State MMIW task force begins work as families’ search for loved ones continues

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Missing and Murdered Indigenous People crisis has been gaining attention and, after years of waiting, advocates are starting to see action.

“It’s a living nightmare to go through, what I’m going through right now, it’s very hard,” said Lela Mailman, who was last with her daughter, Melanie James, April 22, 2014.

“We had pulled up to my work and I told her to be back by 5 because I’m getting off. She said she will, she said she was going to go to the college to enroll and then she’s going to look for a job and be back at five. The last thing I said to her was, I gave her a hug, and told her I loved her,” Lela said.

Melanie said ‘I love you’ back. Five o’clock came, but Melanie never did.

Lela is still asking, “Where is Melanie?”

She was 22 when she went missing from Farmington. Friends told Lela they didn’t know what happened, family didn’t either. The case was cold.

Melanie is part of a huge crisis affecting native people – hundreds who’ve been missing or murdered. The total number of these cases isn’t known because many are not reported. Lela is hoping to change that, as she’s become a voice for her daughter and others.

“For 8 years, I’ve been involved with MMIW,” Lela said. “I’ve seen it grow from a small table to two tables, people are starting to come out and talk about their missing and murdered loved ones.”

“We want to make sure we get justice for these families that have been victimized or the survivors that have been victimized,” said Delilah Tenorio, an attorney with the state attorney general’s office who also sits on the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force.

“There are broader issues that are connected to MMIW, sex assault, domestic violence on the reservation and a lot has to do with substance abuse, poverty on the reservation, lack of housing, education, a lack of income and employment rates on the reservation,” Tenorio explained.

That’s where Senate Bill 12, a bipartisan bill signed into law by the governor this year, comes in. The bill created a specialist position in the attorney general’s office that just looks into these cold cases across the state, working on leads, testimony and working with all law enforcement jurisdictions – state, federal and tribal.

Tenorio and colleague attorney Mark Probasco were instrumental in making this happen. The office created two specialist positions for this – but the attorneys say more help and money are needed from lawmakers.

“We ended up self-funding everything for this to happen. We ended up diverting resources from other work our agency does just to prioritize this issue and put it at the forefront,” Probasco said. “I’d be very interested to hear what the answer is up in Santa Fe for how many positions we can fund because there are, I think, over 600 cases over the past seven years or so here in Albuquerque, that involve Indigenous survivors or victims of things like homicide.”

Due to the sensitive nature of their work, we couldn’t speak to the specialists on camera but Tenorio and Probasco check in with them regularly. So far, they’re seeing results.

“They actually can take these investigations and get them across the finish line and we’re going to have our first few prosecutions as a result of this initiative in the next few months,” Probasco said.

With so many cases – and even more unreported – justice may come slowly and, for some families, answers may never come.

“We also want to be very realistic with them and not get their hopes up or give them false hope about what an outcome could be,” Probasco said.

Colton: Do you have any more answers about what happened to your daughter that day?
Lela: No, they don’t. It’s still the same report.

Lela says she hasn’t been contacted by these new specialists, but reaching out to them might be her next step, as she still has hope.

Colton: Do you believe your daughter is still alive?
Lela: Yes I do. In my heart, I believe she’s still alive.

Lela added, “I’m not going to give up, I’m not going to give up, I’m going to keep looking for you.”

If you’ve seen Melanie James or know what may have happened, Lela pleads with you to call the police.

As for what’s next in this crisis, the goal is to get a more-accurate count of how many cases like these there are. The state’s MMIW task force will soon partner with the University of Nebraska, Omaha, to gather more data.