Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind is eight months pregnant. A beautiful woman of 22, she has moss-green eyes, a spray of freckles, an oval-shaped face. Her straight, auburn hair sways past her waist. A tattoo on her ankle has the words "...too beautiful for earth," a tribute to her late grandmother. Another tattoo, of a dream catcher, flows like a stream down her right leg. It's a sunny August day in Fargo, North Dakota, the Midwestern skies sultry. It's early, but she's tired, her feet swollen.
Savanna has a lot to do today. Just before 10 a.m., she has to pick up her 18-year-old sister, Kayla, and drive her to work, and later, her 16-year-old brother, Casey, has to be dropped off for his job at a car wash. She can hear her mother, Norberta, who works at the Family Dollar, flutter around their basement apartment, gathering laundry, cleaning. Tomorrow, her mom is giving her a baby shower. Along with her father and her 20-year-old brother, Joe Jr., they all live in a white, three-story apartment building at 2825 9th Avenue North, a quiet, working-class neighborhood with ash trees, wood-frame houses, and 1960s housing complexes.
Savanna adores her family, but she is getting ready to leave. On September 1st, 2017, 13 days away, she's moving into an apartment with Ashton Matheny, the boy she has loved since she was 15, the ebony-haired father of her unborn child. It's not far—just a block away—but she is excited for their new life. Savanna and Ashton have already named their baby: Haisley Jo, the "Jo" after Savanna's burly father. Savanna has already bought Haisley Jo's car seat and other items on her cascading to-do list. But she is also anxious. She has confided to Kayla that she is terribly frightened of the pain of childbirth.
Searching for Savanna, by Mona Gable. Listen to more Pacific Standard stories, read out loud.
On this Saturday morning, Savanna throws on something comfortable. A pink shirt, shorts, Nike slip-on sandals. At some point, according to court documents, a neighbor, Brooke Crews, pokes her head through the open apartment door. She is 38, intense looking. Wide-set eyes, frowsy blond hair. She lives on the third floor with a guy named William Hoehn. They often shop at the dollar store where Norberta works, are friendly to her. But otherwise their lives don't usually intersect.
When Savanna comes to the door, Crews asks if Savanna can help with a sewing project. Crews offers to pay $20. At 1:23 p.m., Savanna sends her mother a brief text saying she has ordered a pizza for the family for lunch. She tells another family member that she's going upstairs to do a job for Crews. At 1:24 p.m., she also texts Ashton before she goes to apartment 5.
She never comes back.
Five days later, after the third voluntary search of apartment 5 still uncovers no sign of Savanna, no evidence of a crime, Fargo police obtain a no-knock search warrant. On August 24th, at 2 p.m., they break in with a battering ram. Inside, they find Crews. They also discover a tiny newborn girl. Crews is arrested. Hoehn is picked up at work.
The baby is alive, safe, but how can that be? Savanna wasn't due for more than a month. In the coming days, Crews spins various tales to investigators, as detailed in court documents. She doesn't deny that the baby belongs to Savanna, but she claims that Savanna abandoned her little girl. She was unhappy with her family, with Ashton. She didn't want the baby, so she enlisted Crews to induce childbirth and begged her to keep the infant. She insists that Savanna ran away.
That afternoon, police emerge from the apartment with the baby girl. Until Ashton's paternity can be confirmed by a DNA test, the baby will remain in the custody of Cass County Social Services. Ashton has already been denied the usual rites of passage into fatherhood: seeing his daughter born, cradling her moments after, taking photos of her with Savanna. Now, as Savanna's relatives quietly gather in the front yard of the apartment building, Ashton has to watch as the baby is transported to Sanford Children's Hospital. The family is awash in dread.
Savanna is a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe, her mother a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, clustered in northeast North Dakota. A Facebook post with Savanna's picture and physical details quickly goes up. Tribes across the Great Plains sweep into Fargo, ready to comb the parks, the fields, the Red River, which snakes 550 miles north, all the way to Manitoba, Canada. They burn sage, hold vigils, pray for her safe deliverance. Hundreds of non-Natives in the Fargo community and beyond pray and join the search too.
Where is Savanna?
No one knows how many Native American women are missing and murdered. Yet everyone concedes there is a crisis, a "hidden epidemic," as former Democratic senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota called it. Although the federal government keeps data on virtually everything, it does not collect statistics on missing and murdered Native women, has no national database where tribes can report such crimes, no way for families or tribal investigators to seek information.
"The problem has been going on for hundreds of years with little to no intervention by the federal government," Sarah Deer, a University of Kansas professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies who researches violence against Native women, told me. "It's getting attention now, but the problem is not new." In 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Crime Information Center (NCIC), which tracks missing persons, pegged the number of missing Native American and Alaska Native women and girls at 5,712. And this figure was undoubtedly low. Only 116 of the women in the FBI's accounting were logged into the Department of Justice's federal missing persons' database, a resource that allows law enforcement agencies to share information.
