When Tammy Carpenter talks about her daughter, her posture straightens and laugh lines earned in better years brighten her eyes. She mimics Angela’s playful, rapid-fire way of speaking, and recalls her joyful giggle and generous heart.
“She was so caring and giving,” Carpenter said. “Very helpful to the family.”
Carpenter raised Angela and her younger brother, Ritchie, on the Hoopa Valley Reservation in Humboldt County — surrounded by big rivers, forests and a loving network of aunties and cousins. Carpenter said that Angela was proud of her Hoopa culture and other Indigenous roots: part Mojave, through her maternal grandmother, and on her dad’s side, part Karuk and Yurok, neighboring tribes in California’s rural north.
But Angela would join a much darker lineage — one that stretches back to colonization: Indigenous women disappearing, never to be found, and others turning up dead. Most cases, going cold. In September of 2018, Angela was shot to death at age 26. Her case is open but remains unsolved.
“I miss talking with her early in the morning. I miss her hugs and her kisses,” said Carpenter, 53, her face mask emblazoned with “Justice for Angela” on one side and a red handprint on the other, a raw symbol associated with a growing international movement on behalf of Indigenous victims.
Carpenter said her daughter’s death inducted her unwillingly into an “MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women ) club” of family members who are grieving and demanding action.
“She’s no longer with us on this earth,” Carpenter said. “But I’m here, and I will always continue to be her voice to find out who murdered my only daughter.”
A legacy of violence
Violence has haunted Indigenous communities since colonization and persists at alarming rates. A recent U.S. Department of Justice study found that more than 4 out of 5 Indigenous people have experienced some kind of violence in their lifetimes. As for Indigenous women, more than half have been sexually assaulted. And, on some reservations, they’re murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average.
A precise tally of the missing or murdered remains far out of reach, however, due to a web of systemic failures, mostly by law enforcement. In 2016, for example, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center logged 5,712 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls. But the U.S. Department of Justice’s federal missing persons database showed just 116 cases.
That may be changing. In recent years, advocacy by families of the missing and murdered — and by Indigenous leaders — has prompted a flood of new initiatives. At the federal level alone, there’s Savanna’s Act, the Not Invisible Act, and Operation Lady Justice. All call for better training around data collection and better coordination among federal, state and tribal law enforcement agencies.
States are stepping up, too. Assemblymember James Ramos, a Democrat from San Bernardino County, is the first Indigenous person ever elected to the California Legislature. His bill, which passed in 2020 and received funding last year, established the Tribal Assistance Program, run out of the state Attorney General’s Office of Native American Affairs. It’s just now getting off the ground, and in part funds research that aims to identify why it’s so hard to solve these cases, on and off reservation lands.
At a recent legislative hearing on implementation of the law, Ramos detailed how that multiyear research effort will ultimately lead to more specific recommendations to state lawmakers “that will come back to this body, will come back to all of us to follow through.”
But, it turns out, much is already known about what’s broken — thanks to Indigenous-led research spearheaded by California’s Yurok Tribal Court and the nonprofit Sovereign Bodies Institute, which focuses its research on gender and sexual violence against Indigenous people. That research has relied heavily on the experiences of survivors and family members — Tammy Carpenter included — based on the premise that it is Indigenous families who understand the roots of this crisis, and the pain it’s causing, better than anyone.
No kiss goodbye
Angela Lynn McConnell had dreams of becoming a journalist and, one day, a nurse, so she could care for people the way that she did for her own grandmother, who suffered from kidney disease. She was creative and generous and, even when she was broke, gave her mother the best gifts.
“She loved to write poems — was always writing poems to me,” said Tammy Carpenter.
Almost all were poems of praise. On one of their last visits together, Angela handed her mom an ornate Mother’s Day card, a compliment streaming from each letter of Tammy’s name: Tasteful, Attractive, Majestic, Monumental and Youthful.
Just a few days later, she’d write the poem that would wind up on her gravestone.
Angela would be called home at a tragically young age. She had been staying with her boyfriend, Michael Thomas Bingham Jr., in Redding. At least, that’s what her mother thought. But on Sept. 7, 2018, Angela and Bingham Jr. were found shot in the head on the outskirts of the town of Shasta Lake. They had been camping on private land there, near his father’s house. His dad discovered the bodies, and his sister was the one who called Carpenter to let her know.
