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Search for missing teen ends less than mile from where it started

County attorney requests evidence from sheriff’s office, partner agencies
Thursday, January 23, 2020
Search for missing teen ends less than mile from where it started

Photo by Luella N. Brien

Family, friends and supporters of Selena Not Afraid gathered atop the rims at Billings’ Swords Park to celebrate the life of the 16-year-old Selena Not Afraid, whose body was found on Jan. 20 than a mile from where she was last seen. Not Afraid had been missing for 20 days.

Search for missing teen ends less than mile from where it started

Selena Not Afraid


Roughly 75 people attended a candlelight vigil on top of the Billings’ rims Tuesday to honor the short life of Selena Not Afraid, a Hardin-area teen who has been missing since Jan. 1.

Big Horn County Sheriff Lawrence Pete Big Hair confirmed Monday that a body found near the county rest area on eastbound I-90 by a Department of Interior team is that of the teen.  

An autopsy is pending, and no foul play is suspected, Big Hair wrote in a press release.

The body, found at 10:33 a.m., was about three-quarters of a mile southwest from the rest area, which served as a command post during the first two weeks of the search. It was located during a systematic grid search in an area covered with dense brush, Big Horn County Undersheriff Eric Winburn told Billingsarea media outlets Tuesday.

News of the 16-year-old’s disappearance on New Year’s Day circulated across the nation. It was reported throughout Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas and by national news outlets USA Today, the New York Times and NBC’s Dateline. The case has even been covered by the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom.

According to a statement released by Big Horn County Attorney Jay Harris, the county attorney’s office will pursue a full and independent review of the evidence associated with the Not Afraid case.  

“The County Attorney’s Office is now seeking immediate production of all evidence associated with the efforts made by law enforcement in the search and location of Selena Not Afraid during January of 2020,” Harris wrote.

He continued, “The County Attorney’s Office will utilize the investigative subpoena process under Montana law to ensure complete production of all evidentiary materials from the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office. Federal agency partners will be requested to provide all evidentiary materials through existing federal protocols for State  prosecutorial review.”

The press release went on to state the county attorney’s office represents the State of Montana and therefore, “no characterizations of evidence or promises of immunity by the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office are binding upon the State of Montana in a criminal prosecution.”

He also wrote his office will not characterize the discovery of any dead body “as reflecting foul play or not reflecting foul play until such time as all necessary and proper investigative leads are followed and all available evidence is reviewed and scrutinized.”

Harris wrote he formally advised the sheriff’s office on Jan. 14 that the search for Not Afraid is both a missing persons search and a criminal investigation.

Harris added his office advised the sheriff’s office to refrain from further public comment regarding the Not Afraid case “unless done with consultation with the County Attorney.”

A Billings television station aired an interview with Winburn Tuesday evening, but Big Horn County News’ calls and an email to the undersheriff Tuesday afternoon were unanswered.

Disappearance

The circumstances surrounding Not Afraid’s disappearance have some family members and search party volunteers wondering what exactly happened the afternoon of Jan. 1.

According to numerous posts on social media, Not Afraid and several friends attended a house party on New Year’s Eve at a residence on Miles Avenue in Billings. The following morning, Not Afraid reportedly caught a ride with two men and two women, who were on their way back to Hardin.

According to the missing persons advisory released on Jan. 1, the van experienced mechanical problems near mile marker 476, just east of the Yellowstone County line and pulled off the road at the rest area around 2 p.m.

While the group was parked at the rest area, Not Afraid reportedly walked away from the vehicle with an adult woman, who was possibly another passenger, into a field behind the building for reasons still unknown. The remaining passengers reportedly stayed in the vehicle while another passenger worked to get it started.

What happened next is ambiguous. Search party volunteers on site on Jan. 3 said they were instructed to not speak to the media.

According to Billings news outlets and social media, it is unclear if Not Afraid actually walked away from the rest area on her own, or if she left with the woman.

It is also unclear why Not Afraid left the van to begin with. Several theories have circulated in the community about Not Afraid’s intent, but there has been no conclusive story released by law enforcement officials.

