YAKIMA, Wash. -- She left her home sometime in 1987 and never returned. She was petite — around 5 feet tall — and likely wore a long-sleeved blouse, lavender pants and brown bowling shoes when she disappeared.
A horseback rider found that clothing and her skeletal remains on Feb. 16, 1988. She lay close to a dirt road running parallel to the Yakima River near the Parker Dam and the unincorporated community of Parker.
No one in the years since has identified this 30- to 40-year-old Native woman who law enforcement believe was murdered. Someone has been and likely still is looking for her, hoping for justice and resolution.
Much has changed in the decades since Yakima County Sheriff’s Office detectives took her skull to the department of anthropology at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, where faculty and students recreated her face with clay. It was the first time the sheriff’s office used such a visual device to further a criminal investigation, noted a story in the Yakima Herald-Republic on Dec. 20, 1988.
Now, with renewed attention in Washington on missing Native women as a result of state legislation passed this year, her story — and those of the many other Native women and girls who went missing, were murdered or died mysteriously on or near the Yakama Reservation — are getting another look by those seeking solutions to this national and international epidemic of violence.
House Bill 2951 requires the Washington State Patrol to work with the Governor’s Office of Indian Affairs, federally recognized tribes, tribal and other law enforcement and tribal leaders to determine how to increase reporting and investigation of missing Native American women.
As part of that, public meetings hosted by the State Patrol and Indian Affairs office are taking place around Washington. One is set for 1 to 4 p.m. Oct. 29 in the event center of Legends Casino, 580 Fort Road, Toppenish.
Capt. Dave Johnson of the Toppenish Police Department, who retired from the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office in December 2015 and joined the Toppenish department about a year ago, worked the case of the woman whose remains were found in 1988. He had the skull taken to Central, where Catherine Sands oversaw the reconstruction, he said.
Central experts, with the help of the King County Medical Examiner’s Office, were able to determine that the victim appeared to be Native, the December 1988 YHR story said. It noted that authorities said the victim’s high cheekbones were consistent with the bone structure of a Native woman, but they also said they didn’t believe she was a citizen of the Yakama Nation.
During the press conference, sheriff’s detectives said they believed she died two to 10 months before her body was found on Feb. 16, 1988 — and that she was murdered.
An autopsy by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office failed to determine the cause of her death. Because of the location of the remains, detectives investigated the case as a homicide.
There are still no leads in the case as far as Johnson knows, he said. It remains open with the sheriff’s office, case number 88-1113.
“We had the normal, ‘We’re missing somebody, but it doesn’t look like her, but she was missing about that time,’” he said. “We did have several females during (that period of time) that were missing, but none of them matched the characteristics. Those leads didn’t go anywhere.”
Two other women were found stabbed to death near Parker during that time frame.
Serial rapist John Bill Fletcher Jr. was resentenced in 2011 for killing Theresa Branscomb, 20; and Bertha Cantu, 26. Their bodies were found near Parker and both were stabbed to death in 1987, Branscomb in February and Cantu in late June.
Fletcher, 62, remains at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe. According to information from the Washington State Department of Corrections, September 2032 is the earliest he could be released.
Johnson said he didn’t remember anything being connected to Fletcher in this case.
“We just didn’t have anything to go on,” he said. But like the Green River Killer, “almost any bodies turning up around a certain period of time are connected” to a certain person or people, he said.
Det. Sgt. Jerrold Towell of the sheriff’s office said human hair and fingernail trimmings — which could be tested for DNA — are among the evidence collected in the unidentified woman’s case.
“It’s not a lot of evidence. Some of it is soil samples from around the body. The thing that may be the most interesting — it’s hair they collected at the scene,” he said, stressing that he wasn’t there so didn’t know how it was collected or where exactly it came from.
“Is it the subject’s hair? You don’t know, especially on skeletal remains. You never make assumptions. You just collect it.”
The sheriff’s office does not have the skeletal remains and any clothing found on them, he said.
“From my understanding the skeletal remains were transferred to the coroner’s office,” Towell said.
Yakima County Coroner Jack Hawkins is checking on the remains’ location. Because the King County Medical Examiner’s Office performed the autopsy, they may be there, he said.
“Usually when they’re done, they’ll ship them back,” Hawkins said. “Sometimes they’re kept at King County.”
With advances in DNA technology and the rise of the internet and social media since 1988, sharing the woman’s story again could lead to someone thinking of something that could make a difference.
“It’s always good to bring those things back into the public eye,” Johnson said.