When Lisa Hardin didn’t return to her southeastern North Carolina home in the summer of 2003, her mother knew something was wrong.
Days later, police found the body of 36-year-old Hardin in the woods on the east side of Lumberton in Robeson County. Her orange Harley Davidson T-shirt was pulled over her chest, and her underwear was twisted around her right ankle. She had been strangled.
Hardin’s body was nearly unrecognizable at the coroner’s office, but her family, members of the Lumbee Native American tribe, knew it was her because of the heart-shaped tattoo on her ankle.
“For a long time, I could smell the blood that was coming from her head, and I can still see the maggots in her hair,” said Joan Young, one of the family members who identified Hardin’s body. “I don’t get queasy, but when I think about it, when I think this could be my child…”
Now, advocates for Indigenous women hope unsolved cases like Hardin’s will get renewed attention and additional resources, particularly since President Joe Biden successfully nominated Deb Haaland as secretary of the Department of Interior earlier this year.
Haaland, a former member of Congress from New Mexico and the first Native American to lead a federal cabinet, has said she wants to focus on continuing her work on missing and murdered Indigenous women, including through the Not Invisible Act of 2019, which established a joint commission of the departments of interior and justice to coordinate efforts.
The murder rate of Native American women in some U.S. counties is 10 times higher than the national average, according to the Department of Justice.
In Robeson County, where 42% of the population is Native American, more than 600 Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered, according to a database created by the Missing Murdered Indigenous Coalition of North Carolina. (It’s unclear how far back the data goes.)
“It’s just an attack on our people,” said Crystal Cavalier-Keck, community organizer for the coalition and a tribal member of the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation, a small community mostly in Alamance County.
Through the coalition, which aims to educate North Carolinians about violence against Indigenous people, Cavalier-Keck has been lobbying the General Assembly to better utilize state resources.
“This should not be a partisan issue because it affects everybody,” she said.
Meanwhile, some Robeson County natives are trying to help spread awareness through a Facebook group called “Shatter the Silence” and a new podcast called “Red Justice Project.”
The goal is simple: Put names and faces to the staggering statistics.
Solving cold cases, however, is never easy, especially in one of the poorest and most violent counties in North Carolina.
Lack of trust
In 2017, Robeson County saw 920.3 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, the highest rate among North Carolina’s 100 counties, according to the State Bureau of Investigation.
“Our county has so much crime, so many killings, it’s almost like you’re living in a city,” Young said.
On April 18, 2017, local police found the naked bodies of Rhonda Jones and Christina Bennett within a few blocks of each other.
One month later, in the same part of town, they found the naked body of Megan Oxendine, who had appeared in a television news story about Jones’ death.
The women’s bodies were so decomposed the North Carolina Office of Chief Medical Examiner could not determine what caused their deaths.
The FBI, which is handling the unsolved cases, recently increased its reward for information to $40,000.
Robeson County Sheriff Burnis Wilkins did not respond to several requests for comment from the Border Belt Independent.
Cavalier-Keck wants law enforcement officers to have cultural training to better understand Indigenous people. Often, she claims, police incorrectly label Native Americans as Black or Hispanic.
“They have to earn the trust of the community,” she said.
About 13% of law enforcement agencies don’t include Native American as an identifier in records, according to a 2018 study across 29 states conducted by the Urban Indian Health Institute.
“We need to actively come to an understanding of why this is happening,” Cavalier-Keck said of the deaths of Indigenous women. “We need to get this conversation out to the people.”
A sister seeks justice
Jane Jacobs is trying to do just that.
When her sister went missing in late 2018, Jacobs, a member of the Tuscarora Tribe, felt it in her spirit what police would confirm days later: 46-year-old Katina Locklear was dead.
Locklear’s body was found Dec. 20 that year in a wooded area in the Robeson County town of Pembroke. Her black tank-top was pulled over her head, and her blue pants were shoved down to her right ankle. She had been stabbed more than 16 times in the head, neck, and stomach.
Now Jacobs is helping Cavalier-Keck at the Missing Murdered Indigenous Coalition of North Carolina.
“I never speak just on behalf of my sister,” Jacobs said. “I speak on behalf of so many others as well. I know too many people.”
While many cases of murdered Indigenous women don’t lead to arrests, Locklear’s case was different.
A few days after Locklear’s body was found, 35-year-old John Jacobs was charged with first-degree murder and first-degree rape. Daniel Brooks, 32, was charged with accessory after the fact and failure to report a death.
