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Relatives, Law Enforcement Clash Over What Killed 16-Year-Old Crow Girl

People gather around candles and a picture of Selena Not Afraid at a nighttime vigil.
Olivia Reingold
Yellowstone Public Radio
About a hundred people celebrated the life of Selena Not Afraid on Jan. 21, 2020.

Update Jan. 23, 2020:  A preliminary autopsy report released Thursday says Selena Not Afraid died of hypothermia. Montana's chief medical examiner at the state crime lab in Billings also found there were no wounds, broken bones or other signs of violence on her body. A toxicology report has not yet been completed and could take several weeks. The following story was published before the autopsy report was released.

Law enforcement and family members are clashing over what they say killed a 16-year-old Crow girl, who was found dead near an Interstate-90 rest stop earlier this week.

Annie Leider is writing down questions she has about what happened to her niece, Selena Not Afraid.

She’s at the old Crow casino, taking notes on a massive piece of construction paper as relatives and friends shout out questions about Not Afraid’s death and disappearance.

A list of questions handwritten in black and red marker on brown Kraft paper.
Credit Olivia Reingold / Yellowstone Public Radio
Yellowstone Public Radio
A list of questions that members of the Not Afraid family composed on Jan. 21, 2020.

Earlier this week, Not Afraid’s body was found less than a mile from the Interstate-90 rest stop where she was last spotted New Years Day.

Law enforcement says there’s no evidence of foul play, but some relatives say her body was dumped. There’s a growing movement online that agrees.

One online commenter using the hashtag #Justice4Sal, wrote, “If I hear the words 'hyperthermia' or 'No foul play suspected' one more time, I'm starting a f***ing riot.”

For the past year, the community has watched as a handful of girls have gone missing or turned up dead in Big Horn County, where parts of the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Reservations lie.

Some of those cases have been ruled as deaths of exposure or have come back inconclusive. The Not Afraid family says they won’t let that happen to Not Afraid, an enrolled Crow tribal member who was a junior at Hardin High School.

“We just have a lot of questions that need to be answered,” Leider said.

“We just don’t want this to be swept under the rug anymore. There’s just too many bodies found with no answers. And this is enough. Enough. This is enough."

Eleven Native Americans are currently missing in Big Horn County, according to the Montana Department of Justice’s Missing Persons Clearinghouse. The only other Montana county with that many missing indigenous people is Yellowstone, but it has more than twelve times the population.

“There’s just too many,” Leider said.

“Especially the young ones. Just the past few months, we’ve been hearing almost every other day, we hear about someone missing. And we were hoping to get our Selena back alive but it didn’t turn out that way. It’s got to stop sometime. It’s got to stop. We just want justice for our girls. Our people.”

To Leider, justice would mean having law enforcement investigate why no one found Not Afraid’s body earlier. Leider said volunteers looked unsuccessfully in the exact place  where U.S. Department of Interior searchers found her days later.

Leider went to the site where Not Afraid’s body was found the day after it was discovered.

“What I saw is there’s no imprint of a body,” Leider said. “If a body laid there for 19 plus days, there would’ve been an imprint there.”

She also said there were tire tracks near the site, which the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office denies. She wants to know why there were no body fluids at the scene. She also wants to know why early reports included that Not Afraid was possibly intoxicated.

Francine Amyotte, Not Afraid’s grandmother, also went with Leider to the site to smudge and lay down flowers.

“When we went there, we weren’t satisfied,” Amyotte said.

A woman sits at a table in front of a set of doors and windows that is illuminated.
Credit Olivia Reingold / Yellowstone Public Radio
Yellowstone Public Radio
Francine Amyotte in the old Crow casino, which became the headquarters for the volunteer-led search during the near three weeks that Selena Not Afraid was missing.

“We had questions like, 'why wasn’t there any evidence that she had been there since day one?'”

Amyotte thinks what happened is that her granddaughter was being held hostage during the near three-weeks she was missing.

