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A missing sign for Khadijah Britton, 23, is displayed outside her family home on Tuesday, March 27, 2018 in Covelo, California. (BETH SCHLANKER/The Press Democrat)

What happened to Khadijah Britton?

Khadijah Britton, a Round Valley tribal member, had dreams of leaving her small Mendocino County town. Then she was beaten. Now she’s missing.

COVELO — It’s been 95 days since Khadijah Britton went missing, taken at gunpoint from a home on the western edge of Covelo.

The details of that night are murky, but witnesses say her boyfriend, 37-year-old Negie Fallis IV, is the one who did it, pulling her from a friend’s home about midnight Feb. 7.

It happened less than a week after she told police and domestic violence counselors he’d tried to kill her with a hammer.

She hasn’t been seen since. If anyone knows what happened to the 23-year-old Native American woman, they aren’t talking.

Fallis is in the Mendocino County Jail awaiting trial on charges stemming from both the hammer beating and her disappearance. It is at least the fourth time a domestic violence case has been brought against him, Mendocino County court records show.

Like Khadijah, he is also Native American.

What happened to Khadijah Britton is more common for Native American women than any other population in the United States.

Statistics from the National Institute of Justice show 84 percent of the estimated 2.6 million Native American women in the U.S. will experience violence in their lifetime, and more than half will experience sexual violence. Those numbers align with what is seen in California and in Mendocino County, domestic violence advocates said.

No statistics are available on how many Native American women are missing.

‘She loves those blankets’

Khadijah’s family members search for her daily, acting on any crumbs of information they receive.

In March, a tip brought her dad Jerry Britton and one of her brothers deep into the snowbound Mendocino National Forest. They were so intent on reaching their destination that when their SUV got stuck in the waist-high snow, they continued on foot.

The tip, it turned out, was bad.

Britton still stays out most nights until well past midnight looking for any sign of his daughter, searching in chicken coops and dilapidated barns. He walks deer trails and hops fences and studies buzzard patterns in the sky, hoping they’ll point him to her.

“If you don’t go, you don’t know,” said Khadijah’s mother Connie Hostler.

On these walks, he carries a rifle “just in case” and a shovel, which he uses to dig up the shallow graves he comes across more often than he’d like, usually finding beloved pets wrapped in blankets.

One time, he found something wrapped in an Oakland Raiders blanket just like the two he gave Khadijah for Christmas last year.

“She loves those blankets,” he said.

It took him a few minutes before he could muster the courage to unwrap it.

It was a dog.

Drug abuse, domestic violence

A 2016 census estimate lists Covelo’s population at 1,200. About 17 percent of the town’s residents are Native American, descendants of the six neighboring tribes forced into Round Valley in 1863 by white settlers.

More than 41 percent of Covelo residents live below the poverty line, and work is hard to come by for those unwilling to make the hour-plus drive to a larger, neighboring town like Ukiah. The town’s current unemployment rate is about 4.5 percent. In 2013, according to the National Congress of American Indians, the most recent year it collected statistics, the Round Valley Indian tribes’ unemployment rate was 86 percent. At that time, the state’s unemployment rate was under 9 percent.

For decades, the small Mendocino County community has suffered from drug and alcohol abuse.

Native Americans in Mendocino County are more likely to be treated at emergency rooms for overdoses than any other ethnic group, despite making up just 6 percent of the county’s population, according to statistics from the California Department of Public Health.

Among Round Valley residents, the drug of choice is methamphetamine, though there has been a steady increase in heroin use over the past few years, said Mendocino County sheriff’s Lt. Shannon Barney, the case’s lead investigator.

Born and raised in Covelo, Barney is a member of one of the Round Valley tribes, the same tribe as Khadijah and Fallis: Wailacki. For a number of years, he served as president of the Round Valley Tribal Council.

“You have a high degree of substance abuse,” he said. “It used to be alcohol, now the prevalent one is meth, and now it’s moving into heroin. All of those things factor into the (societal) breakdown. ... You have an economically repressed area where more and more people turn to substance abuse to mask those problems in their lives.”

