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Mendocino County authorities renew call for witnesses to come forward in Khadijah Britton case

The FBI is offering a new $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the case of Khadijah Britton, a young woman believed to have been kidnapped three years ago Sunday from the Mendocino County community of Covelo.

It’s the latest in about $100,000 in reward money to be put up in the disturbing disappearance and is part of a renewed effort to shake loose information that may help investigators learn what became of her.

Britton, a Wailaki member of the of Round Valley Indian Tribes, was 23 at the time she went missing. She has not been seen or heard from since Feb. 7, 2018, when she was forced to leave a friend’s home at gunpoint by an older man with whom she had been in a relationship frayed by drug use and violence that included an attack with a hammer the week before.

Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall said Friday that the boyfriend, Negie Tony Fallis, 40, remains “my best person of interest” in Britton’s disappearance. He has a history of past drug and domestic violence offenses and is now in federal custody on weapons charges.

Local and federal investigators have put thousands of hours into the case and they still await word from witnesses they feel certain have more information than what they have shared so far about what became of Britton.

“Somebody knows,” Scott Schelble, the assistant special agent in charge of violent crimes at the FBI’s San Francisco Division said when announcing the reward Friday.

Kendall said there are too many conflicts in first and second statements taken by detectives for everyone to be telling the whole truth. The remote community of Covelo, population 1,140, is the kind of place where family relationships are complex and intertwined, and secrets hard to keep.

Kendall said he believes there are people who are covering for whoever is responsible and who may be afraid to come forward. He suspects there are accessories, as well.

“Here’s the thing. We know that there are people who know what happened, and I’m certain that with the correct enticement, they will tell us,” Kendall said in an interview.

“Everybody has different things that drive them,” he said. “Some people, it’s money. Some people, it’s just the goodness of their heart. We just need to keep reaching out.”

Britton, a strong student and standout basketball player during her years at Round Valley High School, met Fallis about two years after graduation and around that time fell into using drugs in a socioeconomically depressed community where substance abuse is epidemic.

Family members and friends would later say Britton seemed to grow unhappy in the relationship, describing Fallis, the father of four young children, as controlling and easily angered.

On Jan. 30, 2018, she arrived hysterical, bleeding and bruised at the home of her father and stepmother, saying Fallis had attacked and beaten her, and eventually picked up a hammer as a weapon. Deputy sheriffs were called and took a report.

In the next few days, she took initial steps toward seeking help at the Round Valley tribe’s domestic violence center but declined to follow through on plans to go to court Feb. 5 to obtain a restraining order.

Two days later, Britton was at her friend’s when Fallis arrived, armed with a pistol, and demanded she come outside to talk, authorities said. There was a physical altercation, and then the couple left in a black Mercedes sedan, the sheriff’s office said.

But it was Britton’s family who alerted the sheriff’s office on Feb. 10 that she was missing. Two days after that, authorities realized she likely had been kidnapped after learning the circumstances of the last time anyone had seen or heard from her, Kendall said Friday.

Her experience has been has been used to highlight astronomical rates of violence toward Native American women, a crisis that has spawned the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s movement in the United States and Canada to better document and advocate for indigenous women and girls.

A 2016 study funded by the National Institutes of Justice found that more than four out of five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence in their lifetimes, with more than 55% experiencing physical violence from an intimate partner.

Thousands are missing, with studies showing many have fallen through the cracks so that their cases aren’t even registered on law enforcement databases.

During a brief public statement on the Britton case Friday, Kendall noted the importance of recognizing that she had befallen a “terrible crime that is going on throughout our entire nation, not just in Covelo.”

But he also made clear that her case is personal to those, like the sheriff, who grew up the area, spent free time in the Eel River or the forest, finished school, like he did, in a graduating class of 12 and generally knew most everyone in town.

Britton’s mother, Connie Hostler, was in Kendall’s grade and her father, Jerry Britton, a year behind. Her grandparents, Ronnie and Lydia Hostler, used to open the gym three nights a week for basketball and coached local kids in softball and other sports, he said.

“These are good people, and now they’re suffering because straight up criminals have intimidated people into not talking,” Kendall said. “So who is the community supporting by not talking? Is it the good people who raised us?”

He is hoping that the right “carrot and stick” approach will generate new tips in the case, in part because he expects Fallis to be detained for a time, given his federal firearms case, perhaps allowing witnesses to feel freer to talk.

The federal case stems from an arrest last June in which deputies stumbled early one morning upon Fallis in the driver’s seat of his car with two loaded firearms, including a Ruger Mini-14 rifle converted to an assault rifle.

Fallis was a convicted felon on post-release community supervision related to a December 2018 weapons conviction, and was not permitted to have firearms, court documents show. He now faces federal weapons charges for which he could receive up to 10 years imprisonment, though the penalty could be less, as well, according to court records.

Fallis has a change of plea hearing scheduled for March 2 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. Kendall said he believes he is working on a plea agreement.

Kendall said those who have information about Britton may not be thinking about the extent of the suffering throughout the community, of family and friends waiting desperately to know what happened to her.

“I understand sometimes it’s hard to say something and hard to stand up,” he said, “but you still gotta do it.”

Anyone with information can call the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Tip Line — anonymously, if they prefer — at 707-234-2100 or the sheriff’s office at 707-463-4086.

They also can call the FBI at 415-553-7400 or provide information online at @tips.fbi.gov.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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