Anita Nez had never spoken with a psychic medium before she made an appointment in August 2017. She hoped to connect with her father or her boyfriend and had been thinking again about her niece, Barbara Jean Whitesell, who was 19 when she died in the summer of 1990.
Nez, who is 52, was only a few years older than Whitesell. They had grown up together, like sisters. They were close.
When she sat down with Melissa Henyan, Nez watched as Henyan wrote, unprompted, 10-24 on lined notebook paper. Henyan then jotted down the words “cut offs” and “short” next to a quick sketch of shorts.
Whitesell’s birthday was Oct. 24, Nez said.
“She’d always be in a T-shirt and 501 jeans cut off,” Nez said of her niece’s favorite summertime outfit.
“It was an indicator to me that she wants to be remembered, so that’s why I went to the march and that’s why I think it’s really important to keep her story alive,” Nez said, referring to the annual Women’s March on Yakima.
The Wapato resident joined more than 400 others at the downtown march Jan. 19 led by Yakama Nation citizens and other supporters of missing and murdered indigenous women. They wore red to honor their loved ones and carried posters with photos, repeating their names as they walked. Gone but never forgotten, they said.
“I just kind of lost it,” Nez said, dabbing at her eyes with a napkin, her voice breaking after she played a short video from the march. “Even hearing it now, it’s really hard.”
Whitesell, who was Yakama, was raped and strangled near Troutdale, Ore., on July 13, 1990. She was engaged to a young man she met at the Southeast Portland pizza parlor where he worked. They planned to marry Oct. 24 of that year, which would have been her 20th birthday.
Multnomah County sheriff’s deputies arrested Clifton Duane Dooley, 21, and Marcus William Blalock, 19, two days later. Each was charged with six counts of aggravated murder and two sex offenses.
The cases received extensive regional media attention in part because of the novel and important role DNA evidence played in the exoneration of one suspect and conviction of the other.
A little more than a year later, on July 30, 1991, a county judge dismissed the charges against Dooley at the request of a deputy district attorney. DNA testing indicated that Dooley, who’d gone to school with Whitesell and was a friend, did not rape Whitesell. And blood on his jacket was his own, not hers.
Blalock was sentenced in October 1991 after pleading guilty to one count of aggravated murder. Additional charges of aggravated murder, rape and sodomy were dropped.
He is serving a life term at Two Rivers Correctional Institution in Umatilla, Ore.
Such resolution is still rare in Indian Country. Statistics show that Native women are 10 times more likely to be murdered than other Americans, often by non-Natives. Many cases grow cold, caught in a dense web of challenges that seem to defy solution.
It was almost a relief, in a way, for some close to Whitesell to learn that Dooley did not commit such a horrifying crime against his friend. And they were thankful that Blalock was convicted.
“We were very fortunate that there was justice,” Nez said.
Nez’s devotion to the cause of missing and murdered indigenous people strengthens her. She has altered her diet, shed three prescriptions and dropped 100 pounds, working out twice most days.
“I dedicate a lot of my workouts to missing and murdered indigenous women and people who have passed away,” Nez said.
No one knows exactly how many Yakama citizens have gone missing, have been murdered or have died mysteriously on the 1.3-million-acre Yakama Reservation and beyond its borders. Stories of assault and murder have been passed down from the earliest months of the June 1855 formation of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation — and before.
The women’s march in January was healing for Nez, and she is open about sharing Whitesell’s story, but the pain of losing her remains. Whitesell was especially close to her younger brother, Patrick, who won’t talk about her murder, Nez said.
“Fortunately for me it had a positive impact, but a lot of people in our family are hurting still,” she said.
Nez can speak with authority about DNA not only because of Whitesell, but also her education. She studied microbiology and anthropology.
“She kind of directed my life, this whole situation,” Nez said of Whitesell. “Her life and death kind of steered my career path.”
Born in Oregon, Whitesell was the middle child, with two older and two younger siblings. They grew up around Bridal Veil, Ore., a historic logging company town turned ghost town, and The Dalles, a much older gathering place that has drawn people from throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond for centuries.
Celilo, whose landmark falls disappeared under water with the opening of The Dalles Dam in March 1957, is also part of their family history and the site of another relative’s mysterious death.
“My mom’s half-sister, there’s a story that she was pushed off the bridge between Oregon and Washington, at Celilo, in the ’30s or ’40s, probably the ’40s, possibly the ’50s,” Nez said.
