Alyssa McLemore’s family had no idea she had gone missing under suspicious circumstances until Kent police showed up at her grandmother’s house. They said they had received a 911 call from the young woman, who asked for help before her phone went dead.
The 911 call came in at 9:15 p.m. on April 9, 2009.
McLemore’s mother died three days later.
In the decade since McLemore disappeared, her aunt, Tina Russell, has led her family’s efforts to find out what happened to the bold, vivacious 21-year-old who loved dancing and roller-skating and regularly dyed her black hair blonde.
Until last year, it had become an increasingly lonely search as interest in the missing-person case waned. But in January 2018, Russell got a social-media message from a grass-roots activist involved in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) movement. She has since found new strength through shared heartbreak.
“Dead or alive, my family needs to bring her home,” Russell said of her niece, who would now be 31. “I have a feeling in my spirit something is going to happen.”
McLemore, who is of mixed Aleut and African American heritage, is among the unnumbered Native women and girls who have gone missing or been found violently killed in Canada and the U.S. over the past two centuries.
The MMIW movement began with First Nations in Canada, prompting a Royal Canadian Mounted Police study in 2013 and later compelling the Canadian government to initiate a national inquiry in 2016. A final report is due at the end of this month. The movement spilled into the U.S., and the Washington Legislature passed legislation last spring that requires the Washington State Patrol to compile data and analysis of missing Native American women in the state by June.
State lawmakers, in directing the State Patrol to study the issue, found Native women face murder rates 10 times the national average, but noted cases often go unreported and unsolved “because there are also very high rates of disappearance among Native American women.”
Last fall, State Patrol Capt. Monica Alexander hosted eight meetings across the state with members of various Native communities. One meeting in Yakima drew more than 300 people. Alexander, who is working on the report to the Legislature, sent out a call to the 332 law-enforcement agencies in Washington two weeks ago, asking police departments to provide her with the number of open cases they have involving missing Native American women.
So far, she’s heard back from 13 of them. The Seattle Police Department reported three cases — two from 1979 and one from 1988.
“I was so shocked. That can’t be right,” Alexander said. “We need to know how many are missing and what we’re doing about it.”
A bill now making its way through the Legislature would appropriate $545,000 over the next two years to hire two Native American liaisons charged with building bridges among the state’s 29 tribes, urban Natives and law enforcement and improving data collection, Alexander said.
“People are paying attention to the fact there are a lot of missing Native American women around the country,” she said. “I can’t think of one person in my life who would just disappear. A lot of these people have several someones because they’re so connected, they’re so close.”
Russell and her younger sister Gracie, Alyssa’s mom, grew up surrounded by domestic violence, alcoholism and trauma. Gracie McLemore got pregnant at 14 and gave birth on July 23, 1987. Russell, then 16, gave birth to her own daughter that December.
Russell raised both girls with the help of their grandmother, Barbara McLemore, who worked to cover the family’s bills. Years later, Gracie earned her GED and attended Renton Community College before falling ill with autoimmune disorders. Alyssa McLemore later cared for her ailing mother while raising her own daughter.
Gracie McLemore was 35 when she died on April 12, 2009. Her missing daughter didn’t get to say goodbye and wasn’t at the funeral.
On Sunday, the tightknit McLemore family will host a vigil for Alyssa, the mother of a now 12-year-old girl, from 1 to 4 p.m. in Kent’s Morrill Meadows Park, at 10600 S.E. 248th St. Rain or shine, there will be food, prayers, singing and drumming. The family suggests bringing umbrellas and lawn chairs.
“Love and consideration”
In the years since her niece went missing, Russell has made countless calls to medical examiners and coroners from Bellingham to Portland whenever she’s heard news reports of bodies being found. She and her family have organized searches of ravines and parks and handed out flyers seeking information about Alyssa at monster-truck rallies, state fairs and grocery stores. Several relatives provided DNA samples to police in the event remains are discovered.
Last year, Russell received a Facebook message from Roxanne White, a member of the Yakama Nation who now lives in Seattle. White invited the family to attend the city’s 2018 Women’s March.
At the event, Russell was ushered onto the stage at Cal Anderson Park — and was given her first opportunity to publicly speak about Alyssa’s disappearance. She and six family members then led the march to Seattle Center, sparking Russell’s involvement in the local MMIW movement.
“We were never shown that much love and consideration for what we were going through, we never talked about it publicly,” Russell said of the experience and her introduction to local Native activists, who prayed over the family and gifted them with sage and tobacco.
“We’ve been through a lot in a year. I’ve watched her grow so much,” White said of Russell. “The first time I met her, she was so quiet. You give her a mic and you could barely hear her.”
This past January, Russell joined White and other members of a Seattle delegation who traveled to Washington, D.C., for the 2019 Women’s March.
“She spoke very clearly and was very articulate (in speaking about) her family’s trials in their search for Alyssa,” said White, whose cousin, Rosenda Strong, went missing in the Toppenish area in October.
Both women criticized the Kent Police Department for failing to communicate with the McLemore family as the search for Alyssa has dragged on.
Assistant Kent Police Chief Jarod Kasner acknowledged his department needs to do better.
“In Alyssa’s case, there’s limited evidence, limited information. It’s kind of at a standstill. But it’s not that we’ve forgot about it,” he said.
Instead, Kasner said a lack of communication is more about detectives juggling multiple cases while not wanting to divulge information to a family that could jeopardize a criminal investigation.
“We want to make sure we confirm information before we release it and that takes time. Our communication could be better in how we explain that to people,” he said.
Her last call
Kent police Detective Brendan Wales was a patrol officer when Alyssa McLemore was first reported missing and helped follow up initial leads into her disappearance. Later promoted to detective, he inherited McLemore’s “cold case” in 2012.
He keeps a recording of her 911 call on a CD in his work vehicle and listens to it over and over in hopes he’ll hear something new.
McLemore’s cellphone provider has long since purged her records, but Wales recently submitted call data from her phone to the FBI in hopes technological advances would yield new leads. Nothing came of it, he said.
Several hours before McLemore called 911 in April 2009, a witness reported seeing her near Kent Des Moines Road and Pacific Highway South, a “very well-known area” where women involved in prostitution have long walked the track to attract sex buyers, Wales said.
Court records show McLemore was arrested four times, once in Burien and three times in Kent, for prostitution and prostitution-related offenses between September 2008 and February 2009.
The general area where McLemore was last seen was where Green River Killer Gary L. Ridgway picked up several of his victims and disposed of some of their bodies before his arrest in 2004, according to Wales and news reports.
Like Ridgway’s victims, women involved in street prostitution are especially vulnerable to robberies, sexual assaults and homicides, Wales said.
“Until she’s found alive, we’re treating her as a missing person and potential homicide victim,” he said of McLemore.
Wales said McLemore was misidentified as Asian in an early arrest report, but he’s since changed her race to Native American in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database. He’s also become aware of the MMIW movement and is hopeful the 10-year anniversary of McLemore’s disappearance will lead witnesses — who may have been too scared or reluctant to contact police a decade ago — to come forward with new information that could help solve the case.
“I believe she can be found. Her family is looking for her and from what I’ve gleaned, there’s information out there about Alyssa,” Wales said.
Anyone with information about Alyssa McLemore is asked to call the Kent Police Department’s tip line at 253-856-5808.
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.