Although the 2015 Tribal Access Program was supposed to effect tribes' access to NCIC, that has been slow to happen. As of 2019, only 47 of the 573 federally recognized tribes in the United States were participating. That lack of access, due in part to the costs associated with updating computers, is critical. It means that many crimes go unreported, and tribal investigators who are called to a crime scene or who make traffic stops have a limited ability to pull up information on potential suspects. So many cases go uninvestigated, unsolved.
The cost isn't supposed to be a hurdle. The U.S. Crime Victims Fund, a pot of billions of dollars drawn entirely from fines and penalties incurred by offenders, is intended to make resources available to local police forces for these updates and is supposed to pay for preventive and support services. But every year tribes have had to fight for their share, mostly because tribes must rely on states to disperse the money. According to a Department of Justice report released in 2017, "from 2010 through 2014, state governments passed only 0.5 percent of the available funds to programs serving tribal victims, leaving a significant unmet need in most tribal communities."
Even those tribes with access to the NCIC database frequently don't enter records. Native advocates say that a lack of staff is part of the problem. But Native women also fear that they won't be believed, that nothing will happen if they do file a report. The result is a climate of such pervasive unpunished crime that it is difficult to comprehend. Nationally, Native women are more than twice as likely to be raped or sexually assaulted as any other females in the country. On some reservations, Native women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average. Nearly one in three Native American and Alaska Native women will experience rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. Native women also suffer intolerably high rates of physical violence—90 percent of it committed by non-Native intimate partners.
"It is often perceived as easier to 'get away' with certain crimes on reservations because there is a lack of adequate policing and lack of tribal jurisdiction," says Cheryl Redhorse Bennett, assistant professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University. Although reservations are sovereign nations, a 1978 Supreme Court case, Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, stripped tribes of their authority to punish non-Natives on tribal lands. This means that federal, tribal, and state agencies split jurisdiction. So when a crime occurs, it can be complicated to figure out who is supposed to lead the investigation.
Say a Native woman is sexually assaulted. Where did it happen? On the reservation or off? If her attacker is Native, and it occurred on the reservation, then tribal police and courts have jurisdiction. If her attacker is non-Native, then the FBI or state investigates. If she is assaulted off the reservation, the state is supposed to act.
As for felonies like murder, rape, and kidnapping, if they happen on tribal lands, the Department of Justice is supposed to prosecute—but it often doesn't. In recent years, the Department of Justice has pursued prosecution in only about half of murder cases on reservations and in a little over a third of cases of sexual assault. In 2017, under mounting pressure to address this crisis, the department still declined more than one-third of cases referred to them by reservation authorities.
After the baby found in Brooke Crews' apartment was positively identified as Haisley Jo, the Greywinds asked the public to join them on a Saturday morning, August 26th, one week after Savanna was last seen. They would gather in Trollwood Park, a vast, grassy space with walking paths and playgrounds that was once a paupers' cemetery where many of Fargo's poor or elderly were buried. The search would start there. When Ruth Buffalo arrived early and began unloading supplies from her car, two young men asked if they could help her. One was Savanna's boyfriend, Ashton.
More than 200 people showed up. Firefighters from the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Members of the Standing Rock tribe. North Dakota college students. Suburban moms. People fanned out along the Red River to search the water. Buffalo, a citizen of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, went to nearby Harwood with a small team of volunteers and combed the dense trees. "We were way out on the Minnesota border," Buffalo said later. The next day, she was asked to lead a search party. It was her 40th birthday, but how could she decline? "We're taught if somebody asks for help, you can't turn them down," she explained. Before the search resumed, her husband burned sage and prayed that Savanna would be found. "I'll never forget," Buffalo told me. "I had to hold back tears."
One chilly morning last June, Buffalo drove me to a café on the outskirts of downtown, where we talked about the search. The place was packed, and as we entered two white women greeted her warmly. Buffalo, who was wearing a black dress and sandals, had a political button pinned to her jean jacket. The mother of four was running to represent Fargo's 27th district, a reliably Republican stronghold. If she succeeded, she'd be the first Native woman Democrat elected to North Dakota's legislature. She won handily.
Tall, soft-spoken, with black hair, she is from Mandaree, a tiny community on the Fort Berthold Reservation. In the 1950s, her grandfather's tribe was forced off their land when the Garrison Dam was built. Many left North Dakota, moved to Chicago, Los Angeles, Minneapolis. Her grandparents stayed. To get work, her grandfather changed his name to something that didn’t sound Native. Her family only reclaimed Buffalo when she was 19. During the peak of North Dakota's oil boom in 2012, Ruth Buffalo suffered an earthshaking tragedy. Her teenage sister was killed by a drunk driver. Hit in a head-on collision on a treacherous slice of highway between New Town and Mandaree.