She and her sister Patsy Whitesell — Barbara’s mother — live with their mother, Lucille Nez, who is 87 and still makes moccasins.
From a young age, Anita Nez enjoyed hearing stories of her family. She’s also taken countless photos. “I’m the keeper of the photos. I always had a camera and always took pictures,” she said.
Nez grew up with Barbara and her siblings and often was at their house.
Barbara Whitesell wasn’t serious about school, preferring to spend time with family and friends, usually outside.
“She was a sweet, feisty lady,” Nez said.
Summer of 1990
Without a steady job in the summer of 1990, Whitesell was enjoying herself. She was engaged to Michael Guthert, 21, of Portland, but the couple hadn’t made many formal plans. Whitesell, who was living with Guthert, just wanted to have fun, her mother said.
In early July, her mother asked Whitesell about progress on her wedding plans, knowing they wanted to marry on Whitesell’s birthday. She wasn’t taking anything seriously that summer, though, her mother said, and Whitesell became irritated with the questions.
“I said, ‘Shouldn’t you be doing something?’” her mother recalled. “She got upset with me and left. She had a lot of ideas but didn’t want to get them all together. She was too busy having fun.”
With relatives and friends in the area, it wasn’t unusual for her to be gone a few days, but she’d always let family know where she was.
A few days later, “On (July) 9th, I realized that my daughter didn’t come home. That’s when I told my son, ‘We’d better go look for her,’” Patsy Whitesell said. “Then we found out she was down at the Sandy River with some friends.”
They headed there and had been spending time with her when her daughter ran into Dooley and Blalock on the afternoon of July 12. The men had been swimming and saw Whitesell at the nearby Rustic Inn Campground, where they spoke and made arrangements to go out later that evening, investigators said.
That was the last day her family saw Whitesell, who had stayed behind after most had left, her brother Patrick told a reporter.
Authorities believe Whitesell was killed between midnight July 12 and 3 a.m. July 13 behind Grace Brethren Church in Troutdale. Two boys walking on a trail behind the church found her body at 7:30 p.m. July 13.
Early the next day, when Whitesell hadn’t come home, her family called the Troutdale Police Department and headed back to the river to look for her.
“We went down there. The cops were all there. They were asking (about) what she was wearing,” Patsy Whitesell said. “They said they found a girl behind the church.”
Her family identified her that morning by the rings she wore, her mother said.
Nez didn’t attend the court hearings, she said. At that time, she was working while facing other challenges. “I had long stints of sobriety then would go completely crazy. I’d go to college then drop out again,” she added.
She has been clean and sober for 13 years now.
Barbara Whitesell is buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Corbett, Ore., the town where she attended elementary and middle school. Time has not diminished the horrors of her death, but knowing how many people have missing loved ones, her family is thankful they could bury her.
“I could not imagine not ever knowing what happened, not being able to put them to rest,” Nez said.
Keeping their memory alive
July 13 is always difficult, with Whitesell’s loved ones handling it in different ways.
For Nez, amid a busy life and a new job, it’s about promoting and keeping alive her niece’s story by participating in the Women’s March on Yakima and sharing stories about missing and murdered indigenous people in the private Facebook group she created, Yakama Happening Now.
“It was triggering at first; it was tough, but I continue to put her story out there. I know in my bones that she wants (it) told. There are so many other families that I know or hurting and they might not be able to share their story so readily,” she said.
“It’s not right that all of our people are disappearing and it feels like no one is doing anything.”
She has also contacted Annita Lucchesi, the woman who created the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women database — the first effort to compile as much of that information as possible on a national level — to get Whitesell’s name added.
“Our family was very fortunate that her story got so much press coverage but still there’s the matter of the count and ... even though her story was well-known, she was not in the database,” Nez said.
Nez messaged Lucchesi in November, after the nonprofit Urban Indian Health Institute, a research arm of the Seattle Indian Health Board, issued its report identifying 506 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in 71 urban cities.
Many indigenous women nationwide live in urban settings off reservations while going to school or pursuing careers, said Abigail Echo-Hawk, director of the Indian Health Institute and coauthor of the report. Many are sexually assaulted, murdered or vanish, leaving loved ones without answers.
Glad that the issue of missing and murdered indigenous people is getting so much media attention, Nez hopes those affected also ensure their loved ones are not forgotten.
“I encourage everyone who has missing people to make sure they are counted. They want and we need justice,” she said.