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Mika Westwolf matters
In the early morning of March 31, Mika Westwolf, a 22-year-old Indigenous woman, was walking on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 93, which passes through the Flathead reservation in Montana. Westwolf was struck by a Cadillac Escalade and declared dead at the scene. The driver of the vehicle, Sunny White, is an alleged white nationalist — leading some members of the community to believe that Westwolf's death was a hate crime.
Westwolf was "an enrolled member of the Blackfeet tribe," according to a website created by her family and friends. She excelled at basketball, enjoyed the outdoors, and "won awards with her poetry and videography." Westwolf "was one of [four] Blackfeet tribal members who were picked to attend an Indigenous Cultural Exchange with the Sherpa people of Nepal."
Erica Shelby, a tribal lawyer who is serving as a legal advocate for Westwolf's family, told Popular Information that Westwolf was walking home from a bar, 4-Star, where she believed she had left her cell phone. Sadly, the walk was unnecessary. Her phone had actually slipped underneath the seat of her brother's truck.
According to court records, 28-year-old Sunny White was behind the wheel of the Escalade, and her two young children were in the backseat. White was charged that day in the Lake County Justice Court with two counts of criminal child endangerment, the court clerk told Popular Information. But on April 6, Lake County Attorney James Lapotka dropped the charges, and White was released. The charges were dropped "without prejudice," which means they could be refiled.
According to criminal records obtained by Popular Information, on April 7 at 1:15 AM, shortly after being released from jail, White requested a "civil escort" to retrieve her children from their father's house. White said the father of the two children, John Holmes, was "not a fit parent." She told the police, "she was afraid to go to John's house without a civil standby and… the children were afraid of John."
Notably, White's two children are named "Aryan," a four-year-old girl, and "Nation," a two-year-old boy. The Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN) was told by Flatwood community members that White is a white nationalist. MHRN asserts that the names of the two children lend "credibility" to these reports. The group has urged prosecutors "to pursue hate crimes charges if they apply."
The police officer dispatched to speak with White, John Miller, was "aware of Sunny being in jail for an incident where someone was killed on the road, and Sunny was driving a vehicle that was involved." White "explained to Officer Miller that the charges were dropped due to her blood results being negative." Lapotka told Popular Information White's claim was false because he has not yet received White's bloodwork from the state crime lab.
Miller told White that he would not act as a "civil standby" at 1:30 AM and, even if it was an appropriate time, police "do not remove children from a house." He advised White to return in the morning, and they could coordinate with the Montana Child and Family Services Division (FSD).
A few minutes later, a woman driving a truck belonging to White's sister arrived at the home of John Holmes, kicked in a door, and took the two children, who were sleeping on the couch. A Missing Endangered Person Advisory was issued for the two children. According to the advisory, White was "known to abuse drugs," and there was a "concern for the children’s wellbeing." The children were eventually located and placed into the custody of the FSD.
White was charged on April 28 with burglary, parenting interference, and criminal mischief.
White was released on a $50,000 bond. According to attorney Aaron Rains, who is prosecuting White on the burglary charge, her bond was revoked after White was arrested for theft on April 26. But Rains says White was re-released in short order, again on a $50,000 bond. A trial date for the burglary and related charges has not been set.
White is not currently facing any charges related to Westwolf's death.
Will anyone be charged for killing Westwolf?
In an interview with Popular Information, Lapotka said he dropped the charges against White because he needed "more time" to collect evidence. He said the decision to drop charges in these circumstances, at least temporarily, is something "that happens." Lapotka said he was waiting for the results of a search warrant for White's phone, White's toxicology report, and the report of the Montana Highway Patrol, which is in charge of the investigation.
But Lapotka said he is also waiting for the toxicology report for Westwolf and a search warrant that has been executed on Westwolf's phone. Asked what kind of evidence he was seeking, Lapotka declined to comment.
Shelby says that Westwolf's family believes prosecutors are treating Westwolf more like a suspect than a victim. "Once they found out that she was a young Indian woman, and it was late at night, early in the morning, they started investigating whether or not she was drinking or doing drugs," Shelby said. "Then they started investigating if she was suicidal." According to Shelby, once local investigators learn that there is "an Indian victim, they try to victim blame right away… It becomes about criminalizing them."
An investigator visited Westwolf's family about four weeks ago. According to Shelby, much of the discussion centered around Westwolf's 19-year-old brother, who was with Westwolf earlier that night. Police wanted to question the brother and search his phone. The family declined in the absence of an attorney or a search warrant. Shelby says that it is uncontested that Westwolf's brother was at home at the time of her death. Shelby has also said that authorities have refused to disclose basic information about the case to the family, including the video from body cams and the crash report.
Shelby said she has spoken to Lapotka numerous times, and he told her that "it's not looking like there will be any charges pressed," describing Westwolf's death as "a terrible accident." Lapotka told Popular Information that he "never said that to Erica or anyone else," adding that he "can’t make a charging decision until I have a completed investigation from the Montana Highway Patrol." Shelby said that Lapotka's attitude shifted somewhat after the case received some attention from local media.
Mika Westwolf's missing media coverage
The woman who ran over Westwolf has been identified, and there is evidence it is potentially a hate crime. Nevertheless, Westwolf's death has received no media attention outside of Montana. Westwolf's death has been the subject of two articles in the Missoulian and a handful of other reports from Montana outlets. The dearth of coverage is typical in cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women.
Murder is the "third leading cause of death among Native girls & women aged 10 to 24," according to a 2015 report from the CDC. Overall, Native women face a murder rate that is nearly ten times the national average. Last March, the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a hearing on “The Neglected Epidemic of Missing BIPOC Women and Girls.”
A study of nearby Wyoming found that "local and state media covered only 18 percent of cases of Indigenous women murdered in the state between 2000 and 2019." In contrast, 51% of murders of white women received local and state coverage. When Gabby Petito, a young blonde woman, went missing in Wyoming in 2021, her story was "mentioned 398 times on Fox News, 346 times on CNN and 100 times on MSNBC."
In the 53 days since Westwolf's death, her name has not been mentioned once on cable news.