State hires new positions to solve missing and murdered person cases

An additional position to investigate human trafficking also announced
Published: Nov. 30, 2022 at 8:01 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - Wednesday was a major day for dozens of Native American families across South Dakota, whose tragedies, some of them feel, have gone ignored or abandoned.

It was a day over two years in the making.

At a press conference in Rapid City, Attorney General Mark Vargo announced two new positions in his office that will help solve cases involving indigenous people who have gone missing as a result of human trafficking and murder.

Allison Morrissette, who has worked on these cases for the state’s attorney’s office, was introduced as the state’s first Missing and Murdered and Murdered Indigenous Persons Coordinator. The Attorney General’s office also announced the new state position of Human Trafficking Coordinator, a role that will be filled by child abuse prevention advocate Mary Beth Holzwarth.

”This is a historic day,” said State Representative Peri Pourier, an Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe member. “This is very much an indigenous problem, but it is just as much a South Dakota problem. This is a huge step in bridging the gap in our indigenous communities and South Dakota.”

Pourier said 77 percent of missing people in South Dakota are Native Americans who come from the state’s tribal cities and reservations, and whose families have struggled to find help in getting their cases resolved.

Who do I go to? Who happens next? Those are questions so many family members of missing people don’t know the answers.

”In most cases, they may get an initial report, and then it’s dead in the water,” Pourier said. “And, then, we’re left with no answers. With no communication. With people shrugging their shoulders.”

Morrisette plans to bring law enforcement agencies, lawmakers, prosecutors, and non-profits “to the table” to hash out cases. Vargo announced an advisory committee on missing and murdered indigenous persons to help Morrisette, who worked on these cases in the state’s attorney’s office.

“One of my main goals is to get everybody connected, so when somebody does go missing, the information gets there accurately and in the appropriate time to see if that will help,” Morrisette, herself a member of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe.

“I want the community to know that if they have questions or concerns, I want to be accessible to them. I’m always open to ideas, and I want to learn what they already know.”

Many missing and murdered Native Americans are tied to human trafficking, so Vargo’s office also hired Holzwarth, who spent 13 years as CEO of Endeavor 52, a grassroots organization dedicated to child sexual assault prevention.

”And then I spent about three-and-a-half years working at the South Dakota women’s prison, where I worked with many incredible women who had experienced being trafficked,” Holzwarth said. “So, stepping into this role just really made sense.”

Pourier spent years leading the charge to convince the state to find the resources to create these positions. She brought the need for that role to light in the legislature, and former Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg’s office was directed to hire a liason for missing and murdered Native Americans two years ago.

Ravnsborg was removed from office in June, when he was barred from holding any state office after he was convicted in an impeachment trial over a 2020 car crash in which he killed a pedestrian.

When Vargo took over, he found 14 applications for the MMIP and human trafficking positions on his desk, according to a recent report from Dakota Scout. So, Vargo made an aggressive push to relist the positions and then do outreach to various communities to generate interest and awareness in the jobs.

He ended up receiving about 130 applications.

“This project... is about engaging our communities,” Vargo said. “And just the response to this announcement is a huge step in the right direction.”

The positions will be funded privately. Native Hope — a nonprofit organization out of Chamberlain that “exists to dismantle barriers and inspire hope for Native voices unheard,” according to its website — will fund the first year of the project.

Vargo’s time as Attorney General will end just over a month from now. But he said his successor, Marty Jackley, is committed to the program, along with Gov. Kristi Noem and the state legislature.

Sitting side-by-side on Wednesday, Vargo, Pourier, Morrisette, and Holzwarth all admitted that having Morrisette and Holzwarth tackle the MMIP epidemic will not be an instant or easy fix to the dozens of cases still unsolved.

“This isn’t a one-stop solution,” Pourier said. “We won’t solve the problem overnight.”

But in two weeks, Vargo and Morrisette will attend a one-stop-shop for reaching out to the Native American community.

The Lakota National Invitational hosts over 40 Native American tribes from South Dakota and three other states for a high school basketball tournament — and other competitions — in Rapid City. The “LNI” is the largest gathering of Native Americans that exits in South Dakota every year.

There, the attorney general and inaugural MMIP coordinator will meet with numerous tribal members and leaders. Vargo reached out to the LNI board to use some of the space at The Monument for meetings.

”And they took that a very large step further, and they have made Friday of the LNI, ‘Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons Day,” Vargo said.

That will be December 16. Those who attend the LNI will be encouraged to wear red, the color that represents awareness for missing and murdered indigenous people.

”These women, these men, these children are not going to go overlooked,” Pourier said. “They’re not going to go silent. We will remember them.”