Local law enforcement and domestic violence workers say the rise in drug abuse parallels an increase in domestic violence. Barbara Smith, who worked as the director of the Round Valley Indian Tribe’s domestic violence resource center from 2012 until retiring this year, said the rate of new clients tripled by the time she left. Annually, the center’s two employees were tasked with helping between 70 and 124 victims.

“That’s a lot,” Smith said.

Statistics compiled by the National Institute of Justice in 2016 show Native American and Alaska Native women are 1.6 times more likely to experience physical violence by an intimate partner than their white counterparts.

To help survivors and bring awareness to the issue, the Northern California-based California Consortium for Urban Indian Health launched an advocacy program called Red Women Rising to address the inequality of violence against Native American women.

Drug use, a history of incarceration and a lack of community resources are common traits in abusers, its director April McGill said. Court documents and interviews with law enforcement, family and community members show Negie Fallis’ adult life included all of them.

‘A good little boy’

Fallis’ mother, Melissa Britton, was just 14 when she gave birth to him in June 1980, according to their cousin DeeDee Hurt.

Hurt, who lives in Covelo, grew up with Melissa Britton. They would spend a few weeks together each summer in Round Valley or camping along the coast. And after Melissa Britton gave birth, Hurt would help watch her baby boy, as is the role of cousins on the reservation, she said.

“He was just a quiet little boy, a good little boy,” Hurt said.

Fallis grew up between Mendocino County and Glenn County, where his family lived in the Willows and Grindstone Rancheria areas. Round Valley Unified School District staff confirm he spent at least one year at Round Valley High School — as a junior in 1997-98 — when he earned a GPA of 2.04.

In all, Fallis has at least seven other siblings and half-siblings Hurt knows of. His father, Negie Fallis III, was in and out of the picture for much of his childhood, and has been charged with at least five Mendocino County domestic violence cases, court records show.

“When Negie was little, it was a real family environment,” Hurt said. “And then I don’t know what it was like (after that).”

The Glenn County District Attorney’s office brought its first case against Fallis in 2000, when he was 20, a felony charge for manufacturing meth. In August 2012, he was convicted of possession of a controlled substance, endangering the health of a child, possession of drug paraphernalia and carrying a switchblade longer than 2 inches. He was sentenced to six years in state prison.

A 2012 report filed by Glenn County narcotics detectives describes the “deplorable conditions” of an apartment in Willows where he and his four children, ages 7 months to 8 years old, lived: a bathroom with human feces smeared on the shower doors; garbage, clothing and more human feces on the balcony; dirty mattresses on the floor without sheets.

In the master bedroom, investigators found a glass meth pipe in one of the dresser drawers, tucked alongside clothes for a little girl. Knives, marijuana and more pipes were scattered throughout the apartment, according to the report, most easily within the reach of a child. Fallis told investigators he was the sole provider for his children, and that he smoked meth every other day.

His children were placed in protective custody when he was arrested, before being taken back to Covelo by a family member, school records show.

Fallis was released early from Deuel Vocational Institution in San Joaquin County in 2014, and made his way to Mendocino County.

That’s when he met Khadijah.

‘Wouldn’t leave anyone behind’

After Khadijah graduated from Round Valley High School in 2012 with a GPA of 3.17, family and friends had high hopes for the bright, athletic teenager.

According to the latest figures, more than 80 percent of students at the high school are considered socioeconomically disadvantaged, and graduation rates are regularly well below state average. Despite those factors, Khadijah excelled athletically, socially and in academics.

The 5-foot-9-inch teenager was a star on the girls’ basketball team. She played center and point guard, having learned the sport from her mother and father. When Khadijah was in elementary school, she and her mom would play on the public courts in town, right across from the high school.

Khadijah made the varsity basketball team her final three years at Round Valley. As a senior, she averaged about 18 points per game and led Round Valley to first place in the North Central III league while being named co-MVP of the all-league team.

Off the court, she was confident and popular, cracking jokes and teasing classmates. During her junior year she was voted “Class Flirt,” said Kayla Bettega, a friend since preschool.

“She just thought it was the greatest,” Bettega said. “She’d brag to everybody.”

Khadijah was loyal and protective, and in campus fights she’d step in to defend friends.