Carpenter said she couldn’t reach law enforcement, and couldn’t understand what her daughter would have been doing on that land. So, she and her family made the long drive east to the Shasta County Sheriff’s headquarters in Redding. When they got there, Carpenter said, a group of deputies was standing in the parking lot, but “none of the officers wanted to talk to me.”
She said she insisted the deputies call someone who could tell her something. A detective came outside and told Carpenter that Angela’s body was already at the coroner’s.
They’d identified her through her fingerprints. But because the gunshot to the head had badly disfigured Angela, Tammy was told she wasn’t permitted to see her daughter. That still haunts her. Just seeing Angela’s hands or feet, she said, would have given her a sense of certainty.
“We didn’t get to kiss her goodbye,” she said. “We didn’t get to hug her. Or hold her hand. We didn’t get to see anything, you know, so it’s difficult for all of us.”
But what really got Carpenter off on a bad footing with law enforcement wasn’t so much the lack of answers that night in the parking lot, but the nature of the detective’s questions. Carpenter said he started with, “ ‘Did you know your daughter was using drugs?”
She was stunned.
“No child is going to tell their parent, ‘Oh, yeah, by the way, I’m using drugs.’ No. And then he goes, ‘Did you know she was living like a transient over there, like a homeless person?’ I said, ‘No,’” said Carpenter.
Angela had stayed in Shasta County with Bingham Jr. on and off for a few years, Carpenter said — always, she thought, in a rented room or with her boyfriend’s relatives. The drug use, and the camp where the two were killed, may have been relevant to the investigation. But to a mother who just learned that she’d lost her only daughter, it sounded like victim blaming, like her whole family was being stereotyped.
“I said, ‘What are you trying to say? Look behind me. You see our cars that we came in? They’re all brand-new cars,’” Carpenter recalls. “‘And do you know where we were, do you know where all my sisters were?’ I said, ‘We were all at work. And we’re all educated. And by the time you get done, you’re gonna know who my daughter was.’”
That first detective spent five months on the case before he transferred to a different unit. Then another came and went. By the first anniversary of Angela’s death, Carpenter said, she was on detective No. 3. He has remained on the case, and she said she used to check in with him often, passing on what she’d been hearing. “It’s like, ‘OK, yeah, we’ll look into that, we’ll look into that,” Carpenter said of the detectives’ responses. “They’re like, ‘Oh, OK, here’s another statistic, another dead Indian girl. We can’t find the killer.’”
Shasta County Sheriff’s Lt. Chris Edwards leads the major crimes unit, which handles homicides. He’s new to that role. He was actually one of those officers in the parking lot the night that Carpenter and her family came to Redding. He saw the detective come out and talk with her about her murdered daughter. In an interview, he said he regrets the pain it caused her.
“That’s never any detective’s intent to disrespect somebody’s loved ones, especially during a hard time like that,” he said. “It was probably a question that came out, maybe wrong.”
Edwards called it “unfortunate” that Carpenter interpreted it as disrespect and said, “I don’t want her to feel that way.”
As for having three different detectives on the case during the first year, he said it’s just something that happens as people get promoted and others cycle in, and that it should not affect the quality of the investigation.
Carpenter said she is thirsty for answers to all kinds of questions: Did the detective follow up on the lead she gave him about someone on the Hoopa Valley reservation who might know something? Did anyone check Angela’s cellphone records? And how long had her daughter been lying there before she was found?
Since the case is open, Edwards declined in the interview to get into specifics. But in general, he said, law enforcement faces distinct challenges in California’s rural north. Shasta County covers nearly 4,000 square miles, and the department is chronically understaffed. That can make it harder to solve homicides — of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike, Edwards said. He also acknowledged that a lack of trust with potential sources can land an investigation in the cold.
“If somebody has information and they don’t want to talk to the police because of bad prior relationships, that’s hard,” he said. “We’re here trying to help. We’re trying to solve the case. If we don’t get that information because they just don’t trust us, ultimately the victim doesn’t get justice, because we don’t get that information which may break the case.”
