YAKIMA, Wash. -- For more than two decades, relatives of Samantha Rios wondered what happened after she took a taxi to her home in Naches Heights in 1992 and disappeared.
In 2016, skeletal remains were uncovered by a heavy-equipment operator moving dirt in the Gleed area and were identified as belonging to Rios. She had been stabbed to death. Detective Chad Michael of the Yakima County Sheriff’s Office took a new look at the missing person case that had gone cold years before.
“The case had not been taken to the end. Finding her remains in that location led us to the suspect,” said Yakima County Sheriff Robert Udell. “These missing persons cases are like homicides for us. They never go away.”
As the issue of missing and murdered Native women and girls gets more attention in Washington state and throughout the U.S., advances in DNA technology are spurring investigators to take another look at cold cases in hopes of bringing resolution — and, potentially, justice — to family and friends.
Udell plans to create a cold case task force in an effort to do that in Yakima County.
“It’s a direction we want to go. We have dozens of cold cases back there,” he said.
Reservations throughout the United States have long struggled with violence that disproportionately affects Native women and girls. At the 1.3 million-acre Yakama reservation, no one knows exactly how many Native girls and women have gone missing within or near its boundaries.
In 2009, the FBI concluded a two-year probe into the deaths of 16 women on the reservation from 1980 to 1993. An FBI spokesman said there may be as many as 32 unsolved cases on the reservation involving disappearances and deaths.
Udell is working through a long list of goals for his first 90 days as sheriff, so he has a lot on his plate. He also noted that a cold case task force is not funded, but that won’t keep it from happening; it’s on the list, he stressed, and will involve retired deputies donating their time and potentially others with the right expertise who want to help.
He has already been approached by a few retired deputies, Udell said.
“We don’t have it in our budget, and detectives now have plenty of” active cases that need their attention, he said. “But it’s important to people that we clear those (cold cases) up. ... (Family) just want to know what happened. Whenever we get those leads, we go after them.”
“It’s important to the tribe,” added Detective Sgt. Jerrold Towell. “If they’re able to identify these folks, they’re able to bring them home.”
“There’s always a chance,” Udell said.
One cold case that has already gotten close attention is that of the unidentified woman whose remains were found near Parker Dam and the unincorporated community of Parker on Feb. 16, 1988. Authorities think the 30- to 40-year-old woman, believed to be Native, was murdered.
Towell requested the exhumation a few days after an October meeting in Yakima on missing Native women. On Wednesday, he and Udell met with new Yakima County Coroner James Curtice for more discussion. A date for the exhumation has not been set.
Cold case task force members will be able to see written documents on all cold cases, which are in three-ring binders along with related evidence in the sheriff’s office evidence rooms.
“The process over the next 90 days is to establish what we need to do,” Udell said. “It shouldn’t be too hard to get going. We’ll just have to give them access to our new information systems.”
That could involve some refreshers on DNA advancements.
“A fingerprint off a wall, if collected right, will yield DNA,” Udell said, noting that years ago, blood was necessary. “The DNA has changed so much in the last decade.”
It won’t be easy. Time takes its toll. Witnesses die. Investigators are reassigned or retire. Evidence is moved, deteriorates or disappears. But information that remains, however scant, can yield clues for those who take a new look.
“Those cold cases aren’t necessarily without leads,” Udell said. “We have found that a fresh set of eyes will come up with stuff that’s almost obvious.”
“When you look at a cold case, oftentimes the answer’s there,” Towell said.
Others have taken and are taking a closer look at cold cases on the Yakama reservation. During a Jan. 14 meeting at Legends Casino in Toppenish on missing Native women in Washington state, some noted that the Yakama Nation Police Department has had a cold case task force. Yakama Police Commissioner James Shike spoke at length and also mentioned several efforts to broaden and strengthen investigations.
Udell and Towell, who stressed their good working relationships, were among representatives of several agencies at that meeting. Authorities already know that cooperation, trust and information-sharing could help advance and potentially close some cold cases.
Others outside the area could help as well. Janet Franson, a retired homicide investigator who runs the Lost and Missing in Indian Country Facebook page, has been in touch with Towell about getting DNA samples from three sisters of Native descent in the Yakima area whose grandmother, Stella Horrell, went missing in 1943. Horrell was living in Phoenix at the time.
“We worked with (Franson) and collected DNA from family here and sent it to Texas, where it’s going to be analyzed,” Towell said.
The swabs have gone to the University of North Texas, Franson noted, and processing them for DNA usually that takes about six months because of a backlog.
“They’ll put it into the national DNA database, into CODIS (the Combined DNA Index System maintained by the FBI). It’s the same process that we did for Janice Hannigan’s case,” she said of the 16-year-old White Swan High School student who disappeared after she was discharged from the hospital on Christmas Eve 1971.
“If remains have been found or if remains are found at a later date ... they’ll get a hit on the DNA,” she said. “That’s why we do that DNA.”
Along with her Facebook page, Franson works cold cases for the Williamson County (Texas) Sheriff’s Office and previously did so for another sheriff’s office in Montana.
“There are agencies all over the United States that are looking to do this, and it’s a great thing,” Franson said. “It’s all about the hunt, the chase, and we just love to put bad people in jail. And we like to bring some resolution.”
Families need to see that somebody cares about their loved ones, Franson said, that they matter, that they are important.
“We’re trying as hard as we can to work these cases. Even if nothing ever comes of it, at least we tried, and they know that we tried, and that we care enough to try,” she said.