After that, Buffalo was drawn to activism. She was a member of Fargo's Native American Commission and special projects coordinator for First Nations Women's Alliance, a non-profit in Devil's Lake, for which she traveled around the state doing focus groups with Native women survivors of sex trafficking, to learn how they reintegrated back into the community. In 2014, she was in graduate school at North Dakota State when she got involved with Sing Our Rivers Red. The group was creating a traveling display of thousands of single earrings. Each earring symbolized a missing Native woman or girl.
That Sunday afternoon of the search for Savanna, Buffalo returned to headquarters, set up in Mickelson Park, and started checking in volunteers and assigning people to teams. Sometime between 3 and 5 p.m., a flurry of news erupted. A woman searching in Harwood had seen a breast pump and a torrent of blood outside a farmstead. A volunteer drove Buffalo back to the site. The suspense was excruciating. As people waited, law enforcement scoured the farmstead for evidence of Savanna. "We were still hoping she was alive somehow," Buffalo told me. But there was nothing there.
Then at 5:45 p.m., as the sun began to set, some kayakers paddling in the Red River, up north near Harwood, spotted something in the murky water. A thing wrapped in plastic trash bags and duct tape caught on a log. By the time it was pulled from the strong currents by law enforcement at 8:20 p.m., the sky was turning as black as Bakken oil. An hour or so later, it was confirmed. The body inside was that of Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind.
She was now one of the staggering numbers of Native American women and girls across the country who have been murdered or who have gone missing and are presumed dead. But at least Savanna came home. She is rare. "Even though these issues are more prevalent in the Indigenous community, it still hit everybody," Buffalo said. "A young, pregnant mother. It touched everybody."
In October of 2017, one month after Savanna's body was found, a bill named for her was introduced by Senator Heitkamp. Under Savanna's Act, the federal government would establish protocols across jurisdictions on how law enforcement responds to missing and murdered Native women. It would also improve access for tribal governments to national crime databases and require annual reports to Congress on the number of missing and slain Native American women. The bill had 17 co-sponsors in the Senate and an identical version in the House introduced by California Democrat Norma Torres. But from the moment the bill was introduced, it languished in committee.
At the biannual gathering of the Women Are Sacred Conference, held last June at the Hotel Albuquerque, 500 tribal leaders, social workers, advocates for domestic violence, and sexual assault victims, survivors, and government officials assembled to press for movement. On stage stood red cardboard female figures, their shoulders draped in red cloth shawls, shadows of the women and girls who have gone missing or have been murdered. An elderly Native woman named Kathy Sanchez arranged objects on a table for a prayer ceremony. Then, one after another, speakers raised the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women. It became almost a chant.
Katharine Sullivan, principal deputy director of the Office on Violence Against Women (OVW), told the group not to lose hope. "First, I want you to know that we have strong support from President [Donald] Trump, Attorney General [Jeff] Sessions, and this administration. The president requested $5.5 million more for VAWA [the Violence Against Women Act] than OVW had even requested," Sullivan said. The mood in the ballroom was palpably skeptical. "Second, OVW is focused on three approaches: hearing all voices, justice for all people, and lasting change for all communities. It can feel like no one in the federal government hears you, but I promise we do."
Her promises felt unlikely to be kept. Since 1995, VAWA has seeded a range of domestic violence and sexual assault programs, shelters and hotlines, counseling and legal help in Indian Country. Yet the landmark law excluded the majority of Indigenous women in the U.S.: those living in urban areas, forced there decades ago because of federal relocation and termination policies. Until 2013, tribal courts also had no right to prosecute non-Native men for domestic violence and dating violence on tribal lands. When VAWA was reauthorized in 2013, key provisions addressed that jurisdictional obstacle, restoring tribal sovereignty to prosecute these crimes. It was a tremendous victory.
At the conference one morning, Caroline LaPorte, senior Native affairs policy adviser for the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center, delivered some encouraging news. A five-year report by the National Congress of American Indians on VAWA 2013 showed that, when tribes were given more control, they successfully arrested and convicted more perpetrators. Reporting of violent crimes also increased.
Yet only 18 tribes are known to have put the historic provision into effect. Many simply lack the resources to hire defense counsel and prosecutors, to build jails, or to mold tribal laws to meet VAWA's conditions. Professor Deer, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, offered another reason tribes have hesitated. "There are tribal courts that look at this kind of federal legislation and say, 'There's too many strings attached,'" she said. "It's the expense, and it's also a principled standpoint that the strings attached impact the ability of tribes to do things independently."
Even so, many Native advocates worried about the fate of the Violence Against Women Act under the new administration, which would have to be reauthorized in 2018. Would Congress act to keep Native women safe?
In December of 2017, Crews pleaded guilty to murdering Savanna and in February of 2018 was scheduled for sentencing. Supporters of Savanna's family packed the Cass County courtroom. Celebrity attorney Gloria Allred was there, as an advocate for Savanna's parents. Before court, she took Joe and Norberta Greywind to a room. She wanted to prepare them for what they might hear in the courtroom. She explained for the first time how their pregnant daughter had died.