Unheard, ignored, neglected
That issue of trust, or the lack of it, affects not just law enforcement sources, but relationships with victims’ families. According to a research report released in mid-2020 by the Yurok Tribal Court and the Sovereign Bodies Institute, “[E]ach of the families and survivors we spoke with communicated feelings of being unheard, ignored, neglected, left behind, and forgotten” by law enforcement.
Law enforcement agencies, the report continues, “must immediately work to correct wrongdoings, repair broken relationships, and hold their agencies accountable to do better by Indigenous survivors and MMIWG2S families,” an acronym that incorporates a G for girls and 2S for Two-Spirit people, who identify as what some non-Indigenous people might call LGBTQ+ or gender-fluid.
Those broken relationships with law enforcement are why advocates and relatives of missing and murdered Indigenous women blew up Twitter in September 2021, when they saw just how differently authorities, and the media, were treating the case of another missing woman: Gabby Petito.
The search for the white, blond aspiring social media star, and the national interest it garnered, was massive and immediate. So was the nationwide call that her killer be brought to justice. Multiple tweets pointed out that in Wyoming alone, where Petito went missing, 710 Indigenous people, mostly women and girls, had been reported missing over the previous decade.
Others listed off the names of Indigenous women who never received the same kind of attention from the media or law enforcement.
According to the recent Indigenous-led research, other, more tangible wrongdoings include the failure of law enforcement to report Indigenous cases to national criminal or missing-person databases, the prevalence of racial misclassification of Indigenous victims, and the high number of cases classified as suicides or deaths by natural causes when it was clear that foul play was likely.
Those factors have not come into play in Angela’s case. But the deep mistrust of law enforcement, that sense of being disrespected and poorly treated, most certainly has.
Greg O’Rourke is a Yurok tribal member from the villages of Morek, Noch-Kue, Kep’-el and Pecwan. He’s also the Yurok Tribal Police chief, and he understands where that mistrust comes from. He worked as a tribal police officer on the Yurok and Hoopa Valley reservations before spending a dozen years with the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department, establishing deep ties with sheriffs’ deputies and top brass in both Humboldt and Del Norte counties.
O’Rourke said he tries to be a bridge, to help non-Indigenous law enforcement understand the roots of the poor relations — because he’s convinced that understanding and collaboration will lead to healing.
“I’ve had many deputies and other officers come to me and just ask, ‘Why do they act that way when we’re trying to help?’ Meaning people on the reservation,” he said. “And my response to that’s always been, ‘Do you want the nice, simple answer or do you actually want the real answer?’”
‘He goes and gets people’
O’Rourke said the real answer is rooted in the past, and his explanation almost always begins with the Yurok word for police officer: K’ley-go’-mee-no’, which translates as “He goes and gets people.” His colleagues, he said, are generally blown away by the history lesson that follows, about the Indian Termination Act and the Indian Assimilation Act, both designed to assimilate Indigenous people into the dominant culture.
“Part of that ‘Kill the Indian to save the man,’” O’Rourke explains, “was forcibly removing Native children to go to boarding schools. And so, I would ask deputies, ‘If some government entity came to your house to try to forcibly take your kid, would you fight?’ ‘Oh, hell, yeah, I’d fight.’ Well, yeah, they fought back then, too. So, social workers who would come to pick up Native kids would need protection, and the people that they brought with them to protect them were uniformed law enforcement.”
Jurisdictional issues also have complicated law enforcement on tribal lands. In most of the country, federal law enforcement agencies are responsible for investigating major crimes — including murder and rape — on tribal lands. But in 1953, Congress passed Public Law 280, which compelled California and five other states to take on that responsibility. That meant county sheriffs’ departments had to enforce those laws, and state law enforcement got no extra funding to do the job. Meanwhile, tribal law enforcement in these states lost access to steady federal funding.
The upshot: Tribal lands were under-policed and remain so. When state law enforcement does show up, it’s generally not a positive experience. O’Rourke, the Yurok tribal police chief, tries to explain this to non-Indigenous cops, too, and he gives them a lesson on historical trauma, because that long history of forced assimilation and abuse by law enforcement has trickled down.
“Can you imagine that confusion and hurt,” he tells them, “of not being able to fit in two places, the one where you’re born to belong and the one where you were raised? How do most people cope with that type of stress and rejection? A lot of them turn to alcohol, a lot of them turn to drugs.”
