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Gabby Petito received nationwide attention. Khadijah Britton, like many missing Indigenous women, did not

Remembering their names: Some of the missing and murdered Indigenous people among the Round Valley Indian Tribe and others

Yolanda Hoaglen, the Round Valley Indian Tribes’ Native American Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault program director, shared five of the names of some Indigenous women in her community near Covelo who have been murdered or gone missing over the years, most of whom received little publicity.

“We just want our loved one’s crime to be solved and their names out there too,” Hoaglen said.

Here are the ones she listed:

Nicole Smith, 32, of Manchester, was killed in an unsolved drive-by-shooting in 2017.

Rosalena “Belle” Rodrigues, 21, of Covelo, was shot by two brothers in 2014

Rachel Sloan, 22, of Laytonville, went missing in 2012 and her remains were found on the side of the road in 2013.

Vanessa Niko, 35, of Upperlake, was killed in a domestic violence incident in 2017.

Theresa Brown, 46, of the Clearlake Oaks area, was shot and killed protecting her niece from a domestic violence situation in 2016.

Al'awnie Littledeer O'Con, 18, of Covelo, was shot and killed in Arizona in 2020. Her boyfriend awaits trial for her murder, according to Hoaglen.

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YWCA Sonoma County’s domestic violence crisis hotline

Anyone who is need of help can call the YWCA’s 24-hour domestic violence crisis hotline at 707-546-1234.

Over the past week, Laura Betts watched as national media focused on Gabrielle “Gabby” Petito, a 22-year-old Florida woman who was reported missing in Wyoming about two weeks ago after a potential domestic violence dispute with her fiance, Brian Laundrie.

Betts is thankful that Petito’s family now has a body to bury, because she knows how hard it is to not be able to hold a funeral or burial for a loved one who goes missing.

Her niece Khadijah Britton, a member of the Wailacki Round Valley Indian Tribe, disappeared in Covelo in Mendocino County more than 3½ years ago, less than a week after she told police and domestic violence counselors her boyfriend had tried to kill her with a hammer.

Britton, who was 23 when she disappeared, is one of thousands of women of color who’ve gone missing or who have been murdered in recent years, almost none of whom received the same level of attention that Petito has.

A 2012 Department of Justice report found that the number of women murdered on some reservations was 10 times higher than the national average.

Four years later, the National Crime Information Center reported 5,712 cases of missing Indigenous women and girls across the country, but the real number is believed to be far higher than that.

Northern California had 107 missing and murdered Indigenous women and two-spirit people, who identify as both masculine and feminine, according to a 2021 study by the Sovereign Bodies Institute, which also found that a majority of the murder and disappearance cases involving Indigenous women in Northern California remain unsolved.

Petito’s case dominated headlines and trended on Twitter, TikTok and Instagram, spurring a multiagency investigation and concern nationwide. On Sunday, FBI found a body in the woods that matched Petito’s description after a couple remembered seeing her white van on the side of a road and then shared the video footage to figure out its location.

Petito had a significant social media presence and was known for her posts on living “the van life” while traveling national parks with her fiance.

Betts and others acknowledge that Petito’s social media presence likely contributed to the public interest in her case, but they say they can’t help but wonder if the fact that Petito was white and had blond hair and blue eyes was also a factor.

“You (look) to our Indigenous women, and they’re none of that,” Betts said.

Media coverage

In Britton’s case, witnesses reported seeing her boyfriend taking her at gunpoint from a home in west Covelo at midnight on Feb. 7, 2018. Police identified the boyfriend, Negie Tony Fallis, also of the Wailacki Round Valley Indian Tribe, as the “best person of interest” in the case but say they do not have enough evidence to charge him.

While Britton’s case was covered by The Press Democrat and other local papers, it didn’t receive much attention outside the North Bay.

“We contacted all the local media, all the local papers, which is a lot,” Betts said.

One media outlet in San Francisco told her, “it's just not newsworthy,” she said.

Betts said the attention has never come close to the national fervor of Petito’s case.

Shannon Barney, a retired Mendocino Sheriff’s Office lieutenant who was the investigations commander in Britton’s case, said that from his perspective, media interest is a “double-edged sword.”

It can turn up more witnesses, but at the same time it can generate many false leads, spreading resources thin.

Betts said she’s been looking into cases of other women who have gone missing. She’s seen mothers of four or five children, with siblings and many people who loved them. Many are women of color.

“Their stories are just as newsworthy as Gabby’s,” she said.