Shortly after Savanna went upstairs to apartment 5, Allred said, Savanna was savagely murdered. In one version given to authorities, Crews provoked a fight, shoved Savanna, who fell and hit her head on the bathroom sink. But how Savanna was really subdued remains a mystery. Crews fetched a sharp instrument. As Savanna lay there, Crews sliced her from hip to hip, pried out her eight-month-old fetus. Put Savanna's dark-haired infant in the bathtub on a towel. Savanna was alive, floating in and out of consciousness.
Sometime between 2 and 3 p.m., William Hoehn came home from his job laying roofs. Small, wiry, he had dull, brown eyes, a scruffy brown beard. He was 32. He couldn't wait to chill out and play video games on his laptop.
In another bizarre twist, Crews had insisted to Hoehn since January that she was pregnant. She had shown him two pregnancy tests, an ultrasound image. Even though she had also told him that she had her tubes tied, even though he knew she had ditched several children by other men, he believed her. "I'm not an OB-GYN," he told two Fargo detectives, during an interview on August 24th at the Fargo Police Department.
In her testimony, Crews said she truly came to believe she was pregnant. Then on August 6th, her delusion was shattered when she had a fight with Hoehn. She claimed he said to her, "You're not pregnant." (In court, when asked if he'd said this, Hoehn said, "Absolutely not.") Somehow, she thought that Hoehn still expected her to come up with a baby. So she began wondering, where could she get her hands on one? A week before Savanna's murder, Crews claimed that Hoehn told her Savanna was pregnant. From then on, Crews plotted to steal Savanna's child. (Hoehn insists he had no knowledge of the plot.)
Back in the apartment, Hoehn returned home from work to the sound of something weird. The sound of a baby. Behind the bathroom door, he found Savanna, a bloody cocoon on the floor. "What the fuck?" he said. She was still, her skin pale, her lips blue "like she had had a piece of blue candy," Hoehn later testified in court.
On a towel in the bathtub was a newborn girl.
"This is our baby, this is our family," Crews said. She had already picked out a name for her: Phoenix.
Crews told investigators that Hoehn took one look at Savanna and asked, "Is she dead?"
"I don't know," Crews remembers answering. "Please, help me."
Crews testified that Hoehn went to get a rope and wrapped it around Savanna's neck, making sure she was dead. Hoehn disputes Crews' account. He claims that he never strangled Savanna and that she was already dead when he arrived. Hoehn does admit that he discarded bloody shoes and towels from the crime in a Fargo dumpster. And tossed a hollowed-out dresser with Savanna's body, wrapped in plastic trash bags, into the Red River.
In the courtroom, Joe Greywind was so bereft after hearing how Savanna died that he could not give his testimony. Allred read it for him. Haisley Jo sat on her young father's lap as Ashton sobbed. On Friday, February 2nd, 2018, Crews was sentenced to life in prison without parole. After that, Savanna's family stopped talking to the media, moved away from Fargo, to a community near the Spirit Lake reservation. Tanya Martinez and Leah Viste, the Cass County prosecutors who handled Savanna's case, are still haunted by the scene in the courtroom. "It was profoundly sad," Martinez told me, her eyes tearing up behind her glasses. "For the family to hear those details."
Martinez and Viste agreed to talk to me, with some conditions. There were some questions they still couldn't answer. We ended up at a popular restaurant in the surburbs. I asked about the police visits to Crews' apartment, the voluntary searches, the criticism by Savanna's mother and others that they didn't take the disappearance seriously at first. As late as August 22nd, three days after Savanna vanished, deputy police chief Joe Anderson told reporters, "There is nothing to suggest criminal activity." Viste chose her words carefully. "There was an investigator put on the matter early on," she said. "There's a number of reasons why police may do or not do what the public thinks they should do."
There was something else, from the transcript of the sentencing hearing that day in February. After Hoehn disposed of Savanna's body, he went with Crews on a late-night trip to Walmart. "They were involved in a hit-and-run accident," Viste said. "And the police were able to track down Hoehn as a result." The investigators on Savanna's case watched video from inside the store, which revealed Hoehn buying diapers for a newborn.
Until that moment, investigators didn't have much to go on. The Fargo Police Department gets "a lot of calls for runaways," Martinez said.
"We thought, maybe she went off the rez," Viste said. "She's an adult."
Both lawyers are middle-aged, down-to-earth. In deeply red Fargo, they wanted me to know that they're liberals. Their male colleagues are all Trump supporters, love to tease them about their politics. They wanted me to understand that they're not like that.
"There are no words to describe the horror of what happened to Savanna," Viste said. "The Native people in our community have really suffered from discrimination over a couple of hundred years. But there are missing people all the time."
After dinner, we went out to the Red River, to the area where Savanna's body was recovered. Viste drove us to a bridge on County 20, parked in a patch of dirt off the road. We walked in the brisk wind. It was nearly dusk, the sky a cobalt blue, the clouds violet. The prosecutors stopped at a railing overlooking the river, a muddy swirl hemmed by overgrown trees. We stood there together, silent as fallen snow.