Big Horn County Undersheriff Eric Winburn said he’s found no evidence to support that throughout his investigation.

“We have to follow the evidence,” WInburn said. “If they have evidence that there was foul play, they need to bring it to the sheriff’s office and we can investigate it. But we have no evidence that there was foul play. Absolutely none.”

He said there’s no sign that anyone else was near the site.

“There’s no tire tracks,” he said.

“If you’re carrying her, there’s going to be deep footprints, right? Because your weight and her weight, you’re going to have deep footprints. There’s no footprints out there.”

That’s how he said he knows no one dumped her body.

“We think she wandered out there and died of hypothermia,” Winburn said. “That’s what we think.”

He said the autopsy will reveal if any violence was done to Not Afraid and how much alcohol was in her system.

“She had been drinking,” he said. “We don’t know the extent she’d been drinking and that might have been part of it too, yes.”

When asked what he meant by “part of it,” Winburn said, “Somebody that’s been drinking may do something that somebody who’s sober may not do something. So she may not have wandered out there. Who knows.”

Investigators said the day before her disappearance, Not Afraid attended a New Years Eve party in Billings. The next day, she was catching a ride back with five adults when the car stopped working.

“The detectives interviewed everybody in the vehicle and all of them were interviewed several times,” Winburn said.

He said, when the car broke down, they pulled into an eastbound rest stop on I-90 between Hardin and Billings. He said a lot of the passengers got out.

“They were told to get back in the van,” Winburn said.

“They didn’t get back in the van, two of the girls didn’t get back in the van. He told them, ‘If I get the vehicle started and you’re not in the van, you’re going to be staying here.’ So he got the van started and took off, and two girls were left there."

Then “he,” who Winburn declined to identify, called his mother, who came and picked up the girls. When the car arrived, no one could find Not Afraid.

The search for her started that night, on New Year's Day.

Eventually a mix of federal, state and local agencies got involved, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Department of Interior.

She was found 19 days later during a systematic grid search of the rest area.

Winburn said he’s not sure how Not Afraid’s death fits into the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women.

“Why it happens to this group of people, I don’t know the answer to that. I can honestly tell you that I don’t know.”

Annita Lucchesi, a premier researcher on missing and murdered indigenous women, said the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office is part of the problem.

“In Big Horn County, Native women and girls go missing and are killed because law enforcement let it happen,” she said.

Her point is that when no one is charged in an instance like Not Afraid’s, perpetrators think they can get away with their crimes.

She said that applies even if no one touched Not Afraid.

“In Montana, with the winter weather as bad as it is, if they knew that she was drunk, and they left her alone in a field in a blizzard, that’s manslaughter,” Lucchesi said.

“That’s intentional negligence that leads to someone’s death.”

She said since the 1990s, violence against women in Big Horn County has been increasing. That’s according to a database she made of missing and murdered indigenous women, which logs 28 cases in Big Horn County.

“In the last year, we’ve seen quite a few cases now. Selena, Kaysera [Stops Pretty Places], Henny Scott. I think people have finally had enough.”

On Tuesday night, about a hundred people gathered atop the Rims in Billings.

Girls holding pictures of Not Afraid arranged candles in a heart. People with red handprints over their faces, a symbol for missing and murdered indigenous women, hung their heads as they prayed.

Kim Kelch, who’s dating a member of the Not Afraid family, arranged the event.

“I feel like us Native people don’t think anybody cares,” she said.

“They don’t think anyone will notice. They don’t think anybody will come looking. They don’t think anybody will do anything about it. But you know what, we’re going to fight. We’re going to go to war. We ain’t going to give up until we are noticed.”

Kelch said this is a fight for equality that could take generations. In the meantime, she said she’s keeping her household under lock and key to protect her kids from Not Afraid’s killers, who she said are out there.

Not Afraid’s aunt, Cheryl Horn, said on Facebook that Not Afraid’s funeral will take place Sunday at 11 A.M. at Hardin High School.

Olivia Reingold is Yellowstone Public Radio News’ Report for America corps member.