Jane Jacobs says she is worried the charges against the local men won’t lead to convictions.
A psychologist with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has labeled John Jacobs as incapable of proceeding in court at least four times since 2005, according to state records.
Timothy Locklear, the main investigator on the case who worked for the Pembroke Police Department at the time but has since moved to the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office, said he considers the case closed.
But, he added, “We’re still open to other information coming in.”
John Jacobs and Brooks are set to appear in court this summer.
‘Blessing from God’
Young says she worries for the safety of all women in Robeson County.
“I feel for all the young girls,” she said. “I feel for their families, who are left behind to pick up the pieces, wondering who killed their child.”
Young has even considered becoming a private investigator to look into Hardin’s case, along with the case of 23-year-old Michelle Driggers.
In March 2003 — less than four months before Hardin’s death — Driggers’ naked body was found in a cemetery in east Lumberton, a mile away from where Hardin’s body was discovered.
As part of the investigation into the women’s deaths, the Lumberton Police Department, the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office and the N.C. State Bureau of Investigation formed a joint task force. They wanted to know if the cases were connected.
“We were never able to positively link them together,” said Capt. Terry Parker of the Lumberton Police Department.
Eighteen years later, as both cases remain cold, Young wants investigators to exhume Hardin’s body to look for new evidence.
“The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” she said. “There’s got to be something — something to give them a lead into somebody who’s doing this.”
Lumberton police say there are no plans to exhume Hardin’s body.
“For it to be solved would be a blessing from God,” said Patrick Smith, Hardin’s younger brother.
‘The forgotten people’
Advocates for missing and murdered Indigenous women say cases often don’t get the media attention they deserve. If Katina Locklear had been a white woman, her sister argues, the story might have made national news.
“We’re the forgotten people,” Jacobs said. “We’ve been screaming for so long.”
To help speak for Indigenous families, Robeson County natives Brittany Hunt and Chelsea Locklear started “Red Justice Project,” a true crime podcast that tells the stories of missing and murdered Indigenous people in North Carolina and across the nation.
Since it began in November, the podcast has grown from having a local following to a global audience.
“There are Natives everywhere, and there are people interested in this issue everywhere as well,” Hunt said.
The two women spend hours researching cases, combing through newspaper archives and police reports. They sometimes struggle to find information because of a lack of media coverage.
“The media indicates to people what they should care about or what everyone should be talking about at the moment,” Hunt said. “If the media is consistently not reporting the murders of Indigenous women … that’s saying that either the issue is not happening or it’s not important enough to cover.”
The deaths of Hardin and Driggers made international headlines, but some news reports referred to the women as prostitutes. Both had previously been charged with prositution but were not convicted.
The characterization upset Young.
“After that, you heard nothing else: She’s a prostitute, no big deal, just out there looking for drugs,” she said. “That sort of pissed the family off.”
Chelsea Locklear said the media should pay particular attention when covering Indigenous women.
“It’s those constant questions of, are we actually trying to break down these intentional biases that are really historical from the founding of the news media?” she said. “The media was not intentionally created for Indigenous people; it’s not created for us.”
Hunt agrees. “This is not just a problem of today, the ’90s, or 2000s; it’s a problem that reaches back into history,” she said. “The issue looks different, but there’s the same kind of intention behind it.”
When colonists arrived in the Americas in the 15th century, they specifically targeted Native American women to get land, Cavalier-Keck said.
“How the colonizers attacked our sovereignty was they took out the matriarch,” she said. “If they eradicated all the women of the tribes, then we couldn’t have any more babies.”
Activists agree that recognizing this history is the first step in reducing the number of missing and murdered Indigenous women across the country. The next step is to get elected leaders to pay attention.
“People get caught up in the politics of it,” Cavalier-Keck said.
Jacobs said eliminating racial divides will be key moving forward. “We need a revamping of humanity,” she said. “It’s like we’ve forgotten how to be human.”
For years now, Jacobs has been trying to spread that message, but it often exhausts her. “How do you go on when you know it’s such a broken-spirited place?”
To replenish her spirit, Jacobs lays tobacco on the ground and spiritually connects to all the women who have come before her, including her sister. Katina Locklear’s physical body may be gone, but her spirit is not. It’s in her two grandchildren and even the red bird that flutters by Jacobs’ house.
“Our spirits are strong; our spirits are fighters,” Jacobs said. “Time heals all wounds.”