UPDATE: Inside the disturbing investigation of Mika Westwolf's death
In the early hours of March 31, Mika Westwolf, a 22-year-old Indigenous woman, was fatally struck by a Cadillac Escalade while walking on the shoulder of U.S. Highway 93 in Montana. The driver of the vehicle was Sunny White, according to a statement from the Montana Highway Patrol, which is investigating the incident. White left the scene, and Westwolf's body was discovered around 4 AM by tribal police. Two months later, the Montana Highway Patrol says the "crash is still under investigation," and White has not yet been charged in connection with Westwolf's death.
The Montana Highway Patrol maintains that its investigation is "thorough and professional" and "examined by troopers with specialized training and equipment." But Popular Information has learned from Westwolf's family and Erica Shelby, the family's legal advocate, that the Montana Highway Patrol investigation is beset with problems. It is under-resourced, haphazard, and focused on pinning blame on the victim, Westwolf.
The lead investigator in the case is Trooper Wayne Bieber. On April 21, Bieber visited Westwolf's mother, Clarissa HeavyRunner, and Westwolf's stepfather, Kevin Howard, at their home. Shelby took notes.
During the visit, which occurred nearly three weeks after Westwolf's death, Bieber appeared unfamiliar with the basic facts of the case. Bieber repeatedly told the family that White had been charged with vehicular homicide on the day of Westwolf's death. That is false. Records maintained by the Lake County Justice Court show White was charged with child endangerment. (White's two young children were in the car when she struck Westwolf.) Those charges against White were dropped by Lake County Attorney James Lapotka a week later.
At one point, Howard asked Bieber why the charges against White had been dropped. According to Shelby's notes, Bieber responded that, under "Montana law, if you are intoxicated, you are not allowed to be [walking] on the road. You cannot even be on the shoulder." Whether or not Westwolf was intoxicated, according to Bieber, will factor into his determination of "the totality of the crash." On numerous occasions, Bieber encouraged the family to look up the law on "vehicular homicide" in the Montana criminal code.
At the time of the meeting, the toxicology analysis of Westwolf had not been completed. So Bieber appears to indicate that the charges against White were dropped based on the assumption that Westwolf was intoxicated. Lapotka did not respond to a request for comment.
Bieber is correct that Montana law prohibits walking on the shoulder of a highway while intoxicated. But his suggestion that, if Westwolf was intoxicated, White could not be charged with vehicular homicide is incorrect, according to Chuck Watson, a Montana criminal defense attorney with 38 years of experience. Watson told Popular Information that being an "intoxicated pedestrian" does not give "other intoxicated people the right to run over someone and kill them."
Howard also asked Bieber whether he was investigating Westwolf's death as an intentional hate crime, motivated by white nationalism. Bieber asked why Howard thought that was possible. HeavyRunner noted that White named her children "Aryan" and "Nation." Bieber described this as irrelevant. "I can't tell you how to name your child," he said. Howard countered that if you name your children "Aryan" and "Nation," there is a good chance you are associated with white nationalist groups. "I can't look at it as that," Bieber said. "And I shouldn't look at it as that."
Bieber is correct insofar as naming your children "Aryan" and "Nation" does not prove you are a white nationalist, but it is a fact that warrants additional investigation, including whether Westwolf's death was a hate crime. It does not appear, however, that White's potential ties to extremist groups are currently part of Bieber's investigation.
Bieber also acknowledged that, three weeks after Westwolf's death, he had not collected key evidence in the case, including surveillance video from businesses along the highway where Westwolf walked. He explained that there were "always multiple things going on at once." Shelby offered to help gather the video from the businesses before the tape from the night of March 31 was deleted. Bieber said he welcomed the assistance, but Shelby found most businesses will not release video without a subpoena. According to Shelby, no such subpoenas have been issued by the Montana Highway Patrol.
In response to a request for comment, The Montana Highway Patrol provided the following statement: "In coordination with state and federal law enforcement partners, this crash remains under active investigation. When the full investigation is complete, the report will be provided to the Lake County Attorney. The Lake County Attorney’s Office will make its charging decision in this case based on the full facts as determined by the law enforcement investigation that is currently underway. An official summary of the crash will be released upon completion of the investigation."
A neglected crisis
Native women living on reservations face a murder rate that is nearly ten times the national average. Sadly, the issues with the investigation of Westwolf's death are not uncommon.
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA (MMIWUSA), an advocacy group, told Popular Information that "harmful stereotypes about native people historically have been related to alcohol abuse and other substance abuse issues." MMIWUSA said it has been involved in many cases where "addiction or inebriation was used by the media or by the criminal justice system to blame the victim." Further, the organization stressed that whether Westwolf "was intoxicated or not… she DID NOT deserve to die" and "her killer should be held accountable for their actions… regardless of whether Mika was intoxicated."
According to MMIWUSA, "Montana law enforcement continually botches MMIW investigations and the investigations of crimes against natives in general." In Westwolf's case, the dismissal of the suspect's ties to white nationalists by the lead investigator is "a sign of poor investigative ability" and potentially an indication of "racial bias from the investigator."
In a 2021 interview with PBS, Abigail Echo-Hawk, the chief research officer for the Seattle Indian Health Board, also maintained that "prejudices and stereotypes against [I]ndigenous peoples" hinder investigations. Echo-Hawk explained that when an Indigenous person is murdered, the first question law enforcement asks is whether she was "drinking" or involved in "sex work." According to Echo-Hawk, law enforcement places "the blame of our victimization on our community, instead of looking at, why are we being targeted and why are we being victimized at such high rates."
Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD), who convened a 2022 hearing on missing and murdered Indigenous women, noted that the media was also complicit. "The neglect shown by the media toward cases involving missing and murdered women of color is a primary reason that this epidemic remains obscure to the public," Raskin said.
Friends, family, and community members seeking justice for Westwolf "will be hosting an awareness walk across the Flathead Indian Reservation, June 13th-16th." The event "aims to bring attention to recent hit-and-run and death victims along the highway and the flaws in the systemic response to such cases."