Missing or murdered Indigenous persons liaison aims to build trust, peace of mind
South Dakota-based federal prosecutor selected to oversee efforts across Great Plains
Members of the Wambli Ska Society perform a Lakota drum song at a ceremony on Sept. 13, 2022, in Pierre to celebrate the launch of a Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons liaison within the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office. (Courtesy of Attorney General’s Office)
If you know something about a missing or murdered Indigenous person, Troy Morley wants to take your call.
That’s the first and perhaps the most important message the assistant U.S. attorney for the District of South Dakota has for those learning about his just-announced ascension to Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) liaison for the Great Plains.
There are no set directives for the new position, aside from a charge from U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to harness the resources of the U.S. Justice Department to crack down on high levels of violence in Indian Country. Morley will continue to prosecute other cases, but will devote more time to his liaison work in the coming months. He works out of an office in Pierre.
Success may eventually be measured in investigations and prosecutions or a reduction in calls about missing or murdered Native Americans, Morley said, but the most important benchmark is the one he and his fellow federal prosecutors see as critical to any improvements in public safety: trust.
“I want these communities to have that peace of mind to know that they have a place to turn on issues that matter,” Morley said.
Growing attention to MMIP
Morley’s role puts him in league with nine other new MMIP coordinators and attorneys around the country, whose appointments were announced Wednesday.
MMIP Liaison Troy Morley
- Office: (605) 224-5402
- Cell: (605) 321-5541
- [email protected]
In his region, which covers North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Alaska, Morley will be responsible for building and expanding relationships with tribal officials and local law enforcement, as well as making sure tips on major MMIP cases are prioritized by federal prosecutors.
The move is among a host of recent efforts at the federal level to deal with the backlog of MMIP investigations, including a July 2022 directive from Garland to prioritize public safety in tribal communities. It comes shortly after the formation of a two-person MMIP task force by Interim South Dakota Attorney General Mark Vargo last year to educate law enforcement across the state and consult on investigations on state land. The pair have continued their work since Attorney General Marty Jackley took office this January.
Morley, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, said MMIP cold cases have been and remain a priority for federal prosecutors in South Dakota, who have jurisdiction on major crimes on Native American land. Morley recently charged 57-year-old Jay Adams Jr. with first-degree murder for the 1992 beating death of an underage girl in Roberts County.
Gregg Peterman, a supervisory assistant U.S. Attorney for South Dakota and veteran of Indian Country prosecutions, was among those who helped shepherd a case that drew 18- and 15-year sentences for two Kyle men in the 2016 shooting death of Gary Little Bull Jr.
“These cases stay open,” Peterman said. “They aren’t just sitting on a shelf collecting dust.”
Solving cases, however, means building trust with victims and witnesses, who sometimes feel pressure not to work with law enforcement. That’s a roadblock nearly anywhere, Peterman said, but one that can be particularly acute within small, close-knit Native communities.
Morley and Peterman both said that building trust means showing up – sometimes with no agenda at all.
“You can’t work in Indian Country if you expect to do it all with phone calls and meetings in Rapid City, Pierre or Aberdeen,” Morley said.
South Dakota approach to outreach
That investigatory advice doubles as a directive in South Dakota. U.S. Attorney Alison Ramsdell has at least one of her 24 prosecutors assigned to each of seven tribal areas – four of South Dakota’s nine tribal nations are combined across two of them – and those prosecutors are required to visit their respective communities on a monthly basis.
Ramsdell applied to locate one of the MMIP liaisons in South Dakota at the same time she requested two additional Indian Country specialists for her district. Each of those positions were approved, and Ramsdell aims to fill those positions soon.
Showing up “is something we do exceptionally well in South Dakota,” she said, and it’s an approach and a message she hopes to see Morley carry into his work as liaison.
“I would feel like it’s a success if we can replicate what we do in South Dakota across the Great Plains region,” she said.
That’s why Morley intends to begin his work by building relationships, he said. There are long lists of missing or murdered people that circulate online, he said, but those numbers include people such as runaways whose parents report their disappearance but not their return. They also sometimes include people thought to be murdered, but an investigation revealed an accidental death or an overdose.
Some family members “will never accept the conclusions we come to,” Morley said, but he hopes the expanded emphasis on MMIP by the Justice Department and efforts of liaisons like himself will help convince Native communities that crimes against Indigenous people are taken seriously.
That work extends to the investigation into the precursors of violence, such as drug dealing, domestic violence or child abuse, and to working closely with tribal or Bureau of Indian Affairs officers as quickly as possible once a call comes in.
For now, though, the starting point is the front seat of a vehicle. Morley expects to spend many of the coming months traveling from place to place, getting reacquainted with communities he’s known for years and learning as much as he can about the communities he knows little about.
Those with concerns needn’t wait to see him pull up to a coffee shop, though. His bio and email address, along with the contact information for the other Indian Country prosecutors in his office, are online for anyone to find.
“If someone has information to share, call me,” Morley said.
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.