Bettega liked to sit near Khadijah so she could copy her work.

“She was always the one yelling out answers, or yelling you the answers so you could get ahead,” Bettega said. “She wouldn’t leave anyone behind.”

Khadijah talked of someday having a sports-related career, perhaps in kinesiology, said her stepmom Andrea Oliver.

After graduating in 2012, Khadijah’s family hoped she would enroll in community college classes offered at the high school through Mendocino College.

“We would always encourage her and say, ‘Dij, you can go to school. Just take some classes here in Covelo and get your feet wet,’” said her aunt, Laura Betts, of Covelo.

But despite the family’s nudging, Khadijah never did.

After graduation, some of her classmates left town for college; those who didn’t either got pregnant or started partying heavily like Khadijah, Bettega said.

“I don’t know if it was money or just leaving her family behind or what, because I really thought she was one of the people that would get out of here and do something,” Bettega said.

Instead, Khadijah started using drugs regularly, mostly with Fallis’ friends, whom Bettega didn’t know. They were much older, and drugs, said Bettega, were not her scene.

“She got into drugs right after high school sometime, and a lot of my classmates did,” Bettega said. “A lot of them ended up wandering around, like she did. There were a lot of my classmates that could’ve went far and done a lot of things, but it’s just hard to get out of Covelo.”

‘She didn’t see that’

It’s unclear when Khadijah’s relationship with Fallis began, but taking care of his children, especially the youngest, soon became her job, friends and family said.

Khadijah would regularly do their laundry at her dad’s house. She would cook the kids’ meals, put them to bed and pick them up from school.

“That’s another factor: you have the children involved,” said McGill, of Red Women Rising. “It’s a cultural thing for Native women to take care of our families. We take care of our children and our community, and we support our partners. ... Often with women in domestic violence they’re hoping to change that person. They’re hoping to be that light in his life. And Native women, we always put everybody before ourselves. That’s just our traditional value of us taking care of our family.”

As Khadijah started spending more time with Fallis, her confidence seemed to fade, Bettega said.

“I could see that he changed her, yeah,” she said. “She was still her same, happy self, but she was scared to get growled at if she did something wrong because he was so possessive.”

Late last year, just before winter entered the valley at full force, Bettega’s dad and brother were driving around town when they saw Khadijah walking along the road. They offered her a ride. Khadijah said she couldn’t, that Fallis would get mad.

“Just because it was another man, I guess,” Bettega said. “But, it was my dad.”

Throughout the winter, Khadijah’s relationship with Fallis continued disintegrating. During visits with her mom, Khadijah would say she was sick of him, that he was disrespecting her.

“I’d say, would he hit you? And she’d say, ‘No, Mommy, it’s nothing like that, Mommy,’” said her mom, Connie Hostler. “But I’ve been getting worried that he’d been doing stuff like that to her. I did try to get her over to a shelter in Redding, and she said, ‘Why are you trying to get rid of me, Mommy?’ I said, ‘I’m not, baby. I’m trying to keep you alive.’ She didn’t see that."

The last days

On Jan. 30, about 1 a.m., Khadijah banged on the front door of the house her dad and stepmother live in with their young children, hysterical, bleeding and bruised.

Fallis had attacked her, she said, at first with his fists. Then, he picked up a hammer.

“She was just screaming, ‘He’s trying to kill me, he’s trying to kill me,’” her stepmother said. “And she goes, ‘Get the babies on the floor, he’s going to shoot up the house.’” Oliver called the police, and Khadijah gave them a statement.

The next day, Khadijah’s dad took her to the tribe’s domestic violence center, where a counselor took photographs of the bruising on her face and body and the lumps on her head. Together, she and counselor Yolanda Hoaglen crafted a restraining order against Fallis. Khadijah was given new clothes, a cellphone, and money for groceries and cosmetics so she wouldn’t have to retrieve her things from his place, said the center’s director at the time and Khadijah’s step-grandmother, Barbara Smith.

But when Hoaglen showed up Feb. 5 to take Khadijah to Ukiah for the hearing, she pretended to be asleep, having reconsidered speaking out against Fallis, Smith said. Khadijah never made it to court.