At a Senate briefing in February of 2017, the Indian Law Resource Center, the Alaska Native Women's Resource Center, and the National Indigenous Women's Resource Center enlisted advocates and survivors to testify about the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Their presence was also to support a resolution introduced by Montana senators Steve Daines and Jon Tester to create a national day of awareness for missing and murdered Native women and girls. The date would be May 5th, 2017, in honor of Hanna Harris on her birthday. The Northern Cheyenne woman vanished in July of 2013. Several days later she was found. She'd been raped and murdered.
One of those speaking was Amanda Takes War Bonnet, public education specialist for the Native Women's Society of the Great Plains, a grassroots organization that focuses on sexual assault, dating violence, and sex trafficking. "I had an aunt who went missing years ago when I was a child," she told me. "I saw the trauma my mother went through. They couldn't find her body for so long. Her husband killed her. That was part of my testimony, seeing the frustration of families when they have somebody go missing. There's such a lack of response from tribal law enforcement."
She mentioned Emily Blue Bird, a 24-year-old Lakota woman. She vanished from Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. It was almost three weeks before she was unearthed in January of 2016, strangled. "The police couldn't find her. The local law enforcement couldn't find her. Her family found her partially buried near a creek." Emily's family pressed authorities hard to solve her killing. In July of 2018, Elizabeth Ann LeBeau was sentenced to 25 years in prison for second-degree murder. Fred Quiver, an accessory to the murder, pleaded guilty and got 15 years.
She mentioned Larissa Lone Hill, a 21-year-old Lakota woman. Petite, brown eyes, long brown hair. Mother of a two-year-old daughter, she was last seen in Rapid City, South Dakota, on October 3rd, 2016. "When Larissa went missing, it was between reservation land and state land. She went into Rapid City, then she went missing. We have no idea where she could be."
She mentioned Olivia Lone Bear, a 32-year-old mother of five and member of the Three Affiliated Tribes. She disappeared from Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota on October 24th, 2017. She was last seen leaving the Sportsman's Bar in New Town in a teal-colored pick-up truck. On October 27th, Olivia's family reported her missing. But tribal police didn't begin searching until November 1st. Olivia's family launched their own hunt for her, appealing for help on Facebook. A reward was offered, a tipline posted. Although the Lone Bear family repeatedly asked law enforcement agencies to search Lake Sakakawea, it didn't occur until late spring. After no progress by tribal police, law enforcement from nearby counties, or legions of volunteers scouring the rugged terrain, the Bureau of Indian Affairs took over in January of 2018.
On July 31st, Olivia's truck was pulled from Sanish Bay on Lake Sakakawea, only a mile from her home. When I spoke to her brother, Matthew, last October, the FBI had yet to tell the family how Olivia died, had yet to release her autopsy. In early June, the family was still waiting for news from the FBI. During the nine-month search for Olivia, Matthew kept notes. He is now writing a protocol so that when someone goes missing on reservation lands, there's a blueprint for law enforcement.
In late September of 2018, I returned to Fargo for William Hoehn's murder trial. Norberta Greywind and her family were scheduled to testify and agreed to talk to me the day before their appearance. "We're all coming," she said over the phone. When I saw them together in the hotel lobby, my breath caught. The baby was with them. Joe Jr. and Casey, their sons, had come too. But not Kayla. It was still too hard for her to talk.
We sat around a black conference table in a private room. The restaurant manager supplied coffee and water. But the Greywinds took nothing. Norberta, wearing a faded pink sweatshirt with the words SPIRIT LAKE on it, sipped a Monster Energy drink. Joe, a barrel-chested man of 41, had a goatee and wore a trucker's cap. Haisley Jo was planted on his lap. She was 13 months old, with shiny, mahogany eyes and a thatch of glossy, brown hair. She looked like her mother. Joe Jr. was 21, big like his father. A tattoo in big block letters—"CBCS"—covered his arm. It stands for Country Boy Can Survive. Casey was 17, a handsome kid with black hair. He wore a black Hurley T-shirt. The Greywinds were reticent, the boys shy, but they wanted me to know about Savanna's life, not just the circumstances of her death.
Savanna was born in Belcourt, North Dakota, Norberta said, near the Canadian border, on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation. Soon after, the Greywinds moved to Fargo. When Savanna was 10, they moved again, to the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, the home of Joe's tribe, a remote swath of land in northeast North Dakota. They settled in the rural hamlet of Tokio. As Savanna entered her teens, Joe and Norberta were pretty strict with her. "She was not allowed to date," Norberta said. "When she started dating Ashton, it had to be at school."
Both parents worked full-time at Sioux Manufacturing Corporation in Fort Totten. "Savanna always had more responsibility because she was the oldest," Norberta said. "When they'd come home from school, she's the one who had the key, to take care of the younger ones until we got home."
