WAPATO — Ten days after she was born on Feb. 4, 1997, Rosalita Faye Longee was in Children’s Hospital Colorado for surgery.
Every time little Rose cried, she couldn’t catch her breath because soft tissue in her throat would close up and she would start to turn blue. Though many children outgrow stridor — noisy breathing that results from obstructed air flow through a narrowed airway — her case was extreme and needed immediate attention.
Rose’s grandmother, Verlynn Faye Longee of Wapato, was living in Montana then. She flew from Poplar to the Denver area to be with her daughter and granddaughter.
From the day she was born, Rose had her grandma’s heart. Verlynn told her daughter, Kimberly Longee, she wanted to take Rose home and raise her. Verlynn had given birth to 10 children, but something about that baby girl resonated deeply with her.
When Rose was 2, her mother agreed and signed the paperwork granting Verlynn permanent custody. “It was on my birthday when I got the surprise of my life,” Verlynn said. “I got my baby.”
Her baby, her Rose, the helpful girl who liked to leave little notes and laugh and pose for so many smiling photos, would be 22 now. She has been missing since June 30, 2015.
Rose is among an unknown number of Native women and girls who have gone missing, have been murdered and have died mysteriously on and beyond the boundaries of the 1.3-million-acre Yakama Reservation. Like Rose, an enrolled member of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Poplar, Mont., some were not Yakama Nation citizens but had deep family connections here that go back decades. The women and girls taken by death and disappearance have been Yakama, and enrolled members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
They are among indigenous women and girls throughout the United States, and the world, who have suffered physical and sexual violence at disproportionate rates for centuries.
Verlynn struggles, like so many loved ones of missing and murdered indigenous women, with what she could have done. She asks about Rose at homeless shelters and treatment centers and cheap hotels. She looks for Rose in crowds, calls out her name to women who resemble her. She hears horrifying stories about what may have happened to Rose and reports every scrap of information to tribal and federal investigators, checking with them often.
Rose’s 13-year-old sister, Makayla Longee, keeps asking, “Grandma, when is my sister coming home?” Verlynn said. She doesn’t know what to tell her.
“When she gets really mad she says, ‘It should have been me they took,’” Verlynn said. “I say, ‘No, baby, they shouldn’t take (any) of you guys. We’ll find her.’”
With relatives in the Yakima Valley, Verlynn, who is 67, has lived here off and on since 1994. After a few years in Montana, Nebraska and North Dakota, she came back for good in 2009.
Born in Helena, Rose attended Wapato schools. She liked math and art. She quit high school but was going for her GED, Verlynn said. She worked hard at home.
“She was, she is, really helpful to me,” Verlynn said.
“She was so helpful and kind of silly. She just loved babies; every baby was hers,” she said. “She would take the kids out trick-or-treating.”
As a child, Rose talked about being a nurse. Later, she wanted to join the Army. Along the way she clashed with her elders, but Rose listened to Verlynn and her auntie Elsie Longee.
“I was always mom to her until she’d get mad at me. It’s grandma then,” Verlynn said, smiling at the memory.
‘Come home, call me’
The confrontations intensified with high school. Rose “was really good until she was 16 and got into the wrong group of people,” Verlynn said. “She was doing drugs. I had her in and out of treatment.”
Rose started staying with her boyfriend, Isaiah Estes Andrews, or some of her friends. She was always welcome to come and go as she pleased, Verlynn said, but she didn’t want Rose around when she was high or drinking — the rules for anyone staying at her house.
The last day Verlynn saw Rose, she came to the house high.
“I said baby, you’ve gotta go. I don’t want that around your sister or your cousin. When you’re sober ... you can come home,” she added.
Late that evening, around 10 p.m., someone knocked on the door. Verlynn asked who it was. “Rose,” came the soft, hesitant reply. Verlynn told her to go away.
“If I knew this was going to happen, I would have opened the door,” she said. “I blame myself for what happened. If there’s any way I could just tell her, ‘Come home; call me. Let me know you’re OK.’”
