The unsolved rape and strangulation of Rita DiSangh had shadowed this tiny reservation west of Bellingham for two decades. Then last week federal...
LUMMI INDIAN RESERVATION — The unsolved rape and strangulation of Rita DiSangh had shadowed this tiny reservation west of Bellingham for two decades. Then last week federal prosecutors charged Henry Keeler Redlightning, a Lummi tribal member, with her 1987 killing.
But now a new darkness has crept in. This week, the FBI confirmed that its investigation has expanded to include the possibility that a serial killer has been at work. They say they are trying to determine whether Redlightning, a 58-year-old Vietnam vet, former tribal cop and convicted rapist, may also be responsible for as many as six other killings and disappearances, both here on tribal land and in surrounding Whatcom County, dating back as far as the early 1970s.
The news has the reservation buzzing with rumors — and plenty of painful memories. But mostly, tribal members say they are hoping it finally brings some answers.
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“It’s about breaking through denial, and breaking through to the truth,” said Juanita Jefferson, the tribe’s archivist. “This is something that hasn’t been known about for more than 20 years, and a lot of stories have been told.”
Expanding the probe
Last week, Redlightning was charged in U.S. District Court in Seattle with the Aug. 8, 1987, slaying of DiSangh, 40. According to court papers, Redlightning first met the woman at a Bellingham bar and later at a Lummi beach party. He allegedly offered her a ride home but took her instead to a vacant lot, where he raped her, strangled her, then left her body in a slough of the Nooksack River. It was found the next day.
The slaying went unsolved until last month, when an informant led agents to Redlightning. Court documents indicate that Redlightning has talked to FBI agents about the DiSangh slaying.
FBI Special Agent Robbie Burroughs in Seattle said Wednesday that the expanding probe is a “logical step,” given the details of the DiSangh slaying and Redlightning’s violent past.
Described as a volatile and troubled Vietnam War veteran, the one-time Lummi police officer served five years in prison for a 1990 rape and assault. In 1996, he was convicted of failing to register as a sex offender. He also has been convicted of assault and alcohol and driving offenses.
He faces a possible federal death penalty if convicted in the DiSangh case.
Federal authorities won’t say whether Redlightning is talking to investigators about other unsolved cases. Emilie Langlie, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle, said the expanded investigation is due diligence.
Prosecutors and federal agents are treating Redlightning as they would “any defendant … when there are other crimes that have a similar modus operandi,” she said.
Redlightning is being held without bail in the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac. His attorney in the case couldn’t be reached to comment Wednesday.
In Whatcom County, Sgt. Kevin McFadden of the county sheriff’s office said there are five unsolved disappearances or homicides. One of those is the unsolved 1989 slaying of 18-year-old Mandy Stavik, whose body was also found in the Nooksack River.
At Lummi, a shudder has seemed to run through the community. DiSangh’s killing has never been completely forgotten. And this is a place where other murders and disappearances still fester with no answers.
Tribal member Howard Garcia still fishes the Nooksack River, where in 1987 he discovered DiSangh’s body.
“There have been a lot of unsolved mysteries out here no one ever got to the bottom of, you just never hear anything,” Garcia said Wednesday as he put his fishing boat in the river.
Garcia said he knew Redlightning. “I stay away from him,” Garcia said.
Since Redlightning’s arrest, other deaths are being rethought: A woman who was run over by a car. A woman whose body was found hanging from a tree.
But people especially talk about the slaying of Carol Greene, a 35-year-old Lummi tribal member and former high-school counselor. Her 1983 killing is still mourned here — and unsolved.
That December night, Greene told family she was going to meet some friends at a party, and then later went to a bar. Her body was found the next spring in the Red River on the reservation.
Margaret Greene, 85, grew grave Wednesday as she recalled her daughter-in-law’s death as if it were yesterday, and the toll it took on her family. Both she and her son, Richard — Carol’s husband — were questioned in the murder, she said.
“When that happened, our family fell apart,” Greene said. “We didn’t dare gather.
“I’ll be walking with my son and it’s, ‘There goes that killer.’ My son is still interrogated today about his wife,” Greene said. “I hope this will open up, so we older people can sleep. I want this cleared up for the sake of my son.”
For Juanita Jefferson, the tribal archivist, the community can’t heal until it knows the truth.
“That’s what hurts, knowing some people have suffered 19, 20 years, being regarded as suspects,” Jefferson said. “People don’t want to choose sides because they don’t really know, but the imagination can’t help but start working at suggestions.”
Jefferson and others said Redlightning lived in Bellingham and only occasionally visited the reservation. They said he kept to himself and didn’t come to traditional gatherings on the reservation or other community events. Jefferson, though, said she remembered going with him to a movie about Vietnam. “You could just see his pain,” she said.
Tribal member Danita Washington, a lifelong reservation resident, said she had lived with Carol Greene during her final years of high school. When Greene went missing, Washington helped search for her.
The charges against Redlightning have made this community buzz in a way she hasn’t heard since Greene’s killing.
“This is a place where we have open caskets,” Washington said. “People want to witness death, to know that it has happened and understand it. We want to see them, we want to know.
“These are questions we are left with and we are still living with them because we can’t seem to come to resolution.”
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