Justice Unveiled

The Attorney General’s new Cold Case Unit for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and People embarks on a grim trail for answers 


The pursuit of justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women and people (MMIWP) is a growing concern in Washington state. For years, a mounting number of unsolved cases have vexed under-resourced prosecutors and law enforcement in rural and tribal jurisdictions. 

Acknowledging the gravity of the issue, the Washington State Attorney General’s Office (AGO) took an unprecedented step by establishing the Washington State  MMIWP Cold Case Unit. This dedicated unit is setting out to bring closure to Native American families and communities affected by unsolved cases of death and disappearance. For Attorney General Bob Ferguson, it’s part of a commitment to foster awareness and empathy for the state’s Indigenous people. 

In April, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a bill proposing the new cold case unit. Ferguson partnered with Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Anacortes, to initiate House Bill 1177. The proposal was one of 10 recommendations issued in a report released last August by the MMIWP Task Force, which is facilitated by Ferguson’s office.

“Thanks to the work of the task force, my office will be the first attorney general’s office in the country with a cold case unit dedicated to seeking justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women and people,” Ferguson said in an April press release. “We look forward to assisting law enforcement agencies with these cases and bringing justice and answers to Indigenous families.”

The Cold Case Unit will pursue a three-fold mission: to investigate unsolved cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women and other Native Americans, to support affected families, and to facilitate collaboration among law enforcement agencies, tribal communities, and advocates. By adopting this multifaceted approach, the unit aims to bridge gaps in communication, information-sharing, and resources toward a speedier, more effective pursuit of justice.

This dedicated Unit is setting out to bring closure to Native American families and communities affected by unsolved cases. 

Once the Unit is fully staffed with four investigators, an assistant attorney general, and a case navigator, it will operate with a clear vision: to thoroughly examine cold cases involving Indigenous victims, unravel the truth, and pursue justice with utmost diligence, said AGO Criminal Justice Division Chief John Hillman. Funding arrived July 1.

“I think the Legislature gave us mostly what we asked for,” Hillman said. “It remains to be seen if this is enough, but we’re hopeful.”

Native Americans, especially women, experience violence at much higher rates than other populations in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that homicide is the sixth-leading cause of death for Indigenous women and girls and the third-leading cause of death for Indigenous men. A recent federal study11 Bachman, R., Zaykowski, H., Kallymer, R., Poteyeva, M., & Lanier, C. (2008). Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and the Criminal Justice Response: What is Known. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice. www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/223691.pdf. reported that Native American women are murdered at rates 10 times the national average in some jurisdictions.

“It’s not a secret that violence against Indigenous people hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves,” said Annie Forsman-Adams, policy analyst for the AGO’s MMIWP Task Force. “This cold case unit is one of several things that will help.”

According to data from the AGO’s Homicide Investigation Tracking System (HITS), Indigenous victims constitute 5 percent of the unresolved cases throughout the state, but they make up less than 2 percent of the population. As of May, 136 Native Americans are missing in Washington, nearly a third of those from Yakima County and the Yakama Nation, according to the State Patrol.  

Jessica Rammelsberg, chief prosecutor for the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, said she is optimistic that the new Cold Case Unit could make a difference in bringing long-needed justice for unsolved cases in her community. “It is a positive development in addressing this public safety crisis that has gone ignored for so long,” she said. “I am encouraged to see the state is acknowledging that it has to be part of the solution in order for any progress to be made. It is critical that states, the federal government, and tribes work together in order to overcome the jurisdictional limitations that have contributed, in large part, to the problem for decades. I am hopeful that the Cold Case Unit will help in finally bringing justice and closure to so many bereaved Yakama families.” 

Rammelsberg said she expects her office will support any investigative assistance the Unit offers. “It is needed,” she added. “It would take much longer than a brief interview to explain how we got here, but in a nutshell, tribes are extremely limited in what we are allowed to prosecute and where we can investigate. Historically, communication with the state and federal government on how to report missing Indigenous women and who will investigate the cases has been poor. It can be extremely isolating for tribes, when for decades the message has been this is a tribal problem, but then being denied adequate tools to address it. Recognizing that a missing Indigenous person is a safety crisis for Washington is the first step in ensuring safety for all.”

Tim Rybka is prosecutor for the Northwest Intertribal Court System, which has 15 member tribes in Washington; Rybka said he works with eight. He’s cautiously optimistic about the new Cold Case Unit, he said, but on a closer look he wonders if this was tried before. He referenced a 2020 AGO budget item for $1.7 million to support investigations into police cold cases involving homicide and missing people in general. Rybka said that funding was not fully restored in following years.

