Stories of the MMIW: Ashley Loring Heavyrunner-Missing
According to the FBI's figures, Native Americans go missing at a rate twice as high as white Americans. Attention wasn't finally brought to the way missing persons cases are handled and reported on for Indigenous women until the Gabby Patito case erupted. Within just days a girl not even native to the area in Wyoming was found thanks to the enormous media campaign launched for her. At that same time, hundreds of Indigenous women had been missing from that area for far longer with no action being taken. These women were actually from the area and no one was even looking into their disappearances. A grim, but common saying among Native communities is that when an Indigenous woman goes missing, she vanishes twice. First, her body vanishes, then her story. Many families in these communities are banding together to stop that from continuing to happen.
Ashley Loring Heavyrunner was a member of the Blackfeet Nation and lived on their reservation in Browning, Montana. Everyone that knew her described her as a feisty young woman that stood up for herself as well as others. She didn't stand for others being bullied and when she saw something wrong she was quick to speak up about it. She was known as a strong woman in every sense of the term. Physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally, she was stronger than any man. In high school she'd been a star athlete and she was a very intelligent woman that excelled in her college courses. Her mother, Loxie, recalls her love for horses and the rain. I truly hope that wherever she is today, she's riding a beautiful stallion through the rain with rays of sunshine peeking through the clouds to warm her face.
Ironically, Ashley had a passion for helping the MMIW cause before she vanished. Being the type to always jump up to help those in need when she heard of the crisis she had to get involved. She approached her older sister, Kimberly, who was 25 when Ashley went missing, and told her of her intentions. She was passionate in her declaration to help bring awareness to the cause. She didn't believe that the inaction and the lack of reporting was right at all. No one would've ever expected her to become one of the missing in a cause that she wanted to help support so badly.
Ashley was just 20-years-old when she was last seen in 2017. She was studying environmental science at the Blackfeet Community College in Browning. She and Kimberly had a plan for their future. After growing up together chopping wood, shoveling snow, and wrangling horses, they wanted to get off the reservation and start lives of their own. Ashley would live on their family's ranch while she attended community college. Later, she would join her sister in Missoula, where they would get an apartment together in the bohemian university community. Unfortunately, Ashley ran into a rough patch in life when she lost her grandfather. Around the same time her first love fell apart and the relationship ended.
We can all identify with losing our first love. It's a truly heartbreaking experience that has to break you in order to make you better for the next love to come about. Although when we're experiencing that pain for the first time, we feel as though it may never end and we'll never be able to move on. That's likely how Ashley felt when she began drifting towards an older crowd and using drugs. As there is very little mention of this in the media and none from her family, I doubt that her use was that serious. This is clearly a girl that was going through it at a young age. She was also in college, a time when most people experiment with all manner of things. I'm willing to bet that her use was no more than that, harmless college experimentation to help her through a rough time.
On June 5, 2017, Ashley had messaged some friends over Facebook to ask for a ride into town from her parent's ranch. While she waited for her ride, she packed some clothes into a blue drawstring backpack. Before exiting the house with her bag, she said good-bye to her grandmother. Ashley went to a party on the reservation that night and seemed to have been alright while she was there. A video taken at the gathering features Ashley sitting on a couch, surrounded by people that were talking and drinking beer. At some point during the evening Ashley texted her sister, Kimberly, who was visiting her fiance in Morocco. She asked Kimberly for some "mums," meaning money, to which Kimberly replied she was unable to help as she was in Africa. Kimberly asked if she was okay, to which Ashley responded, "always."
As days went by, Kimberly re-entered the states and could never get a hold of her sister. She didn't think too much of this right away, as Ashley was known for constantly losing her phone. Finally in mid-June, when Ashley's father, Roy Lee Heavyrunner was hospitalized for liver failure, panic quickly rose. Ashley wasn't answering the calls and texts concerning her father, a retired firefighter, which was very unlike her. Kimberly began calling everyone she could think of asking about her sister. No one had any answers. The last time anyone had seen her was at the party on the night of June 5th.
The family filed a missing persons report with the Blackfeet Tribal Police immediately when they realized that something was amiss. They were appalled by the lack of response they received. They were initially told that Ashley was of age and could leave whenever she wanted to. Kimberly has since spoken with other families, hoping to aid in their crusade as well as her own. She says that this is an alarmingly common trend when Indigenous women go missing.
The Blackfeet Tribal Police, manned by only 18 officers, are responsible for providing law enforcement to the 1.5 million acre reservation. It borders the Rocky Mountains to the west and Canada to the north. They, along with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), serve the expansive reservation and investigate all of its crimes. It's fair to say that they are extremely undermanned for the amount of territory they have to patrol.
The vastly large reservation that the girls had grown up on was usually awash in gossip. You could normally hear all manner of things, but after Ashley vanished it went eerily silent. This just made the family feel all the more fearful, uncomfortable, and determined to find the truth. In late-June the first lead finally came in. A woman had been seen being chased by a car down a desolate stretch of Route 89. This isolated area was surrounded by swampland and dense forest, with trailers only sporadically placed here and there down the road. Finding help in this area would've been next to impossible.