"She was very loving," Joe said. "She really interacted with her brothers and sister." He paused and looked down. "Very kind-hearted. That's why we say that they took an angel."
She loved riding horses. When Savanna turned 16, Joe's parents gave her a gelding. His name was Speedy. "He was kind of a bad horse," Norberta said. She laughed. "When she was learning how to ride, her horse kind of took off on her. She was hollering for her dad." When she was 17, Savanna broke her wrist when Speedy threw her. "I had to take her to an ER," Norberta remembered. "We had no idea how to care for horses."
After graduating from Warwick High School, about 10 miles from the Spirit Lake reservation, Savanna got a certified nurse's assistant certificate. She worked at Eventide, a senior living community, in Devil's Lake. "We lived a decent life," Joe said. "We had jobs. We raised our kids, expected them to get decent grades. Savanna got decent grades, you know. She did her school. She did everything she was supposed to." But Spirit Lake couldn't hold her.
In January of 2016, the family returned to Fargo for Savanna. She transferred to the Eventide facility there. She worked hard, had a taste for expensive things, loved to shop online. "There was always a package," Norberta said. Savanna and she enjoyed shopping together. Sometimes they'd sneak off to Minnesota and buy scratch lottery cards.
When Savanna found out she was pregnant, she was excited about being a mother, excited to start a life of her own with Ashton and Haisley Jo. "We were pumped, too, man," Joe said. "Our first grandchild. Everything was looking good for our family." Savanna wanted to get a big house on the outskirts of Fargo, where they all could live and get horses again. Norberta smiled. "She found a few houses that were way out of our budget."
The baby squirmed on Joe's lap. She was walking and babbling now. At one point, she squealed to be put down on the carpet. As Joe set her down, she hit her head on the table, but she didn't cry. She stood up on her chubby legs and stared at us. "She's waiting for claps," Joe said. We clapped. The baby beamed.
Ashton, who lives in Devil's Lake, has sole custody. "That's the way Savanna would want it, so we didn't contest that at all," Joe said. "Her dad is wonderful with her."
After Savanna was buried in Sunset Memorial Gardens in Fargo on September 7th, 2017, several tribes held vigils and ceremonies, gave donations. A few weeks after her mother's funeral, Haisley Jo received her Indian name at a prayer ceremony in Standing Rock. It is Survivor.
Norberta was quiet for a moment. Then she said: "I think it really just hit me a few months ago. I thought I was OK. I realized I wasn't. I realized she's not coming back. She's gone. It was so public. I don't think I had time to grieve. And then try to make sure these guys were all OK. Trying to get my family back to the way we were. I was telling Kayla, 'I want to get back to normal.' And they kind of opened my eyes and said: 'It's not going to be. We've got to figure out how to live without her.'"
On the screen above William Hoehn's head floated a picture of Savanna Greywind. It was an image that had become iconic: She wears a striped dress, her hair falling down. Silver sparkles her eyelids. She smiles radiantly. It was Wednesday morning, September 19th, 2018, in courtroom 302, in the Cass County Courthouse in Fargo. Hoehn sat at the defense table as impassive as a stone. One hand cupped his chin, a finger rested on his cheek. He did not whisper asides or pass notes much to his defense attorney.
For trial, Hoehn had been cleaned up. The short beard was gone, the hair cut close. He wore a gray button-down shirt, khaki slacks, and loafers. Not exactly the look of a pot-smoking roofer prone to profanity, a 32-year-old man whom prosecutor Ryan J. Younggren noted in his opening argument had fathered four kids. Who noted the ropes found in their apartment. "You'll also hear about their sexual relationship, and that rough sex, even choking of Brooke, was part of their rocky relationship," he said. "Both were drug users."
Hoehn already had pleaded guilty to two counts: conspiracy to commit kidnapping and lying to law enforcement. Now he was facing conspiracy to commit murder. His plea was not guilty. There was surprisingly little interest in his trial. In the wooden benches in the courtroom, it was mostly Fargo police officers, local media, and a few of Savanna's relatives. There was far more fascination with Brooke Crews. The 38-year-old aspiring psychologist with a string of debts, bad marriages, and abandoned children. A woman who committed the crime of fetal abduction.
In the courtroom, Younggren revealed a horrifying new detail in Savanna's death. She was found with a rope around her neck. He argued that Hoehn used the rope to subdue Savanna as she fought to live. "Brooke Crews didn't do this alone," he said. Daniel Borgen, Hoehn's defense attorney, contended that Savanna was already dead when Hoehn entered the bathroom. (A medical examiner couldn't determine whether Savanna ultimately died of strangulation or blood loss.)
In the afternoon, when Norberta Greywind testified, I thought of this chilling detail as I watched her walk to the front of the courtroom, settle into the witness chair. She looked so tired. The look of unending grief. She dressed in jeans, a maroon sweater with gray and white stripes, her hair in a ponytail.
