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47 years, zero answers: 16-year-old Janice Hannigan of Toppenish disappeared after Christmas Eve in 1971. Her sister refuses to give up the search

  • 6 min to read

Janice Hannigan’s sophomore year at White Swan High School began well. It was football season — one of her favorite sports — and she was a candidate for queen of the Intertribal Veterans Day Ceremonial in Toppenish in November 1971.

Hannigan and fellow candidates Ronna Cowapoo, Esther George, Cathy Howard and Donna Wesley were featured in a newspaper article with photos of each smiling and wearing some of their finest regalia. Each hoped to become Veterans Day queen, a goal reached by selling the most tickets. The queen would wear a new beadwork crown with an insignia honoring the nation’s veterans, said Virginia Beavert Martin, queen chairman at the time.

“Her favorite activities include cooking, bead work and football. She is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Martin Hannigan,” the article says of Janice, who was 16.

Behind her slight smile, though, Janice fretted about her parents’ recent separation. The oldest of seven children, she had stayed with her father at the family’s home near Harrah to take care of him while her six siblings went with their mother to live in Buena, recalled her sister, Trudi Lee-Clark, 55, of Wapato.

And in the weeks after the popular Veterans Day events, something terrible happened. Janice went to the hospital on Dec. 21, 1971, where she was treated for numerous bruises on her chest and head.

“The patient was admitted to the hospital with multiple contusions around the head. Has shown no evidence of any headache or loss in the level of consciousness,” Dr. H.D. Buckley wrote in his discharge summary, which doesn’t identify the hospital or say anything about the cause of Janice’s injuries. “The contused areas show the swelling to be receding.”

‘Nobody should be forgotten’

Janice left the hospital on Christmas Eve, discharged in satisfactory condition, according to Buckley’s summary.

“But where did she go after this?” her sister asks.

It’s an answer she seeks with the same urgency almost 47 years after her sister went missing. Lee-Clark’s quest bears a tragic similarity to other family and friends of Native girls and women who have gone missing on the 1.3-million-acre Yakama reservation.

No one knows the exact number, though efforts are underway to determine how to increase reporting and investigation of missing Native American women in Washington state. On the Yakama reservation, many cases of missing people or mysterious deaths of women and men remain unsolved. During a two-year FBI investigation spurred by rumors of a serial killer, investigators found as many as 32 cases dating back to 1980.

Janice would be 63 today. Lee-Clark’s search began in earnest in June 2014, inspired by memories of their mother, who died in 2001.

“I was thinking about my mom and how she would cry for her daughter,” Lee-Clark said. “Just remembering how Mom cried about her.”

On the surface, it may appear that she and her siblings have moved on. They have pursued careers and raised families. Most have left the Yakima Valley.

But amid the demands of daily life, Lee-Clark wonders about the sister lost so long ago.

“Is she alive and living somewhere? Is she dead and buried somewhere? I wish I knew,” she said. “Nobody should be forgotten. Nobody should be raped, murdered and mutilated.

“Nobody should be missing.”

Precious paperwork

Lee-Clark carries a folder filled with copies. Most came from the Yakama Nation Police Department investigation, though a few — like Janice’s birth certificate — she obtained or wrote herself.

A photo on a flier she’s shared with several missing persons websites and Facebook pages shows a serious young woman wearing a pale pink dress, her long hair loose.

It’s pretty much the only photo of Janice her sister has.

The flier says Janice went missing from Wapato on March 1, 1971. The Yakama Agency lists her as deceased that same day, Lee-Clark said. She says both are incorrect, considering that Janice was in the hospital in December 1971 and competing in the Veterans Day event in November that year.

A national missing persons website says Janice was upset about the breakup of her parents and was a possible runaway.

Family and friends searching for missing loved ones can face maddening inconsistencies in information. Even their own memories can fade.

“I wish I could remember more,” said Lee-Clark, who was 8 when her teenage sister went missing.

Janice Marie Hannigan was born in Toppenish on March 22, 1955, to Martin James Hannigan Sr. and Linda Sallie (Heemsah) George Hannigan. The family was well-known.

“My mom used to put on these dances so they knew a lot of people,” Lee-Clark said. “She did that to get the teenagers off the streets.”

