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Hollywood horror: Actress’ death highlights Native American women’s woes

Actress Misty Upham wanted to be a voice for the voiceless, but her death underscored police–Native American tensions

AUBURN, Wash. — Charles Upham last saw his daughter alive on Oct. 5.

His daughter, 32-year-old Native American actress Misty Upham, was at the height of her career, having starred alongside Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in 2013's "August: Osage County." Her breakout role came in 2008 with the award-winning film “Frozen River,” featuring Melissa Leo.

But there was a dark side to Misty Upham that not many outside of her family knew about.

“She would self-medicate. She would use alcohol,” Charles Upham told America Tonight. “She would have these psychotic episodes where her behavior would change and she'd go off and say things and she won't remember that.”

Her father said she was behaving strangely the day she went missing.

“She started to kind of be aggressive, argumentative about nonissues,” he said.

She had been drinking heavily at their home outside Seattle near Mount Rainier, he said. With her upset, erratic and in need of medication for her anxiety, Charles Upham called police for help.

“Next thing she went in the other room and she says, 'I'm leaving. I'm not going to let them take me.' She said, 'Don't worry about me.' And then she walked out,” he recalled. “She just went down the stairs. She shut the door. And I was like five seconds behind her. I went out and I looked and I didn't see her down the stairs so I went down and I didn't see her anywhere.”

It was an all-too-familiar episode for the Uphams, who are members of the Blackfeet Nation. The cycle would repeat itself: Misty lashing out, a call to police, a brief hospital stay. Only this time, things were different.

When police arrived that Sunday, Charles Upham said he was ordered back inside while officers searched the apartment.

“I kept telling them, ‘You guys need to help me find her.’ I said, ‘She really needs to be in the hospital.’ They just said, ‘Well, if we see her, we'll bring her to the hospital,' and they said, 'We'll keep an eye out for her,’” he said. “Then they drove away.”

He pressed the police to search for his missing daughter, but they never canvassed beyond the family’s apartment complex on the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation.

Charles Upham officially reported her missing the next day.

“It's very tragic what happened to her and how it happened,” he said. “What made it worse is the fact that we didn't get any help.”

Misty Upham’s death is a high-profile example of an alarming trend: Native American women are murdered or go missing at a higher rate than any other ethnic group. On some reservations, women are murdered at a rate 10 times the national average.

According to the Justice Department, 61 percent of Native American women have been assaulted in their lifetimes, and most victims say their attacker was non-Native.

The police perspective

Cmdr. Mike Hirman of the Auburn Police Department said officers didn’t mount a full-fledged search for Misty Upham because her disappearance hadn’t met the criteria for Washington state’s Endangered Missing Person Advisory.

An EMPA is triggered when a person vanishes under unexplained or suspicious circumstances or when the person is believed to be in danger because of “mental disability.”

“Her disappearance did not follow or meet the criteria of an endangered missing person,” Hirman said. “She didn't have a mental illness. Yeah, you can say that she had some depression issues. She may have been drinking at the time but that's not mental illness, OK?”

When asked how he would define mental illness in the context of creating an EMPA, Hirman said she did not meet “the criteria.”

“I know that we were called four other times and Redmond (police) was called one other time and so we're trying to determine, you know, does she meet the criteria? No, she does not, and even if she did meet the criteria, nothing could have been done to help because there was no vehicle,” he explained. “There was nothing to flash, if you will, on a billboard or on a road sign … a picture. But by this time, sadly I can say that she was already down in the ravine. And so there was really nothing that could have been done with an EMPA.”

Across America, many Native Americans say they suffer from longstanding disparities in criminal justice. Concerned that officials didn't consider her disappearance suspicious, Charles Upham turned to friends and family for help finding his daughter.

“We went from the doorstep where she went missing, and all we did was think about where we would run, if we had to find someplace to hide,” said Robert Upham, a relative who organized the family’s search party. “Now that’s all the cops had to do. All the cops needed to find out the urgency from a mom and dad.”

Volunteers discovered her body at the bottom of a 150-foot embankment nearby, 11 days after she went missing.

“We had no help from the police. We would not have found her if we didn’t try whatever the best we could offer,” Robert Upham said. “Apparently what we had to offer if better than those who had years and years of professional help.”

It took rescuers five hours to retrieve Misty Upham’s body from the bottom of the ravine.

Misty Upham
America Tonight

According to the King County Medical Examiner's Office, Misty Upham died of blunt-force injuries to her head and torso the same day she went missing.

“It was sad all around, only because she died. That's terrible news and it's unfortunate,” Hirman said. “If there's any reprieve to this at all for us, it was the medical examiner's report where they indicated that, that pretty much when she disappeared is when she died.”

Auburn police say her fall down the cliff killed her and that there's no indication of foul play. But police can’t say exactly what happened. Her death remains under investigation.

Charles Upham insists his daughter didn’t take her own life or fall by accident. He told America Tonight he was informed by a family friend that a witness – who is afraid to speak with police – says two men beat his daughter and threw her down the ravine. Auburn police say that lead went nowhere.

“I believe she was murdered,” he said. “I'm going to find out who did it and make sure that justice is served.”

'A voice for the voiceless'

Disturbed by the trend that American Indian go missing or murdered at higher rates than other group, Lauren Chief Elk co-founded the Save Wiyabi Project, an advocacy group dedicated to addressing violence against Native American women. The group also tracks disappearances and murders of indigenous women in the United States and Canada.

“People don't want to talk about it, especially some of our native elders,” she said. “It is way too hard to even say words [like] rape, sexual assaults, molestation.”

Chief Elk hosts seminars across the country, including a recent one at Yale University, to raise awareness about these missing and murdered women.

Since the mapping project launched in 2012, Chief Elk has tracked more than 1,000 deaths and disappearances of indigenous women. When indigenous women disappear, she said, their cases often get little coverage – and their identities can easily be erased.

“Even with Misty being a very well-known, prominent actress, even with that position, there was not an outcry or even awareness of what had even happened to her,” Chief Elk said. “But it's part of also what is 'missing white woman syndrome' – what we know of as in the United States – where there is great moral panic when white woman's victimhood and safety is threatened and compromised. We have a very much deeper reaction and response to that than we do women of color and transgender women.”

Misty Upham was remembered during this year's Oscars.

At the Oscars last month, Misty Upham was remembered among those Hollywood had lost in the past year.

As the family mourns, Charles Upham wants the FBI to investigate Misty’s death. The family is also raising funds to hire a private investigator and offer rewards for good leads.

“I'm fortunate enough to know that I found my daughter … whereas some of these other families out there, their loved ones are still missing,” Charles Upham said. “It really needs to be addressed you know. And this is one of the things that Misty wanted to do was become a voice for the voiceless. And now she's become voiceless.”

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