Big Hair told KTVQ earlier this month that the witnesses from the van were interviewed, and their stories started to conflict.

“If I was confident, I wouldn’t be having them to go back and revisit with them,” Big Hair told Q2 reporters of his detectives re-interviewing the witnesses. “From conflicting stories from the original interviews and then the second interview, that led us to re-interview them again.”

The search

Several individuals in Big Horn County came together to offer support to the family and many made the journey to the county rest area along eastbound I-90, the incident command post for the search for two weeks. They brought with them supplies such as food, water, hats and gloves and help.

There were roughly 120 people in the search party on Jan. 1, the day Not Afraid was reported missing. Friends, family and other volunteers joined the search party along with Big Horn County Sheriff’s deputies, Bureau of Indian Affairs Law Enforcement officers and the Crow Tribe’s Abandoned Mine Lands staff. Crews searched through the night until about 2:30 a.m. on foot using dogs from the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Department and a drone from BNSF Railway, said one volunteer.

The family of Not Afraid reported her missing when she failed to return to her Hardin residence. Not Afraid’s aunt Cheryl Horn took to social media as early as 4:50 p.m. that same day to request help searching the rest area.

The search continued in the early morning hours until around 2:30 a.m. Jan. 2, and then resumed at 8 a.m., this time with two helicopters – one on loan from the Kehler family and the other from the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Department. BIA Land Services brought four allterrain vehicles, and Abandoned Mine Lands brought five horseback riders and other personnel for foot search.

As the investigation continued into Monday, Jan. 6, the search area was expanded 15 miles east past the Toluca exit 484 to mile marker 491, an area known to county residents as “the washout.” The search also extended west into Billings and the residence on Miles Avenue.

After the search entered its seventh day, an FBI Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team from Denver and EquuSearch, a search dog team from Texas, came to assist in the investigation.

Winburn confirmed last week the sheriff’s office was also working with the National Parks Service.

Murdered and missing indigenous persons

Not Afraid represents the third Crow tribal member to go missing in Big Horn County in under a year.

According to the Billings Gazette, while Native Americans compose 6.7% of Montana’s population, they represent 26% of missing persons cases. Often times missing persons cases in Indian country go unreported. Law enforcement carries a high volume of cold cases that go unresolved, according to a press release from Sen. Steve Daines, who has been working on this issue at the national level, demanding a response from the Bureau of Indian Affairs regarding missing and murdered persons in Indian country.

State and National concerns in recent years has called into question local and federal response to Indigenous missing persons, resulting in laws like the recent Hannah’s Act.

In Big Horn County, Hub Binion Williamson was reported missing last April. Family and friends have continued to search independently from law enforcement’s investigation, but despite their best efforts there have been no major developments announced in his case.

Not Afraid is the second female Crow teen to be found dead after going missing in the last five months. Several teens are reported missing in Big Horn County, but the majority of them return home or were erroneously reported as missing.

Kaysera Stops Pretty Places was reported missing in late August, a few days after her 18th birthday. Two days later in the early morning hours of Aug. 29 her body was found in plain sight against a fence near the busy intersection of Mitchell Avenue and Rangeview Drive in Hardin.

There was no public outcry or search parties when Stops Pretty Places was reported missing. The case remains open, and supporters organize monthly protests in front of the Big Horn County courthouse.

After 20 grueling days of searching and wondering, news of the body’s discovery rocked Hardin High School, where Not Afraid was attending school.

Many of Not Afraid’s close friends and family were her classmates at Hardin, she also had connections with Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy in St. Xavier, Plenty Coups High School in Pryor, St. Labre High School in Ashland and Lodge Grass High School in Lodge Grass.

Area schools, including Hardin provided grief counseling Tuesday and will continue as needed, school officials said.

Hardin High School also hosted Crow elders to assist with traditional grief and prayer protocol for Indigenous students and staff.

Funeral services for Not Afraid are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Jan. 26 at Hardin High School. The school is located at 721 N Miles Ave. in Hardin.

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