After setting the large wooden cross in concrete and filling in the hole, Rick Dominguez and Brad Goudy finished their work near U.S. Highway 97 south of Toppenish.
Goudy smoothed the dusty ground around the cross and pushed back tumbleweeds and other vegetation, creating a small clearing about 20 feet east of the highway. Dominguez carefully wiped off the cross, going over its entire surface to ensure his creation was clean and ready to be blessed Thursday morning.
“In loving memory of Jon Cleary — Josiah Hilderbrand,” the cross reads. Below two small photos of the men, protected by a square of acrylic, is 6-7-2019, the last date they were known to be alive.
“Rest easy. Fly high,” it says.
The Californians, friends and devoted Grateful Dead fans, were driving through Yakima County to a Dead & Company concert at the Gorge Amphitheatre. The car they were traveling in, a 2004 Honda Civic hybrid, was discovered abandoned and partially burned the morning of June 8, 2019, in an orchard at 8100 Lateral B Road, about 8½ miles west of Toppenish.
Six people gathered at 7 a.m. Thursday to set the cross, bless it, and pray for the men’s spirits during a special ceremony. Out of respect for their loved ones and recognition of the investigation, the cross doesn’t stand on the actual site where Hilderbrand and Cleary’s remains were discovered.
A skull of a buck deer sits at the base of the cross with two memorial candles and dozens of flat glass pebbles. Goudy brought the skull because he had heard news reports that a road work crew member was looking for antlers, thought he saw some and walked over for a closer look, discovering the men’s remains.
“The Yamush (deer) helped us find Josiah and Jon,” Caroline Looney said.
Looney asked Dominguez to make the cross. Dominguez, who attended the ceremony with his wife, Sonya, spoke briefly before prayers, songs, blessings and emotional words by Doris and George Strong, who are spiritual leaders in the Indian Shaker Church on the Yakama Reservation.
“When I made this cross, I felt a lot of sadness,” he said. “I’m glad that my wife’s behind me, my children, my grandchildren. This is a family project. My nephew made the picture and my wife laminated it.”
Dominguez has made crosses for many people on and beyond the Yakama Reservation for years. His emotional work has increased with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken at least 28 Yakama citizens and many others throughout Indian Country.
Since Memorial Day, he has made 38 crosses, Dominguez said Thursday.
He also creates his crosses, which range in size and are of wood donated by Yakama Forest Products, for people who have not yet been buried. Dominguez made one for Rosenda Sophia Strong, who went missing on Oct. 2, 2018. Her remains were found July 4, 2019 and her death has been ruled a homicide.
Strong’s remains haven’t been released to her family as the investigation continues. Her sister, Cissy Strong Reyes, plans to have her sister buried next to their mother on the Umatilla Reservation.
“Today I dedicate this cross for all the missing people out there,” Dominguez said. “I pray that their bodies get released and taken back to where they’re from and have a proper burial.”
Looney knows the anguish of those with missing loved ones. “I’ve got a lot of hurt and sadness for missing people,” she said.
Her sister, Alice Ida Looney, 38, was reported missing Aug. 16, 2004. A hunter found her body Nov. 30, 2005, wedged under a tree on a small island in Satus Creek, about 12 miles southwest of Toppenish.
“I would have liked to go out there and pray where she last lay,” said Looney, who has never learned the exact location where her sister’s remains were found. Investigators still tell her they can’t release that information because her sister’s death is an ongoing investigation, Looney said.
Alice Looney is among dozens of Native women who have gone missing, have been murdered and have died mysteriously on and around the Yakama Reservation over decades. On Thursday, Sonya Dominguez wore a red mask with a silhouette of a woman and the letters MMIW, which stand for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
“I’m thankful that he does this. When we do this, we are thinking of the families,” she said. “I’m thankful we could be here setting up this cross for these boys ... prayers to their families.”
Cleary’s sister, Jessica Wesner of Smyrna, Tenn., and Hilderbrand’s mother, Liz Hilderbrand of Piercey, Calif., stressed their appreciation for the special ceremony Thursday. Distance has made the horror of their loved ones being murdered even more difficult.
In a message, Wesner sent “a loving thank-you” to Looney, Rick and Sonya Dominguez and Doris and George Strong. Wesner, her parents and family have been “deeply touched by the love, support and kindness of the beautiful people from Yakima,” she said.
“We also want them to know that the blessings and offerings they made for our beloved Jon will be forever in our hearts and have brought comfort to us in this very difficult time,” Wesner said. “We will forever be grateful to them for being there when we are not able to. It means so much.”
The kindness and generosity of Looney, Rick and Sonya Dominguez and Doris and George Strong means a lot, Hilderbrand said. She also appreciates the support of Yakima County residents and the Yakama Nation.
“With everything in life there’s this balance,” Hilderbrand said. “The balance of this incredibly horrific thing that happened to my child just driving through there and the actions of the person or people who did this to him ... the outpouring (of support) is remarkable and it’s healing in its own right.
“It could have gone different ways and it didn’t and I’m grateful,” she said.