“A lot of times, and especially in the Native community — this is the difference — Native women are less willing to leave what’s familiar to them, their family,” Smith said. “One of the things that a perpetrator does to a victim is isolate them from their support system, and that’s one of the things we try to do, reconnect them with their support system. But in our case, in Round Valley, both elements are right here.”

In the days since the hammer attack, Khadijah had reached out to Fallis, her family and domestic violence center workers said, exchanging text messages with him on her new cellphone.

“Native women don’t want to leave their homes,” Smith said. “They don’t want to leave Covelo. They don’t want to be out there where they’re all by themselves.”

That’s how the cycle of violence on the reservation continues, she said.

The night of Feb. 7, investigators say Khadijah was with friends at a weathered beige home on the edge of Covelo when Fallis showed up, adamant she leave with him.

He pulled out a gun and forced her into his car, witnesses told investigators.

On Feb. 10, after not hearing from Khadijah for three days, her stepmother filed a missing person’s report. Police didn’t suspect foul play for another two days. That’s when their search for Khadijah began in earnest, only to be interrupted Feb. 13 by an officer-involved shooting near Willits.

Police didn’t arrest Fallis on charges stemming from the hammer incident until Feb. 19. He has pleaded not guilty in that case, involving felony counts of attempted murder, kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon. His next court date is June 4.

Mendocino County Assistant Public Defender Christiane Hipps, his attorney, repeatedly refused to comment for this story, citing “ethical reasons.”

Investigation’s slow pace

The lack of information has made headway on the case difficult, said Barney at the Sheriff’s Office.

Since Khadijah’s disappearance, investigators have questioned and arrested many of Fallis’ associates. An anonymous tip line was created. Missing person posters are plastered all over Mendocino, Lake and Glenn counties. And Khadijah’s family and friends are waging an active social media campaign to draw attention to her disappearance.

Despite that, people still aren’t talking, Barney said.

“Throughout the ages, tribal people have closed down among their own, within their own little tribal system for protection, and that’s part of the culture,” he said. “We know there are people who know more than they’re telling us, but we have not been able to break through that tribalism.”

The slow pace of the investigation means Khadijah’s family members have taken matters into their own hands, raising $50,000 in reward money for any information that brings her home. They search the valley, its creeks and the dense forest that rims them.

When Jerry Britton talks about his daughter, he switches between present and past: “We are pretty close. That’s my baby, you know.”

And then: “She was like 5 feet 9 inches; that’s pretty tall for a girl.”

Same for her friends and other family members, who wrestle with describing a person who’s missing.

A new search is being planned for places that haven't yet been searched by law enforcement, Barney said.

Late last month, friends and family across Mendocino and Lake counties released balloons in her memory, each with a note attached, just in case one of them happened to land near wherever she might be.

The release happened April 22.

It would have been Khadijah’s 24th birthday.

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

Have you seen Khadijah?

Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office: 707-463-4086

Anonymous Tip Line: 707-234-2100

Donate to her family’s search efforts:

gofundme.com/searching-for-khadijah-britton

Do you need help?

Red Women Rising: redwomenrising.org,

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-399-6789

Sonoma County

YWCA hotline: 707-546-1234

Mendocino County

Project Sanctuary (inland area): 707-463-4357

Project Sanctuary (coastal area): 707-964-4357

Lake County

Lake Family Resource Center hotline: 888-485-7733

Napa County

Napa NEWS (Nurturing Empowerment, Worth, Safety) hotline: 707-255-6397

Have you seen Khadijah?

Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office: 707-463-4086

Anonymous Tip Line: 707-234-2100

Donate to her family’s search efforts:

gofundme.com/searching-for-khadijah-britton

Do you need help?

Red Women Rising: redwomenrising.org,

National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-399-6789

Sonoma County

YWCA hotline: 707-546-1234

Mendocino County

Project Sanctuary (inland area): 707-463-4357

Project Sanctuary (coastal area): 707-964-4357

Lake County

Lake Family Resource Center hotline: 888-485-7733

Napa County

Napa NEWS (Nurturing Empowerment, Worth, Safety) hotline: 707-255-6397

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