“We want the coverage — we need the coverage,” said Yolanda Hoaglen, the Round Valley Indian Tribes’ Native American Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Program director.

“We just want our loved ones’ crimes to be solved and their names out there, too,” she said.

“There’s been so many deaths in the valley, people passing away from COVID-19 and homicide,” Hoaglen said. “I work here at the domestic violence center and it’s really hard, emotional work. I know a lot of people here personally and get to know them.

“We love and support each other and we will get through this by supporting each other,” she said.

Betts said Britton’s grandfather died recently and was heartbroken over his granddaughter.

“He died not knowing where his granddaughter was,” Betts said. “It’s really emotional that we couldn’t give him that peace.”

Remembering their names: Some of the missing and murdered Indigenous people among the Round Valley Indian Tribe and others

Yolanda Hoaglen, the Round Valley Indian Tribes’ Native American Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault program director, shared five of the names of some Indigenous women in her community near Covelo who have been murdered or gone missing over the years, most of whom received little publicity.

“We just want our loved one’s crime to be solved and their names out there too,” Hoaglen said.

Here are the ones she listed:

Nicole Smith, 32, of Manchester, was killed in an unsolved drive-by-shooting in 2017.

Rosalena “Belle” Rodrigues, 21, of Covelo, was shot by two brothers in 2014

Rachel Sloan, 22, of Laytonville, went missing in 2012 and her remains were found on the side of the road in 2013.

Vanessa Niko, 35, of Upperlake, was killed in a domestic violence incident in 2017.

Theresa Brown, 46, of the Clearlake Oaks area, was shot and killed protecting her niece from a domestic violence situation in 2016.

Al'awnie Littledeer O'Con, 18, of Covelo, was shot and killed in Arizona in 2020. Her boyfriend awaits trial for her murder, according to Hoaglen.

______

YWCA Sonoma County’s domestic violence crisis hotline

Anyone who is need of help can call the YWCA’s 24-hour domestic violence crisis hotline at 707-546-1234.

Moxie Alvarnaz, outreach coordinator of Sovereign Bodies Institute, said the lack of attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women is a manifestation of the impact of colonization on Native peoples.

“We know there's a severe crisis among Indigenous peoples, of our peoples being taken from us, murdered, disappeared or criminalized,” said Alvarnaz, whose organization collects data and documents cases of missing and murdered Indigenous peoples.

“I think that's pretty obvious that there's a huge interest and this particular case with Gabby Petito, which of course, I'm not here to downplay,” said Alvarnaz, a member of the Hawaiian tribe Kanaka Maoli.

News coverage and social media interest increase word-of-mouth and awareness and can lead to more witnesses. It also provides a fuller picture of the victims, portraying them as human-beings with loved ones, Alvarnaz said.

“We're in a difficult situation where families are desperately trying to get media to care about our loved ones desperately, desperately, desperately for years,” Alvarnaz said.

In Petito’s case, amateur crime buffs and internet sleuths shared hints and ideas on TikTok and spread awareness about Petito’s case. The hashtag #GabbyPetito had more than 900 million views on TikTok as of Friday.

Cheressê Hadlêy-Best, a family friend of Britton’s, has been trying to raise awareness about Khadijah Britton’s case. After Petito’s case began trending, she created a TikTok video about Britton’s case with the #KhadijahBritton.

@bestt.c707

Khadijah is still missing- PLEASE SPREAD THIS AROUND💚 her family misses her. Contact the number listed if you have TIPS on her case. Podcast link will be in the comments. #missingindigenouswomen #missing #helpfindkhadijahbritton #northerncalifornia #nativeamerican #fyp #foryou #missingperson #bringherhome

♬ original sound - bestt.c707

She plans to create videos about other missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“I myself am Native American and it hurts to see that us Natives don’t get much coverage,” Hadlêy-Best said.

She said Britton has “only been covered maybe three times and never spoken of again and that just doesn’t sit right with me. I made it because there’s no videos about her on (TikTok),“ Hadlêy-Best said.

“When media turns its back on our peoples, it is saying that our lives, that our bodies and our relatives, are not worth saving, are not worth protecting and are not worth paying attention to,” Alvarnaz said. “It means that we aren't worth resources, it means we aren't worth finding.”

The FBI renewed their call for witnesses in February, offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction on Khadijah Britton’s kidnapping case. Anyone with information about her case can contact or submit anonymous tips to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office at 707-234-2100 or the FBI San Francisco Division at 415-553-7400.

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8511 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Laura Betts’ last name.

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