Her answers were brief, as if she could barely utter the words. When Viste asked her if Savanna would have been 23, she answered, then started to cry. Viste gently led her through the Saturday afternoon her oldest daughter disappeared, now more than a year before.
"So did Casey go upstairs?" she asked, referring to Savanna's brother.
"And what did he report?"
"That nobody answered."
"So what was the next step that you took?"
"I believe Joe—we sent Joe up there, her dad."
"And did Joe go up?"
"And did he come back with Savanna?"
"But he did come back?"
"And what did you learn?"
"That she had said that they weren't done yet."
Viste asked about Norberta's phone call to Fargo police at 4:27 p.m., the cursory search by a patrol officer of Crews' apartment a little after 5 p.m., and Norberta's visit upstairs soon after.
"I asked her, begged her, to just look in her apartment," Norberta said.
"Did she let you in?" Viste asked.
"Are you starting to feel frantic or panicked?"
Finally, Viste came around to Thursday, August 24th, the bittersweet day when police emerged from Crews' apartment, carrying a baby girl.
"I knew it was my granddaughter," Norberta said.
And Savanna? "Did you think she'd be found alive?"
"I didn't think so, but I hope—I had hope."
Now, Norberta Greywind's voice broke. She started crying, took off her glasses, wiped her eyes with her hand, with tissues. The courtroom was silent. A few questions later, Greywind rose from the witness stand, hurried down the aisle, and out the door.
Savanna's parents still believe that Fargo police were dismissive after Savanna disappeared. Her car and her wallet were left behind. She was eight months pregnant. She was not one to take off alone, even for a few hours.
Officer Samuel D. Bollman, who twice searched Crews' apartment on August 19th, took the stand. Tall, lean, his brown hair buzzed short, he wore his dark blue uniform. Thirty years old, he'd been on the force for eight and a half years. As Viste questioned him, his answers were crisp. A call came in on the computer screen in his patrol car: a 22-year-old woman was missing. "I believe the dispatch said she was pregnant." He spoke with Savanna's parents in their front yard. "They were very upset. I could tell they were very anxious or distraught about what was going on."
When he tapped on the door of apartment 5, it flew open. Crews was standing behind it. "It was almost like the person inside was waiting for me to knock so that she could answer." After she told him Savanna had left, Bollman asked for permission to look around. He was there 15, maybe 20 minutes. Because he didn't have a search warrant, and there was no probable cause to believe that a crime had taken place, he didn't open drawers. Didn't do a thorough inspection of the bathroom, enter the kitchen. When he poked his head into the bedroom, Hoehn was lying on the bed.
"All I said to him was, 'Well, you're not Savanna,'" Bollman said.
"Did he make any response to that?" Viste asked.
"He said, 'Nope.'"
The apartment was "very tidy, very neat," Bollman said. "They were very calm."
We know now: As Bollman was walking through the apartment, the baby was there, next to Hoehn on the bed under the covers. Savanna's body was stuffed in a bathroom closet. The officer left the apartment and then spoke with Joe and Norberta Greywind. He asked them more questions and filled out a missing-persons report.
Hours later, about 10:30 p.m., Bollman and another officer responded to a disturbance call at the building. About 20 to 25 of Savanna's family and friends were gathered in the front yard. They were angry. People had been trekking up the stairs, banging on Crews' door. Crews and Hoehn had shoved a couch behind it. After Bollman and a sergeant went upstairs and knocked, Crews opened the door. She was indignant.
As Bollman recalls, Crews said something along the lines of, "What do I have to do to show you I don't know where that girl is?" They looked around again. The baby was hidden among blankets, beside Hoehn, on the bed. When Bollman came back downstairs, he told the crowd they hadn't found Savanna, hadn't seen any signs of "foul play."
After his testimony, the jury was dismissed for the day. I walked into the hallway, where Bollman was sitting on a wooden bench. I asked how often his department got missing-persons calls. "People call almost every day because they don't know where their friend or family member is." In Savanna's case, he had thought, "Maybe there was some miscommunication, and she'll be back."
When another officer called days later to tell him that the baby had been found, it didn't make sense to him at first. He'd been looking for a 22-year-old pregnant woman. "Nobody wants to hear that," he told me. "To think that you were in there, you naturally think over everything you did. Did I ask everything I should have asked? I think we did. It's just unfortunate that we didn't hear anything. I wish the baby had cried or made a noise." He shook his head. "I think about it fairly regularly," he said. "I don't think I'll ever forget this as long as I'm alive."