When her parents separated, Lee-Clark saw less of Janice. After the hospital stay, she never saw Janice again.

Investigators have told her they think her father did something related to Janice’s disappearance. “I said, ‘No, he didn’t,’” Lee-Clark said emphatically.

According to a Bureau of Indian Affairs missing person report from 1975, Janice had gone with her father to a basketball game in Lewiston, Idaho, and went missing from there. It says that happened in February 1971; perhaps Janice was gone for a little while and returned.

Her mother told investigators she’d heard a rumor that Janice was staying with a woman in the Seattle area with the last name of George.

“Janice came to my mom’s mind a lot through the years. She would get her hopes up when people would tell her, ‘Oh, I saw Janice walking in Seattle. She’s living with some woman over there’ or ‘I saw Janice walking from Wapato, think she was going home to Harrah.’ All lies,” Lee-Clark said.

Her mother would cry again when rumors proved false.

“She didn’t know what happened, where she was, who she was last with,” Lee-Clark said. “She interrogated a couple of her boyfriends she had. They would just tell her they didn’t know where she was.”

Lee-Clark is realistic; she knows her sister may have died years ago, and possibly at the hands of a murderer. She believes Janice might be buried on land near the family home outside Harrah, on land she and her siblings lease to a local farmer.

“At the old home site we had a burn area and an outside toilet. That was way back there” on the property, along with a well, Lee-Clark said.

She has tried — and continues to try — to get authorities to walk the land with cadaver dogs, but also hopes the farmer could help.

“I don’t know how far down you dig when you’re planting, but I do know that where the pumpkins are planted on top of the hill is where our home was,” she wrote to the farmer in October 2017, asking him to dig a little deeper if he wouldn’t mind.

“We had a cellar under the house and an outhouse closer to the downhill,” Lee-Clark wrote.

Even if no one cooperates, she won’t stop looking.

“People tell me to just let her rest in peace. I’m like, ‘Rest in peace where?’ I don’t know if she’s alive or dead. If she’s dead, I want to bring her home to our cemetery,” she said of the Toppenish Creek Cemetery near White Swan. She hopes to bury her near their father, who died in 1989.

In another tragedy without resolution, Lee-Clark’s niece, Linda Dave, 39, was found shot to death under the Marion Drain bridge on U.S. Highway 97 near Toppenish. Her body was discovered in February 2017, but she wasn’t identified until March of this year — although some family members have told others they provided dental records soon after her body was discovered.

The investigation is ongoing. The FBI is working on the case with the Yakama Nation Police Department.

Lee-Clark knows the frustration felt by families wanting justice.

“It’s like we’re not a priority,” she said.

In search of resolution

Along with speaking to others about Janice and gathering records, Lee-Clark has submitted her DNA to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a nationwide information clearinghouse that offers free online technology to expedite investigations.

Its free services include forensic odontology and fingerprint examination, as well as forensic anthropology and DNA analyses through the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification laboratories.

“I think the best thing I did was (submitted DNA) to NamUs. I submitted that in April of last year,” Lee-Clark said.

One of the biggest challenges in resolving cases of missing and murdered Native women is the fact that many databases don’t “talk” to each other, so crucial information cannot be compared. NamUs offers investigative support to help connect that information.

Others work with family and friends of those seeking answers. They include Janet Franson, a retired homicide investigator who created the Facebook page Lost and Missing in Indian Country in May 2015. Lee-Clark and Franson speak often.

Franson’s was one of the first such Facebook pages devoted to missing and murdered Native women and men. She estimates half a dozen have started within the past year and is pleased with their efforts. “Anything to solve the problem,” she said.

“We get contacted a lot from family members who have been trying to report loved ones missing and no one will do anything.”

Since she has been searching for her sister, Lee-Clark has come to realize how many people are missing.

“I know there are a lot of families looking for their loved ones. It’s really sad to see someone gone missing and it’s getting to be on a daily basis, no matter the race, the age, the gender and the location,” she added.

Thankfully some make it home safe, Lee-Clark said.

Her search continues.

“If anyone knows anything about where my sister is or where she was last seen, please, please come forward. Both my mom and dad never got closure before passing on,” she said.

“I would like to have closure before I too am gone.”

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