Angela Lynn McConnell had turned to drugs, at least somewhat, unbeknownst to her mother. She had also experienced another trauma that the research by the Sovereign Bodies Institute and Yurok Tribal Court found to be prevalent among missing and murdered Indigenous people: domestic or intimate partner violence.
That form of trauma is all too common in Indigenous communities. And the research indicates a possible nexus with cases of the murdered and missing: Nearly half of the Indigenous victims in Northern California had experienced it at some point in their lives, the research found. In Angela’s case, she had so feared her boyfriend at one point that she sought and obtained a restraining order against him from the Hoopa Valley Tribal Court.
It is unknown whether domestic violence was connected in any way to Angela’s death. But the nexus is just one example of the ways in which better data, and an understanding of the human stories behind that data, could help lead to fewer tragedies.
As for O’Rourke, he believes that all law enforcement officers should go into the field being more aware of the trauma that people have experienced. That training approach is called trauma-informed policing, and is increasingly being adopted by law enforcement in other communities that have been historically disenfranchised.
The chief is starting at home, with his own tribal police officers, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike — working to remake their image as guardians of the collective good.
“Traditionally, the Yurok tribe didn’t have a warrior class or a warrior society. But we did have a village protector, that person whose role it was to make sure that the village was safe, that everyone in the village was taken care of,” he said. “They made sure that everybody had a plate, everyone had a safe place to sleep for the night, to a point where they would eat last, go to bed last, just to make sure that the village was safe. And that’s the archetype that I want to bring to this police department.”
Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal said he’s on board with that approach. His department already deputizes Yurok and Hoopa Valley tribal police to enforce state law on and off tribal lands, which they otherwise would not be able to do. And he wants even more collaboration.
“Some sheriffs just basically ignore tribal entities and do their own thing on tribal land and don’t include input from tribal government,” he said. “And I think we’re seeing a real shift.”
Honsal also has been working closely with Yurok tribal officials.
The tribal court recently hired its own prosecutor and is now raising funds to hire an investigator who will work cold missing and murdered cases along with new ones. According to the tribe’s chief judge, that person will be working not separate from, but in collaboration with tribal, local, state and federal law enforcement.
Carpenter, Angela’s mother, said she is all for those kinds of collaborations, even across county lines. She’s convinced there are people who can break her case, but Shasta County detectives, she said, need a way in.
On a crisp February day in 2021, Carpenter stood in front of a massive billboard in the town of Shasta Lake that lists a $30,000 reward for information about Angela’s murder, with an anonymous hotline number. A picture on the billboard of a smiling Angela, wearing stylish eyeglasses and plum-colored lipstick, looms over Carpenter.
Filmed in a video streaming on Facebook Live, Carpenter made her plea over the roar of truck traffic, looking into the camera: “If you know anything at all about Angela, anybody that sees me on Facebook world, please contact that number.”
Carpenter also thanked the Hoopa Valley Tribe for everything it had been doing to step into the gap and help solve the case. When the one-year anniversary of Angela’s death came and went with no answers, she turned to tribal leaders, who paid for the billboard. Before that, they kicked in half the reward money. Through Danielle Vigil-Masten, the tribe’s MMIW coordinator, they also organized a march for justice on the anniversary.
In the spring of 2021, the tribe hired a private investigator, who is working not just Angela’s case, but also the unsolved cases of other murdered or missing tribal members. And those numbers, said Vigil-Masten, keep climbing.
Each disappearance or murder stirs up the trauma in all those families who have lost loved ones. It also strengthens their resolve. Ten days after another tribal member — 32-year-old Emmilee Risling — went missing, Carpenter and her family, along with Vigil-Masten and other tribal members, returned to Shasta Lake for a prayer walk for Angela.
“The mayor came. The city council came,” Vigil-Masten said. “People honked. And a lot of people came out from different tribes in the pouring-down rain.”
All of that attention seems to have helped, because not long after, Vigil-Masten said, the private investigator got an important lead in the case. Shasta County Sheriff’s Lt. Chris Edwards said he had not known about the private investigator, but he is eager to learn of any advances “so we can go follow it up with our own investigators” and, hopefully, bring the perpetrator to justice.