After this lead came in the Tribal Police and and the BIA searched the area for three days, finding nothing. Right after, Kimberly organized her own search, not willing to let the lead go. She managed to find a tattered grey sweater and a pair of boots with red stains on them. When others at the party on June 5th were asked, they confirmed that this had been the grey sweater Ashley had worn the night she was last seen. The sweater and the boots were both submitted to authorities, as Kimberly has done with every other piece of evidence she's had to recover on her own. They were misplaced before they could be tested for DNA.
It took authorities two solid months to launch a proper investigation into Ashley's disappearance. When they finally did the lead investigator was having a relationship with a prime suspect in the case. They were also leaking information to this suspect as well. Kimberly testified to Congress about her sister's case on December 12, 2018. She stated quite frankly and honestly, "From the very beginning, both the Blackfeet Tribal Law Enforcement and the BIA have ignored the dire situation that Ashley is in and have allowed the investigation to be handled in a dysfunctional manner." She spoke about the sweater and boots she'd recovered on her own and how the evidence was lost before it could be tested.
She seemed to receive the desired outcome, for a time anyway. The evidence found in her first search miraculously resurfaced after her trip to Washington. It was tested for DNA evidence, but the results were never released to the family. They were told that because the investigation was open and active they could not release that information. Though agents from the FBI were assigned to the case, no movement appears to have been made. Loxie says that they stay in contact with the lead agent on the case, aside from holding walks and vigils in Ashley's honor. She always feels as though she could be doing more. The family has also been less than impressed with the handling of the case.
Kimberly has taken on the role of detective in Ashley's case. She chases down leads, talks to whoever is willing to speak with her, treks across treacherous mountain terrain, and even chases off grizzly bears with bear mace as she analyzes bones and digs up fresh mounds of dirt. The family has not given up hope and they will continue to search until Ashley is found. Sometimes Kimberly takes to the mountains alone in search of Ashley. Sometimes she has others to accompany her, and others she just takes her pets along for the company.
She did receive help from a man that knew exactly what she was going through. Lone Bear's sister had gone missing in 2017 as well. He received the same level of urgency on her case. He took matters into his own hands, moving back onto his reservation and building a headquarters for her search group. A donor even purchased a DJI Phantom 3 drone from the group's Amazon wishlist to help in their effort. In the end, Lone Bear's sister was found using sonar equipment. She had been submerged at the bottom of a lake inside her Chevy Silverado less than a mile from her home. Even after his sister was found, Lone Bear was determined to use his donor's gift to help others in their searches.
For three days he helped Kimberly comb the mountains with his drone, following every lead she'd received. They even checked a beaver dam she was said to have been left at, but found nothing. Kimberly still hasn't been discouraged. She continues to search and hold walks and vigils, not just for Ashley, but for all of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that are still out there waiting to be properly investigated.
Another lead came in later, but quickly went cold. A man by the name of Sam McDonald said that he had been with Ashley for days after the party. On June 11th, almost a week later, he drove her to meet another man that went by "V-Dog." His real name is Paul Valenzuela and Ashley's family confirmed that she had been having a romantic relationship with him. "V-Dog" probably wasn't the type of guy that any parent wanted to see their child with. He had prior burglary and weapons convictions, essentially making him every mother's worst nightmare. Apparently Sam McDonald had also spent some time with "V-Dog" before Ashley went missing.
There have been no arrests made or charges filed in Ashley Loring Heavyrunner's case. Kimberly often shares her pictures and her missing persons poster offering a $10,000 reward on Facebook. Her family also holds Ashley's Walk every year in June. The two-day event is meant to not only raise awareness to Ashley's case, but to the cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women all over the US. Her mother, Loxie also takes solace in hanging purple balloons around the community and on the billboard, in honor of her daughter's favorite color. Kimberly is now working with Payne Lindsey, host of the Up and Vanished podcast, to find answers to what happened to her sister.
Ashley is Native American with brown hair and brown eyes. She's 5'2" and 90 pounds, last seen wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Anyone with any information on her whereabouts is urged to call the Browning Police Department at 1-(406)-338-4000, the Salt Lake City FBI at (801)-579-1400, or (800)-CALL-FBI. You can also visit tips.fbi.gov to leave information.
Unfortunately, this kind of inaction in cases of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is all too common. The cases are often under-reported in the news, so many people know nothing about them. Indigenous women and girls of all ages are at an elevated risk of abduction and murder in the US. Their stories should be heard just as much as Gabby Patito's was. They deserve nothing less than the same kind of coverage and dedication to their cases. In the end, Gabby's case did finally shed light on the issue, merely because she was found so quickly while so many others are still missing after so long. Her case was a tragic one that deserves coverage still now to caution young women against toxic cycles in relationships. The Native American women of this country also deserve to be covered every bit as relentlessly as she was, though.