Of all the US states, by far Montana has the highest rate of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Cases of these women are too often overlooked. Not only by the investigators paid to serve and protect, but also by the media that doesn't report these cases nearly enough. When they do, they typically paint these women and young girls in a negative light. This nation's First People have been failed by the American government too many times. Is there any wonder that they don't trust the White men and women that run this country?
Kaysera Stops Pretty Places was a member of the Crow Nation. At only 18-years-old, she still had her entire life ahead of her. She'd been raised on the Crow reservation by her grandparents with plenty of help from her aunt, Dr. Grace Bulltail. Grace saw this beautiful, young girl as her own daughter as she aided in her care throughout her life. She will always remember her niece as a kind, compassionate young woman. Despite the struggles she faced growing up on the reservation, she seemed to still have an undeniable light within her soul that refused to be extinguished.
Kaysera was last seen in the small town of Hardin, Montana on the night of August 24, 2019, according to Montana Right Now. Her family wasn't aware in the five days that she was missing that anything was amiss. She had gone to hang out with some friends that night on Rangeview Drive. There was one friend in particular living on Rangeview that was known to buy alcohol for her. According to KULR's reporting of this case, that person's home was in close proximity to the location that Kaysera was later found.
A report on her case released publicly almost two years after her death by Big Horn County Attorney Jay Harris gave a small peek into the final moments she was known to be alive. Kaysera was last seen with two others girls, one aged 17, the other 19. They were hanging out in front of a residence on Rangeview Drive with a 23-year-old man when an argument broke out among the four of them. The report states that the four witnesses statements taken that night weren't consistent, but they did manage to provide a general outline of the events leading up to the argument. The exchange between the four became so heated that a neighbor finally activated the lights and horn on his vehicle. This caused the group to disperse, running off in different directions. Kaysera was last seen running into the backyard that she would be discovered in just five days later.
On August 29, 2019, a jogger ran across Kaysera's body, lying face down behind a pile of tree trimmings. She was discovered right inside the backyard of a home located on Mitchell Avenue and Rangeview Drive, not far from the friend's home that used to buy her alcohol. Her body was immediately taken for autopsy at the request of the Sheriff's and Coroner's Office. The Montana State Crime Lab in Billings was responsible for handing the autopsy. Kaysera was identified through her dental records, for lack of other means to do so. For absolutely no good reason whatsoever, her family wasn't notified of her death until September 11, two weeks after her remains were found.
Between August 30-September 19, 2019, there was nothing being done to investigate Kaysera's mysterious death. From day one, her family has acted as their own advocates, pushing to have her case solved. Finally, on October 1, KTVQ reports that County Attorney Jay Harris called to establish a Missing and Murdered Persons Task Force working under state jurisdiction in the county. Their goal is to address the outrageous amount of "suspicious deaths or suspected homicides." This finally lit a fire to investigate Kaysera's case, but the report looked more like a deep dive into her personal background, rather than her strange death.
Investigators took a look at her school records from Hardin High School. They took note of one particular incident. Just months before her death, in April 2019, she'd been discovered unresponsive at school due to a high level of alcohol intoxication. She was sent to the Emergency room to receive treatment. A look into her medical records also revealed that she'd been treated for asthma. It was also found that Kaysera had been entered as a missing person by the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services on July 5, 2019, almost two months before her remains were discovered. She was quickly found alive and well by her Court-appointed guardian on July 7, in Billings, Montana. She was then removed from the list of missing persons as she was no longer missing.
On December 6, 2019, the findings of Kaysera's autopsy were made public. KULR printed an excerpt from her autopsy that stated: "Autopsy revealed no evidence of injury or natural disease. Toxicology testing of blood detected the presence of ethanol. Although no neck injuries were detected at autopsy, an asphyxia cause of death cannot be excluded. At this time, the cause and manner of death are classified as undetermined." Dr. Grace Bulltail points out to NBC Dateline that if a cause of death by asphyxia cannot be ruled out, then asphyxia by assault cannot be ruled out either.
The medical examiner found her blood alcohol to be 0.149 at the time of her death. This would've caused significant impairment of physical and mental control, a complete lack of motor skills, and blurred vision along with slurred speech. According to KTVQ, the amount of alcohol in her system at the time of her death was "comparable" to the amount in her system the day she was taken to the Emergency room. No foreign DNA was found anywhere on her body or underneath her fingernails. The report of her investigation also states that an independent review of the fly larva present was comparable with her time of death being around the same time she was last known to be alive.
