Guy Baker has been having trouble sleeping lately. The 19-year Missoula Police detective assigned to the missing persons case of Jermain Charlo wrestles with the unfamiliar feeling that he's been unable to put all the puzzle pieces together and resolve the case.
He's especially haunted by the video that independently verifies the last time Charlo was seen in public. The footage comes from a surveillance camera in the alley overlooking the back door of the Badlander bar on Ryman Street in downtown Missoula.
In the images recorded around midnight on June 15, 2018, Charlo is seen heading down that alley toward Higgins, not in distress but just like any other untroubled 23-year-old enjoying a summer night in downtown Missoula.
"There's nights when I'm looking at the fan, trying to fall asleep, wondering and thinking about Jermain," he said. "Yes, I never met her, but it feels like I know her and that's why it's kind of chilling seeing that video because she thought it was just another night, another day in her life and tomorrow would come and, you know, she didn't know."
Sunday marks the one-year mark since Charlo, a Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribal member, vanished. Community members and organizations have joined law enforcement agencies in the effort to uncover what happened to her; lawmakers, propelled by stories in the same vein, have put the state's money into new resources for missing persons investigations; family members have almost become public figures as they continue to ring the bell to raise awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, a group disproportionately affected by those crimes.
Baker does know more now about the days leading up to Charlo's disappearance on Father's Day weekend. She was preparing to go to work for the U.S. Forest Service as a wildland firefighter the following week. She was trying to sort things out with the custody of her children while also enjoying a relationship with a new boyfriend.
"There weren't really any complexities," Baker said. "It's interesting as an investigator because we all have a routine: We wake up, brush your teeth, get dressed, whatever. But every day we wake up we assume we'll go to bed that night. You're seeing video of her just before she disappears and she doesn't know that, you know, something bad or sinister is just around the corner."
Valenda Morigeau, Charlo's aunt, started feeling especially unnerved in the following days when Charlo's social media accounts had basically gone dark. At 23, Charlo was a frequent presence on social media. Without having heard from her, or being able to reach her, Morigeau and family blitzed Charlo's social media accounts for friends who might know something.
As that terrible feeling started to creep into the space left in Charlo's absence, all Morigeau, 34, could do was try to stay calm.
"It was a lot of Facebooking," Morigeau said. "You're hoping for the best but trying to prepare yourself for the worst."
She first phoned the Missoula Police Department a few days into the first week of her niece's disappearance, but said she never got a call back after that first contact. So she drove the 50 miles down to Missoula and filled out a hard copy of a missing persons report.
"I understand why families get frustrated," she said, talking about those who have criticized law enforcement responses to missing persons reports, particularly when they come from reservations.
But while she can empathize with those critics, Morigeau counts herself lucky Baker is on the case. And the friction rubs both ways; while the case is based in Missoula, many leads and interviews take Baker to the Flathead Indian Reservation, where he works in concert with tribal police in his search, but has to gain the trust of tribal members.
"I think there's a reluctance to talk to law enforcement on the reservation and there's maybe some mistrust of non-reservation law enforcement such as myself," he said. "But as we make those contacts in many situations we've earned their trust. I make sure to tell them, 'This is not my reservation, this is yours but I'm committed to being 50 miles from where I work to try to help find a resolution to this case, find justice for the family and hold accountable whoever is responsible for what happened to Jermain.'"
Since Baker was assigned the case shortly after it was filed, Morigeau said he has been "very dedicated" and "very honest."
"We've never been left in the dark with him," she said.
That means Morigeau is well aware of the dozens of search warrants executed, leads that went nowhere, 50 or so individuals interviewed and thousands of hours spent on this case to produce a couple of working theories, but no Charlo.
It's still hard, she said, carrying on searching while still holding onto hope that Charlo is alive.
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"But if we give up, then you're pretty much giving up on her and we have to remain hopeful," Morigeau said. "Wherever she is we don't want her to give up and she has to know that we're out there looking for her and we won't stop."
As the search for Charlo unfolded, cases like hers gained ever-more attention. During the past few years, activists, elected officials and the media have paid greater attention to missing persons cases involving Native people. Insufficient information-sharing, jurisdictional gaps among law enforcement agencies, and indifference from police have all been faulted for these disappearances.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are better equipped than many other tribes to address these issues, said tribal policy analyst Jami Pluff. The Flathead Tribal Police have access to the National Criminal Information Center database, meaning that missing persons cases here reach a national audience.
And the Flathead Indian Reservation is the only one in Montana covered by Public Law 280. That means tribal police share jurisdiction with local police, rather than having to rely on the Bureau of Indian Affairs and FBI.
During the search for Charlo, Pluff said tribal police have had an excellent working relationship with Detective Baker’s team. “We are extremely lucky,” Pluff said.
Charlo’s disappearance nonetheless prompted the tribes to make improvements. It started in October, Pluff said, when Charlo’s family came to Tribal Council seeking financial help for the search.
“That was when council said, ‘Well, we don’t just want to give money. How can we help in this broader issue so we don’t have another Jermain down the road?’”
Within a few months, the tribes had established a working group on the issue. Pluff has led the effort. ““There’s a lot of things that we’ve done” already, she said.
In the past few months, they’ve circulated a response protocol for tribal members to follow when someone goes missing, and hosted a conference on the issue in Polson. It featured Annita Lucchesi, a Southern Cheyenne researcher who has been building a database of Native missing persons cases, along with other leaders on the issue. Law enforcement also trained employees of the tribally owned KwaTaqNuk Resort and Gray Wolf Casino to spot signs of sex trafficking.
One bill passed by this year’s Legislature, the Looping in Native Communities Act, created the Missing Indigenous Persons Task Force to work on the issue. It includes representatives from state agencies, Montana’s seven reservations and the Little Shell Chippewa Tribe, which has state but not federal recognition. The task force had its first meeting in Helena last week, and is currently focused on improving communication between law enforcement agencies.
And tribal members, she said, are more vigilant than ever. “I do really believe that it is making people more aware about safety measures."
Their awareness paid off in April, when five teenage girls ran away — allegedly because of a social media challenge. Their parents quickly alerted one another and police, and the girls were found in a matter of hours.
Pluff plans to focus on youth outreach and runaways in the months ahead. “I think that social services in that area needs to find out how do we engage these kids, so that is part of it as well.”
She said the tribes are also working to create an anonymous tip line. “One of the things that was told to us … was that sometimes people are fearful or don’t want to talk to the police, but they have information.”
Pluff thinks that’s true in Jermain’s case. “I think somebody knows something, and what’s it going to take for them to come forward?"
Last month, the Tribal Council recently increased the reward money for information on Charlo from $1,000 to $10,000 in hopes that amount will spur someone to question their loyalties and share information on Charlo's disappearance.
But back in Missoula, 50 miles away from the Flathead reservation, Baker still has trouble sleeping.
Those with information on Charlo's whereabouts should contact Missoula Police Detective Guy Baker at 406-396-3217.