Among the many issues faced by Native Americans today, domestic abuse is a major one. Indigenous women experience domestic abuse at disproportionately high rates. According to a 2016 National Institute of Justice-funded study, more than 55% report psychical violence committed against them by an intimate partner. Little to nothing is done about these situations within reservations. There aren't shelters for women suffering domestic violence to run to, and communication between tribal law enforcement and other agencies on domestic cases aren't great. Unfortunately, like with a lot domestic cases, death ends up being the result for many of these women. While you may think leaving is easy, it isn't. On average, it takes up to seven attempts before the abused partner is able to leave and the cycle can be broken.
For several years, Ashlea Aldrich found herself caught in the never-ending cycle of abuse. She was a member of the Omaha Tribe and lived on their reservation in Nebraska. The city of Omaha was actually named after the Omaha Tribe. The tribal seat is located in Macy, Nebraska, and this is where Ashlea's story takes place.
She was a 29-year-old mother to two young boys when she was killed. A very creative and artistic woman, she loved to draw, do make-up, and do hair as well. She graduated from the Omaha Nation High School in 2009 and began studying cosmetology right after. She got her diploma from the LeJames International College in 2010 and was ready to start her young life. She was the youngest daughter of her parents, Galen and Tillie Aldrich. The family seemed to be very close knit, loving, and supportive.
In 2011, Tillie was diagnosed with breast cancer, a heavy blow to the family. Later that same year they lost the family home to flooding. They ended up having to move into a three-bedroom apartment after losing their house. It was around this time that Tillie says Ashlea began to drift away. She had been through a lot in that year and it's not surprising that she would withdraw from everyone else and into a romantic relationship. She reconnected with an old high school boyfriend and began spending more and more time with him. She eventually moved in with him.
The relationship between Ashlea and her unnamed boyfriend was no fairy tale. It was brutally violent, to say the least. The Aldrich family was well aware of the abuse that she was facing. They tried all they could to help, including calling tribal police dozens of time just in the year 2013 alone. Tillie also wrote an email to her Tribal Council members in 2017, detailing the gruesome scene she witnessed at her daughter's apartment that she shared with her abuser on one occasion. The email stated that she had found Ashlea, fully clothed, standing in the shower, completely covered in blood. She wrote that the couch was soaked with blood and that blood was splattered on the walls and the mattress as well.
The boyfriend was charged with one count of domestic disturbance and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child in Tribal Court. The charges brought against him were later dismissed. This was just one more incident in a disturbing pattern of arrests leading to dropped or reduced charges for the boyfriend. In the years 2013, 2014, and 2016, he was charged four separate times for domestic abuse. It's not clear if these instances involved Ashlea, but considering they all occurred after the two had reconnected, it's very likely that they did. Once he was found not guilty, and in the other instances his charges were either dropped or reduced.
Since July 2018, Ashlea's children had been in the care of her parents. It was in the summer of 2019, that she finally started the slow and steady process of leaving. Ashlea began returning home to stay with her parents and her sons. Each visit was a little longer than the previous. Tillie recalls Ashlea lying on the floor with her sons, working puzzles and reading books. It's memories like these that Tillie and Galen hold close to their hearts.
In the final two years of Ashlea's life she had struggled with alcohol dependency. With the overwhelming and brutal violence she faced from day to day, it's easy to see how she could slip into substance abuse. She had decided that she was through with drinking and she wanted help to get better for her children. On Thanksgiving 2019, she attempted to check herself into a detox center in Omaha. Due to the long waiting list, she was unable to be admitted to an in-patient treatment program. Unfortunately, Tribal health services are terribly underfunded, just another problem faced by Indigenous communities.
Tillie spoke of the strides her daughter had made towards bettering her situation. She began spending more and more time at her parent's home with her boys. Time spent with her boyfriend and others had dramatically reduced. Tillie and Galen were likely very hopeful for Ashlea's future at this point in her life. She was attempting to end the cycles of physical abuse and substance abuse by leaning on her ever-present, ever-supportive family.
It wasn't long after Thanksgiving that Ashlea found herself in the ER after suffering injuries from her boyfriend. Tillie noted that her fingers were purple and one of her fingernails was coming off. When she asked her daughter what had happened to her hand, she said that it had been slammed in a car door. Most of the rest of 2019, Ashlea spent with her parents. In her final month she was working towards freeing herself from the relationship completely.
On Christmas Eve, Ashlea's boyfriend arrived at her parents house with a gift for her. He'd bought her a brand new cell phone for Christmas. For whatever reason, Ashlea did not have a phone when her boyfriend bought her this one. She was extremely excited to get one, not even thinking for a moment that there might be a nefarious intention behind the purchase. Tillie saw straight through the seemingly harmless gesture. She knew that this was just a way for him to keep track of her daughter.
It was on December 26, 2019, that Ashlea came walking through her parent's living room. She was on her way outside to smoke a cigarette. Tillie had a terrible feeling that her daughter was leaving, and she didn't want her to go. She asked Ashlea to stay there and not go anywhere, but she went on outside to smoke. Not long after she exited the house, Tillie could see headlights through the window. Ashlea got into the car and left.
Tillie had a horrible feeling about Ashlea leaving that night. So horrible that she got into her car and tracked her daughter down. She drove until she found Ashlea in Macy with her boyfriend. Tillie told her that she feared for her safety, but Ashlea assured her that she was okay. Ashlea's poor, concerned mother was forced to leave her daughter in the hands of a monster. With Ashlea being 29-years-old at the time, there was nothing Tillie could do to protect her. You can't force your adult child to do anything or go anywhere they don't want to.