In Hoehn's jailhouse interviews with two Fargo police detectives, one after his arrest, he squirms, picks at the table with a finger, fishes a tin of chewing tobacco out of his jeans, plugs some in his cheek. He lies, dissembles. He calls the Greywinds and their relatives "fuckin' Indians." He rants about "hardcore feminists," believes that everything wrong with this country is because women don't stay home with kids. During his testimony in court, Hoehn maintains that he never doubted that Crews was pregnant and that Savanna was already dead by the time he walked into the bathroom. He says he didn't see the rope at all. Although he pleaded guilty to the other two charges, the jury doesn't believe that he helped Crews concoct a plan to kill Savanna and steal her baby. On September 28th, they acquit him of conspiracy to commit murder. On October 29th, after Norberta Greywind says tearfully in court, "I don't think this man should ever walk free," it is over. Cass County district judge Thomas Olson renders the harshest sentence he can give: life in prison with a chance of parole. Hoehn is appealing the length of his sentence.
Savanna lives on. Her official Facebook page, set up by her family after she went missing, carries a river of images before her murder. They tell the story of a life, of dreams, that the 22-year-old Native woman can no longer tell us herself.
Here she is laughing with Ashton, standing with her big extended family, riding horses on the prairie, playing with her tiny niece, Odessa, making silly faces with her friends. There are glam shots of her in red lipstick, eye make-up, and jewelry; others of her in jeans, T-shirts, and cowboy boots. In one image, Savanna stands next to Ashton holding a card that reads: "It's a girl."
"Getting so close," Savanna wrote in a post on August 13th, 2017. Six days later she disappeared from this Earth.
Her death has galvanized efforts to end the violence against Indigenous women across Indian Country, but also, significantly, in Albuquerque, Minneapolis, Oakland, and other cities where the majority of Native Americans live.
"The vulnerability and targeting of our Native women is undeniable, and we must begin looking for new ways to urgently address this plague of violence and disregard," said Sioux tribe leader Dave Archambault II, the head of the Standing Rock tribe, in a statement shortly after Savanna's body was discovered. "As we collectively reel from Savanna's loss, the people are coming together like never before to honor this young woman, find comfort as human beings, and to take a hard look at what we can each do individually."
And what of Savanna's Act? Although Washington, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Arizona have all passed legislation to address the crisis of missing and murdered Native women, the federal government has done nothing. Last November, Senator Heitkamp, who conceived of Savanna's Act, lost her re-election bid. In December, she spent her final days in Congress urging her colleagues to pass the bill before they scattered. The Senate did unanimously. It never even got to a vote in the U.S. House. Although he was retiring, a lone Republican, Representative Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, blocked Savanna's Act because he didn't like a provision giving preference to certain law enforcement agencies.
Before Heitkamp left, her colleague, Republican senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a state where violence against Native women is pervasive, vowed to get Savanna's Act passed. In January, she reintroduced the bill, whose fate now lies with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "This is one of her top priorities," Karina Borger, her communications director, told me.
In early April, the House of Representatives finally passed the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. In it were several amendments designed to enhance safety for Native American women and girls. In a significant victory, the bill fixed a gaping loophole in VAWA 2013, expanding tribal jurisdiction to include sex trafficking, sexual violence, stalking, child abuse, and violence against tribal law enforcement. Democratic Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico, one of two Native women in Congress, authored two amendments, one providing victim advocate services to Native American women living in urban areas. The other would improve tribal access to federal databases. For VAWA 2019 to become law, it is up to the Senate now.
In the meantime, the photos of missing women haven't ceased. They keep appearing like wildflowers in the desert. One legacy of Savanna's inconceivable murder is her official Facebook page, where posters of women and girls who have disappeared stare out from among images of Savanna and Haisley Jo.
Khadijah Rose Britton lives on the Round Valley Indian Reservation in Covelo, California, a rural hamlet up north in Mendocino County, a place known for its rugged coastline and wild beauty. She was last seen on the night of February 7th, 2018, being forced by her ex-boyfriend at gunpoint into a car. Ten days before, he had allegedly beaten her and attacked her with a hammer. Negie Fallis was eventually arrested, but the assault and kidnapping charges were dropped for lack of evidence. He's now in prison on firearms charges.
Khadijah has brown eyes, brown hair, and a tattoo on her right arm that reads "Britton." She stands 5'8" tall, weighs 180 pounds. When she was abducted, she was wearing a black sweatshirt, black T-shirt, and blue pants. Although several law enforcement agencies and hundreds of community members have repeatedly looked for her and an $85,000 reward is being offered for information that leads to finding her, she is still missing. On April 22nd, her family and friends planted a tree in Covelo to show their love for her. It would have been Khadijah's 25th birthday.
Where is she? ❖
Author: Mona Gable is a native of California whose roots are in Oklahoma. Her grandmother was a citizen of the Chickasaw Tribe. A freelance journalist who writes frequently about gender injustice and the environment, her work has appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times, Outside, Pacific Standard, and many other publications. Her reporting for this story was supported by a grant from Solutions Journalism Network.
Illustrator: Gracia Lam is an award-winning illustrator born in Hong Kong and raised in Toronto. Her work aims to reinvent everyday objects and mundane environments. Her illustrations have been featured in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, NPR, and numerous other publications.
This story is part of the Unseen America project, stories about the struggles and challenges being faced by the misunderstood middle of our nation.