In 2020 her case was handed off to a cold case unit manned by former federal agents. Most cases aren't passed over to cold case units only a year into their investigations. KULR wrote in their article that the efforts towards solving Kaysera's case were limited due to the pandemic. The report on this leg of the investigation says, "only a review of evidence and no additional investigative efforts were conducted due to the COVID-19 public health emergency." To the family, this likely just seemed like another excuse.
The County Attorney accepted an offer to join the still active investigation in July 2021. This offer came directly from the United States Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services Missing and Murdered Unit. Kaysera's Aunt Grace tells Dateline that before the public release of the report, she had no idea that MMU had become involved in the case. She said to Dateline, "If this means we're getting some help, then that's great, but we just have to wait and see. This report doesn't change the way we've been treated by Big Horn County. But we're just going to continue doing what we've been doing and advocating for ourselves."
Montana Right Now spoke with members of Kaysera's family, who expressed their frustration at the lack of investigation in her case. Kaysera's grandmother, Yolanda Fraser, told the podcasters, "She didn't die in that spot. She was placed there." Her aunt told the show, "The medical examiner, he spoke to me. He told me what he could about his involvement with the case. He told me that he believes that the cause of death was asphyxiation through strangulation by assault." Almost four years later, her family has not given up their fight or their hope.
According to NBC News, the grief-stricken family has worked non-stop to find answers and get justice for what they deeply believe to be their loved one's murder. They've held rallies, vigils, calls to action, spoken on panels, and even called on federal leaders to step in. They do all of this, all the while saying Kaysera's name so that it does not fade from the public's memory. Grace Bulltail told Dateline in 2021, "This is the third year we've held calls to action demanding justice for Kaysera. Our family has had to advocate for ourselves each step of the way. And we're still fighting to hold law enforcement accountable to investigate her murder." The public report on Kaysera's case only left the family with more questions about her death and about what police were really doing to solve it. The investigation looks like it focuses more on her background than on what actually happened to her.
After growing up and helping to raise her niece on the Crow reservation, Dr. Grace Bulltail moved to Wisconsin. She is now an assistant professor at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After living both on and off the reservation, Grace can tell you a thing or two about the differences between the two and the struggles of reservation life. She told NBC Dateline all about the different kind of world Big Horn County is in comparison to other areas in the nation. She said, "If something happens to you there, if something happens to your loved one, you're on your own. If the families of these women never spoke out, no one would hear their stories. No one would fight for them. It's up to us to be their voice."
The family's attorney, Mary Kathryn Nagle, said that Kaysera's case is just one among many, many more being overlooked. She stated, "No family should have to wait this long. Her murder isn't being investigated not because there are no suspects or because there hasn't been any evidence. Instead, her murder isn't being investigated because as Americans, we have failed to hold our elected and appointed government officials responsible for their abdication of their own duties and responsibilities."
Grace reminds the public in her Dateline interview, "This keeps happening to our people, over and over. Nothing is going to change unless we speak up, unless we keep fighting. It's draining, emotionally and physically. But we can't give up. We have to keep saying Keysera's name. All their names. They won't be forgotten."
Kaysera's family encourages everyone to send letters to the eleceted and appointed leaders, both in Montana and the US government. Details on how you can help can be found on their Facebook page, Justice for Kaysera, and also by searching the hashtag #JusticeforKaysera. A petition was started to help raise awareness, not only for Kaysera, but for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women all over the country. Anyone with information is urged to call the Missoula County Sheriff's Office Cold Case Unit at (406) 258-4810. Tips can also, and probably should be sent to the family's attorney at http://www.pipestemlaw.com/Kaysera-stops-pretty-places/.
The death of Kaysera Stops Pretty Places is mysterious and tragic. Had more been done in the beginning we might know today what really happened to her. Unfortunately, the young woman with the best years of her life ahead of her became another statistic in the MMIW epidemic. Her untimely death has been called a conspiracy, with some wondering if maybe a cover-up could've occurred. The lackadaisical investigation into the girl's death does not do much to help their case in the forming of this theory. Hopefully her family will one day receive answers about how they lost such a beautiful, kind, compassionate young woman. Until then, they will continue to fight for her cause, and others just like her.