It wouldn't be until January 6, 2020, that Tillie would receive a text from one of her other daughters, Alyssa. The message said that Ashlea had been seen the day before, on the 5th, in the passengers seat of her boyfriend's car. She appeared to be pretty badly beaten up. The next day, January 7, Galen was out searching for his daughter when he spotted a car in the middle of a cornfield. It was very clearly Ashlea's boyfriend's car. When Galen approached the vehicle for a closer look, he noticed his daughter's tracks going around the front of the car. He could also see the boyfriend's tracks, but his heart dropped when he realized he couldn't tell where they were heading. He said that was when he knew something was wrong.
Galen noticed a bridge nearby and went over for a look. He walked underneath and looked around, but found nothing. When he walked out from under the bridge, he saw Ashlea's boyfriend pulling up in a different car. He stopped the man there and asked, "Where's my daughter? When's the last time you seen her?" He replied that he hadn't seen her since that Sunday. That was the same day that she'd been witnessed beaten up in the front seat of his car.
According to the story he gave Galen, the car got stuck in the mud in that cornfield on the previous Sunday. When he couldn't get the car free from the muck underneath, he sent Ashlea out into the cold all by herself to get help while he stayed with the car. Galen didn't believe this boy or his story. He immediately reported it to Tribal Police. While he was there, he heard a dispatcher sending officers out for a woman screaming for help south of town. He then left the station and returned to the car in the cornfield.
At around 3:00 that afternoon, Alyssa was also out looking for her sister when she spotted the boyfriend's car in the cornfield. She walked around the car, as her father had just a little earlier. Then she noticed an opening in the trees ahead. Alyssa walked for the opening and found her sister there, long, black hair blowing in the wind. Ashlea was completely naked, lying face-down in the dirt, with mud covering her back and the back of her calves. There were no abrasions or any soil on the bottoms of her feet. Alyssa tried to rouse her sister, but she was cold and stiff by this point.
In a detailed and heart-wrenching Facebook post, Alyssa describes finding her sister that day. "I walked right up to my sister. Her long black hair was blowing cold in the wind. She was left cold, alone, beaten, and stripped of all her clothes. I cannot get this horrible image out of my head. I grabbed her and I so badly wanted her to let out a cry. I told her 'I found you, sister. Get up.' I took off my coat and covered her, laid with her lifeless body and screamed for help."
The FBI took over the investigation and refused to disclose if they were investigating Ashlea's death as a homicide. More than nine months after they took over, The Sioux City Journal asked if they were investigating her death. Their was response was, "The FBI investigates cases in tandem with the Omaha Tribal Police. The FBI has spoken directly to Ashlea Aldrich's family with the respect to the outcome of our investigation."
After an autopsy her death was listed as "accidental," the apparent result of "hypothermia complicating acute alcohol toxicity." The family was informed by an FBI agent that Ashlea's body had no bruising and showed no evidence of strangulation or sexual assault. When Tillie and Galen viewed her body at the funeral home after the autopsy, they saw something completely different than what they had been told. Ashlea had a swollen nose, a black eye, and little welts all over her body. The FBI attributed this to the way her body was found.
A background inquiry filed on February 10, 2020, states that the boyfriend was charged in Omaha Tribal Court. Just three days after Ashlea was found he was charged with criminal homicide, criminal contempt, and duty to give information and render aid. He was held at the Tribe's detention center in Macy, but in April of that same year, he was released. Assistant US Attorney, Michael Norris, told the Sioux City Journal that he cannot comment on certain cases and investigations, but is confident that the homicides that have occurred on Nebraska reservations have been fully investigated and prosecuted. He said, "We are not aware of any homicides that were not investigated or not prosecuted. We can't ethically file charges when the evidence does not support a charge of homicide."
Tillie has made it known that she feels "betrayed and neglected by the FBI." She further commented, "The agent who originally investigated was negligent and wanted a quick, closed case. There are too many unanswered questions." The FBI stated that due process was followed and also admitted to the fact that many unanswered questioned remained.
When visited by the Sioux City Journal, Tillie and Galen's beige walls were adorned with framed inspirational quotes. They hung in place of Ashlea's framed pictures. Her pictures were packed away and her clothes wrapped in a gray star quilt. Keeping with their old Omaha traditions, the quilt was taken to the old Cook homestead north of Macy. A prayer was said and the quilt, with all of Ashlea wrapped inside, was hung in a tree.
Galen explained to the journalist, "It's like our mourning process. We keep her here for four days and then we send her off to heaven. If we cry too much or keep some of her photographs and clothes, that might stop her from going. Her spirit will just wander around here." The Aldrich's would never allow that to happen. With heavy hearts, they lovingly sent their daughter off to heaven.
Charges were never filed in Ashlea's case. The monster that did this to her is still free to do this again. Candlelight vigils were held in Ashlea's memory in Lincoln, Nebraska, as well as on the reservation, throughout the year of 2020. Another was held on the anniversary of her discovery at the Walthill Fire Hall. Dozens gathered there and at the nearby bridge to pray, sing, and remember a beautiful soul taken too soon.
Ashlea's story is far too common. Not only did she become a statistic for domestic abuse, but also abuse among Native American women. Furthermore, she became just one of many obviously murdered Indigenous women that were written off as having wandered off, possibly intoxicated, and died of hypothermia. The blatantly wrong cause of death marked on these women's death certificates is an alarming trend in the stories of the MMIW. As Tillie Aldrich said, their only interested in quickly closed cases. Unfortunately, where Indigenous women are concerned, this seems to be especially true.