“I pay attention to language; it’s not a new unit,” Rybka said, pointing to language in the recently signed MMIWP Cold Case Unit legislation directing the Unit to investigate “murdered Indigenous women and people.” He wonders if “people” opens it to any case. “I’m glad to see it got refunded, and if it specializes in Indigenous people that’s a good thing,” he said. “I hope it continues to get funded.”

Following the legislation’s unanimous passage and signing, the new Cold Case Unit is getting to work. The Unit will collaborate closely with tribal communities, including tribal law enforcement agencies, victim advocates, and families. After undergoing cultural sensitivity and trauma-informed training, members of the Unit will create a safe and collaborative environment for survivors and families to share their experiences and provide critical information that might lead to breakthroughs in long-standing cases.

Gov. Inslee signs Substitute House Bill No. 1177 relating to a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People (MMIWP) cold case investigations unit on April 20, 2023.
Photo by Washington State Legislative Support Services

“It’s not entirely brand new for us,” the AGO’s Division Chief Hillman said. “Previously our agency had jurisdiction only if we were asked in writing by the local jurisdiction; however, this legislation gives us permission to investigate cold cases with the consent of the local jurisdiction agency.”

The Unit’s investigators will not have all the law-enforcement authority of local police, he said. That’s where collaborating with local law enforcement is critical. “Our investigators are not peace officers,” Hillman said. “They can’t serve warrants or make arrests, but they can do everything else, such as question witnesses, review cases. When needed, they will work with local law enforcement that has jurisdiction.”

So far, he said, the Unit is aware of about 119 cold cases involving Indigenous victims. “We identified 10 to 12 cases that, in my opinion … would be good fit to start with,” said AGO Policy Analyst Forsman-Adams, a member of the Suquamish Tribe. “The jurisdictions handling these cases indicated that our help would be welcome. … We do not have a full understanding of all the cases yet, but what we do see is that there is a significant disproportionality in the Indigenous community.”

The Unit aims to contribute to the broader discourse surrounding justice and the rights of Indigenous people. 

Forsman-Adams said the backlog of cold cases affecting Indigenous people is multifaceted and varies with the circumstances facing each jurisdiction and agency. Limited resources and funding often pose obstacles to conducting comprehensive investigations, highlighting the need for continued support from government agencies and private organizations.

“There are a lot of intersecting factors. It’s difficult to say there is any single barrier,” she said. “Tribal and rural jurisdictions often lack adequate resources needed for a really robust look into these cold cases. Tribal police have limited access to resources like polygraphs, and there’s a lack of support from federal agencies.”

Yakama Nation Prosecutor Rammelsberg said the barriers are systemic, the main barrier being jurisdiction. “This country, through [U.S.] Supreme Court cases and legislation, has determined that tribes cannot criminally prosecute many of the crimes that occur within our own reservation boundaries,” Rammelsberg said. “Any act of violence against Indigenous women committed by a non-Indian is automatically precluded from tribal prosecution. Think about how absurd that is for a minute. 

“Imagine someone from Montana commits a murder in Seattle, and King County, upon finding out the suspect is not a Washingtonian, is then rendered unable to investigate and prosecute that person. So, changing the laws on tribal jurisdiction would be the best way to knock down barriers. Barring that, however, diligent collaboration from our state and federal partners is critical to solving these cases. And the MMIWP Cold Case Unit is a great step in the right direction.”

The Unit’s mission extends beyond individual cases, Hillman said. It aims to contribute to the broader discourse surrounding justice and the rights of Indigenous people. By raising public awareness, the Unit, along with the MMIWP Task Force, is mobilizing communities to engage in proactive measures to address the underlying issues that contribute to the victimization of Indigenous women and people. It could mean more extensive reporting of incidents and a collective effort to eradicate the systemic barriers to achieving justice for victims.

“The AG, since he came into office, has made it a priority to improve relations with tribes,” Hillman said. “His desire to create this Unit is one more example of his dedication to Indigenous people in our state.” 

About the author

Noel Brady is a former newspaper reporter who spent nearly 20 years on the criminal justice beat. He has worked in WSBA’s Communication Department for eight years.


1. Bachman, R., Zaykowski, H., Kallymer, R., Poteyeva, M., & Lanier, C. (2008). Violence Against American Indian and Alaska Native Women and the Criminal Justice Response: What is Known. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice. www.ojp.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/223691.pdf.