is being used to help solve criminal cases nationwide: Investigative Genetic Genealogy (IGG).
Joan Hanlon, the lead investigative genetic genealogist at United Data Connect, defined IGG as a “tool” that uses DNA and family history research to “identify suspects in criminal investigations and give names back” to unidentified victims of crimes.
“It’s good for cold and current criminal cases,” she said. “(It) can also exonerate the innocent.”
She walked the committee through the IGG process, including collaborations with DNA laboratories like Othram, whose chief strategy officer Brendan Belair also attended this month’s meeting.
Prior to joining Othram, Belair spent 17 years working in Washington, D.C., most recently as the chief counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, so he has “a lot of exposure to the issues that you’re working on in terms of the cold case backlog, the rape kit backlog, (and) MMIW issues.”
He called IGG a “breakthrough technology” that allows investigators to “actually solve (these) cases and start reducing the backlog” – and, he added, it is “really suited for MMIW.”
He referred to Wyoming’s 2023 MMIP update, which “really points out a lot of the hesitations in the community” when it comes to making law enforcement reports.
There’s also “a lot of hesitancy, of course, with sharing DNA,” Belair said – but with IGG, there is no need to collect reference DNA samples from family members, because “we have enough data in (our) databases.”
IGG doesn’t require “media attention,” either – something that is often lacking in cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people, Belair said, again referencing the 2023 MMIP report, which contains a section on “Missing White Woman Syndrome.”
Finally, he said, IGG is relatively inexpensive – it costs $5,000 to $8,000 per case – and it has a track record of success across “a variety of biogeographical backgrounds.”
“We have lots of evidence that it works,” he said. “It’s no longer a science-fiction type of thing.”
Belair encouraged the committee to look into launching an IGG pilot program in Wyoming that could mirror Othram’s previous efforts in Tennessee, Florida, and Mississippi.
After demonstrating success with a pilot project, he said, Wyoming could seek federal funding to continue addressing the backlog of unsolved crimes in the state.
“We will discuss looking at that,” Oakley said after Belair’s presentation. “We’ll maybe look to you as a reference in the future, so (let’s) stay in contact.”
At the end the meeting, Wyoming Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, made a formal motion to “consider legislation on what a pilot program might look like … for cold case review for Indigenous persons in Wyoming.”
But Wyoming Sen. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, didn’t think a pilot project was necessary, given the success IGG has already demonstrated ed in other states.
Instead, he said, the Legislature could give direct authorization to the Division of Criminal Investigation to set up an IGG task force, and the committee could ask the Joint Appropriations Committee to propose funding for the effort.
“That’s how I would approach it,” Barlow said. “We heard multiple states are doing this, and they’re showing success. We don’t need a pilot project in Wyoming to prove a wheel turns here too. … Let’s just do it.”
Oakley asked state staffers to prapre a presentation about IGG pilot programs in other states for the committee’s next meeting, and Ellis withdrew her formal motion, though she promised to work with the Legislative Services Office in the coming months to “figure out a bill draft for the cold cases on the pilot project.”
“I feel like we need to do a little bit of research,” she said. “Expect to see a bill draft, if we can come up with one, at our next (meeting), for cold cases for Indigenous persons in Wyoming.”
The committee’s next meeting is scheduled to take place Nov. 16-17 in Fort Washakie.