Dawn DeHerrera’s Cold Case, Disparities in Missing and Murdered Indigenous Reporting

Dawn DeHerrera
Dawn DeHerrera, pictured above, may be one of the cold cases that demonstrates some of the unclear reporting in the criminal justice system lawmakers are attempting to remedy with recent bills. / Photo provided by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

Colorado has a new Office of Liaison for Missing or Murdered Indigenous Relatives and lawmakers have introduced a bill this session that would require the new office to conduct case reviews and report certain information. Currently, 14 out of 1,939 Colorado cold cases are victims who were identified as Native American. But this data doesn’t account for all cold case victims who aren’t identified as Native American or who aren’t reported. 

In some cases, like that of Dawn DeHerrera, the victim is reported in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s system as “other race.” And in a Denver Police Department communication, DeHerrera was identified as Hispanic.

But DeHerrera has been identified by unconfirmed family sources as a member of the Navajo Nation, according to a July 2, 2021 post on Justice for Native People. Multiple sources note DeHerrera was a performer of Native American dances and was 37 when she was found murdered in a massage parlor in Denver in 2002. But official records don’t just differ with her reported race, CBI records say DeHerrera died in 2003 and was 31. So why are the official records so different from other sources and each other?

According to Native Hope, only 22% of Native Americans live on tribal lands or reservations, and roughly 60% live in cities that “offer few ties to Native cultures, communities, and tribal law enforcement.”

Native Women’s Wilderness also points out a similar reporting issue. “As of 2016, the National Crime Information Center has reported 5,712 cases of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls,” the NWW website notes. “Strikingly, the U.S Department of Justice missing persons database has only reported 116 cases.” 

The case numbers could be different because of cases like DeHerrera who, among other inconsistencies, isn’t identified in Colorado’s cold case data as Native American. The new MMIR office, which was created in June 2022 by legislation, is intended to “improve the investigation of missing and murdered indigenous relative cases and address injustice in the criminal justice system’s response to the cases of missing and murdered indigenous relative cases,” according to the bill’s summary.

In late November 2022, Arron Julian was named the Office of Liaison director. “What we do is be a liaison between the state law enforcement and community members that are Native that go missing and we provide the resources to help find those individuals across the state and to bridge that gap of any disparities between the Native community and law enforcement,” Julian said in an interview with Law Week.

Law Week reported earlier this month that the 2022 law also included the launch of an alert system for missing Indigenous people that went live Dec. 30, 2022. 

According to the bill summary, the act appropriates $497,250 to the Department of Public Safety to implement the new office, and of that appropriation, $15,982 will be used to provide fleet vehicles for the department.

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