“I tell people, ‘Never tell people to go away,’” she said. “In a million years, I never thought that would happen.”
She has kept a journal since Rose disappeared.
“I’d write her every day. I’d tell her what’s going on, what’s happening. Her aunties had their babies,” Verlynn said. “Just little things like I’m talking to her. What happened to this one and that one.”
As a mother, Verlynn faced heartache years before Rose was born and is frank about it. In 1989, her 3½-month-old son died in a fire. Her 22-year-old son, Michael Mitchell, was shot and killed by a Tacoma police officer in 1997. Her daughter, Carla Rose Longee Hughes, died in 2005 at age 35. And 41-year-old son Patrick Mitchell was beaten to death in Poplar in July 2017.
Rose’s boyfriend killed
Patrick Mitchell died just days before Rose’s boyfriend was shot to death outside his home in the 300 block of Donald Road in Wapato in 2017. Deryk Alexander Donato, 25, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Yakima to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to 25 years in federal prison. Donato also is one of three men charged in the killing of Jacob Ozuna on Dec. 9 in a segregated gang unit at the North Front Street jail. Donato was his cellmate.
Andrews was 20 when he died. He and Rose, who were the same age, met as students at Wapato High School and had been together for a few years, Verlynn said.
“He was ready to talk, that he knew something about what happened to her,” she added. “They caught him and his friend at the store; they got away. The second time, they caught him at his auntie’s.”
She and her daughters, Elsie and Tashina Longee, keep in regular contact with Yakama Nation Tribal Police and the FBI, who are investigating Rose’s disappearance. They report everything they hear.
Some of the people Rose was last seen with have told Verlynn stories about what happened to her.
“How many times they tell me she got beat up and they put her in a trunk and she’s buried in White Swan someplace. ... that she was buried alive or cut up,” Verlynn said.
Others say they have seen Rose at homeless camps, the Union Gospel Mission in Yakima, places where people gather on Naches Avenue. Verlynn has visited them all, showing photos of Rose. She has dozens of photos on her phone — selfies of Rose, photos with boyfriend, her little sister, her cousin.
“So many pictures,” Verlynn said.
And Rose’s name came up in Congress in late June, when U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, spoke on the House floor to urge solutions for missing and murdered indigenous women. He was advocating for passage of Savanna’s Act, which sponsors say would coordinate law enforcement efforts and improve communication between law enforcement and families of victims.
U.S. Reps. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico, U.S. Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., and Newhouse reintroduced Savanna’s Act in the House in mid-May. It has been referred to the Judiciary Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee — specifically, the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples. Newhouse urged action from Congress.
“This is a national problem that requires a national response,” he said. “These women are not just statistics in a database.”
They are mothers and daughters, sisters and aunties and cousins. They are friends. Even as Verlynn looks for and asks about her precious Rose, she sees all the other posts on social media from others with missing loved ones.
“I know how they feel,” she said. “It’s just frustrating — you want to scream and holler. I want to go after these people. It’s an everyday struggle to hold my tears back when (Rose’s younger sister) Makayla’s around.”
She rails against God, angry because it seems nothing is happening and she has no answers, but Verlynn wants to have faith that Rose will be found. She and her family just keep hoping.
Her daughter Kimberly recently headed back home to Omaha after a visit. She joined Verlynn in a visit to Yakima, where they asked about Rose at places where homeless people gather. Kimberly also gave DNA to aid investigators.
The biological mother’s DNA is the best because as her daughter, Rose inherited mitochondrial DNA from Kimberly only; that provides a much more direct genetic lineage.
Verlynn and others share Rose’s name and story as much as they can, with posters in Montana, a profile on The Charley Project and information on NamUS, a national information clearinghouse and resource center for missing, unidentified and unclaimed person cases funded and administered by the National Institute of Justice.
Her ties to her granddaughter are strong and unwavering.
“I told her mom, ‘She’s my baby. Always will be my baby,’” Verlynn said.