YAKAMA NATION — Alillia “Lala” Minthorn was a daughter, a friend and a sister: big-hearted, a caretaker to everyone and altogether curious.
“You knew she was wondering,” Lala’s younger sister Tanya Miller told KVEW-TV. “Just over there in her own world just singing ‘Lalalalala’ … That’s why she has that name.”
On the last day Tanya saw her 25-year-old sister alive, she was having a ceremony at her home, as a mother who had lost a child in a miscarriage. Lala had been gone all day and Tanya was worried, calling around for her and wondering where she was.
Then Lala showed up in her kitchen, fingers covering Tanya’s eyes as she came up behind her to say hello, but Tanya says she could feel that something wasn’t right.
“That day, it felt different; it felt off,” Tanya said. “But I was already off and different that day myself.”
Wrapped up in memories and trying to let go, Tanya didn’t follow Lala out the door like she usually did. She didn’t see whose car Lala was getting into, didn’t ask them to bring her home by a certain time, didn’t know where they were headed.
Before she left, Tanya says Lala told her she had something to take care of.
“‘If I don’t make it back, come look for me,'” Tanya said, “Those were the last words that my sister told me.”
Police say on May 3, Lala got into a car with 29-year-old Jordan Everett Stevens and two others; they drove her to the hills north of Brownstown, a small unincorporated community between White Swan and Wapato.
Witnesses told police that’s when Stevens took Lala out of the car, shot her and left her for dead. Stevens and the others allegedly came back to the scene later to dispose of evidence.
“I know my sister did not deserve this,” Tanya said. “Nobody’s family member deserves this.”
Tanya said Lala had been through her share of tough times and made mistakes in her life, but that she had a big heart and was always there for her family and friends.
“She was there in the rough times and in the dark times when nobody else wanted to be,” Tanya said. “And she never left until you were OK.”
Lala’s body was found May 29 in a remote location on the Yakama Nation Reservation. Within two months, federal investigators arrested Stevens and charged him with first-degree murder.
But it would be another month after that before Tanya knew that her sister had been found, that she was dead or that her alleged killer was behind bars. During that time, she continued to search anywhere and everywhere her sister may have been.
“I tried to work the hardest I could to believe that I was going to find her and that she was going to still be here … and she’s not,” Tanya said. “She didn’t even get to say goodbye.”
When a body is found and identified, authorities notify next of kin —the person’s closest living relative. Oftentimes it’s a parent or a spouse.
If that person doesn’t pick up the phone or answer the door, they go to the next-closest relative. But once they’ve reached one person, that person is expected to reach out to the rest of the family.
In this case, the relative who was notified by the FBI kept the rest of the family in the dark.
“Yeah, next of kin was next of kin, but she mattered to me too,” Tanya said. “I loved her too. I was looking for her too.”
Tanya said she wishes the FBI and anyone else who knew would have gone further, beyond the next-of-kin policy and reached out to her. She said she was vocal about her search and that someone should have realized she didn’t know.
“I feel like we’re barely at the beginning,” Tanya said. “We’re not even to the peak of this.”
The waiting and the watching and the constant wondering in a situation like this is unfortunately familiar for many Yakama Nation families.
Earlier this year, Washington State Patrol released a report that described 56 missing indigenous women statewide. The largest population in that report — which activists say is nowhere close to the total number — was 20 Yakama women.
“There are so many more that need to be found, so many more that need justice,” Tanya said.
For Tanya, these aren’t just numbers or just a few of the more than 30,000 other people living on the reservation: they’re people she knows and loves.
“This isn’t fair, this isn’t right: nobody deserves this,” Tanya said. “The numbers are only going up … I want it to stop.”
Tanya knew Felina Metsker, 33, who disappeared in April 2016. Her body was found a month later within the bounds of the Yakama Reservation.
In May, George Skyler Cloud, 22, was convicted of Felina’s murder and sentenced to life in prison. Cloud and another man were mistakenly led to believe Felina planned to tell police about a shooting they’d been involved with.
Tanya knew 39-year-old Linda Dave, who was found dead of a gunshot wound under a bridge in Toppenish on Feb. 15, 2017.
Linda wasn’t identified until more than a year later. No arrests have been made in her killing.
Tanya knew and went to school with 23-year-old Destiny Lloyd, who went missing on Christmas in 2017. She was found dead with head trauma several days later off Marion Drain Road in Harrah.
Destiny’s death wasn’t ruled a homicide until January. No arrests have been made in her killing.
Tanya is still searching for 18-year-old Rosalita Longee, who’s been missing for more than four years. Rosalita was last seen in Wapato on June 30, 2015. No one has heard from her since.
Tanya says both she and Lala were close friends with Rosenda Strong, 31, who went missing Oct. 2, 2018.
Rosenda was found dead in a freezer on the Fourth of July in a secluded area of Toppenish off of Highway 97. No arrests have been made in her killing.
Tanya says she still can’t understand why her sister is no longer with her.
“There’s rage and there’s anger, there’s wonders of why,” Tanya said. “And, like, who do you think you are that you could say when my sister’s life has to end?”
In federal court documents, witnesses say Stevens killed Lala in retaliation for her allegedly “snitching” to the “Feds” about something he had done.
But Tanya says that’s not her sister, that they were both taught not to talk about other people’s business and that her sister always kept her word.
Because the investigation into her sister’s killing is still active, it’s unclear when the FBI will release Lala’s body to the family or when Tanya will be able to put her big sister to rest.
“She wouldn’t choose to leave me the way she did … to leave any of us,” Tanya said. “And I have to believe she never left. She may not be here physically, but she’s here in my heart.”