Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls
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It’s been 46 years since Rhonda Running Bird was born, and her mother, Mavis Crowchild, still remembers what she said to her baby that day.

"Holding her, I told her, 'You're going to be a traditional girl.'"

Crowchild, whose home community is Alberta's Siksika Nation, said she held on to the cultural practices she could remember from her life before residential school to teach to Running Bird.

Yet, the words she spoke on the day of Running Bird's birth became true in a tragic sense: By 1995, she was among hundreds of Indigenous girls and women whose common experience reflects a Canadian crisis.

She disappeared without a trace while on a hunting trip with her common-law partner, Fred Lagrelle. At the time, Running Bird was using a colostomy bag for injuries she suffered during a brutal beating by Lagrelle, according to her mother and hospital records.

According to Running Bird's brother, Keith Running Bird, she was gathering evidence to charge Lagrelle for assault, but he found out shortly before she vanished.

Her body was never found, and police say there is not enough evidence to determine whether her disappearance involved foul play.

‘I was lonely’

Running Bird's life started in Camrose, Alta. There, she and Crowchild were surrounded by humidity and wild roses, but family was far away.

"I was lonely," Crowchild said.

They moved back to Siksika Nation, where Crowchild taught Running Bird to bead.

Upon graduating high school, Running Bird met her first husband, Lance Crier. They had two children — a boy and a girl — and she was a good mother, Crowchild said.

But Running Bird did not stay.

While in her early 20s, she went to a family gathering in Inglewood, Alta. and met Crowchild's sister's husband, Fred Lagrelle, a Cree man from Alberta's Sunchild First Nation.

Alcohol brought them together that night, Crowchild said.

Shortly after they met, Lagrelle and Running Bird left their respective partners and moved to Red Deer, Alta.

History of violence

It's alleged that before he made a home with Running Bird., Lagrelle tried to kill his wife — Crowchild's sister, Rose.

"He took her, threw her in the truck and he drove down the road… They hit a sharp curve and he rolled the truck," Crowchild said.

At the time, Rose was seven months pregnant with his child, her sister added.

"She almost died but she didn't lose the baby."

Pills

According to Crowchild, the relationship between Running Bird and Lagrelle brought about a baby boy, an addiction to pills and multiple trips to the hospital.

"She drank and took pills for her nerves because of the abuse," she said.

Before the couple had their own child, Lagrelle was violent with Running Bird's other children, Crowchild said.

"They'd come home and say, 'Grandma, we slept under the bed' or 'Grandma, we slept outside. We had to hide outside.'"

Refusing to speak to her family about the abuse, Running Bird suffered in silence, according to her mother.

Physical signs indicated the violence was growing worse: Nearly one hour passed as Running Bird struggled to climb seven stairs to her mother's living room, following a beating that left her with the colostomy bag.

"He had shoved some kind of liquor bottle up her vagina," Crowchild said.

"I questioned her and I said, 'Let me call the ambulance.'

“'No. Please, mom. Don't do that,' she said. 'I'm going home now.' She wouldn't disclose anything to me."

‘Love, Rhonda’

On March 26, 1995, Lagrelle set out on a hunting trip to Swan Lake, Alta., with his sister Liza and the 14-month-old son he shared with Running Bird.

Despite debilitating injuries, Running Bird went on the trip, too. She was never seen again.

Crowchild said Lagrelle provided a statement to RCMP in Rocky Mountain House, saying his truck got stuck in the mud and Running Bird set out to look for help, leaving a note behind.

"The way she looked, no one's going to survive in the forest [while sick] like that, with a colostomy bag," Crowchild said.

"Why would anybody walk … when they could go right to the road and wait there? It [would have been] so easy for them to flag down a truck to help them out."

The note that Lagrelle said Running Bird had left behind indicated that she was going to Cow Lake, Alta., and was signed, "Love, Rhonda," with two hearts drawn around the name.

Police requested a handwriting sample from Lagrelle.

"And you know what they told us about the note?" Crowchild said. "That they [Lagrelle and Running Bird] had the same handwriting."

Family’s findings

Crowchild and the rest of Running Bird's family learned she was missing when they saw it on the news. They had been trying to reach her for a week.

Days later, family members arrived at the scene, where an officer from the Rocky Mountain House RCMP was leading the investigation.

According to Crowchild, the officer said, "Your daughter must be in Edmonton, just getting drunk.”

"Ever since that time, I never wanted anything to do with him," she said.

Police gave the family permission to search the area and they found what they believe to be Running Bird's glasses, a shoe and her colostomy bag.

According to RCMP, the items did not belong to her, Crowchild said.

"But I know it was her shoe. As a little girl and growing up, she always tied her shoe in a certain way and that's how her shoe was tied," she said.

In a letter to the family, Sgt. Dan Lyon and another officer of the Rocky Mountain House RCMP said they compared the eyeglass prescription with Running Bird's optometrist's records.

"They are not Rhonda's and are not even close to her prescription," the letter reads in part.

Crowchild said investigators had consulted with an optometrist that Running Bird was no longer seeing by the time of her disappearance, and they refused to compare prescriptions using up-to-date information.

"Like, in my heart, you know your own children," Crowchild said.

"When I seen it on the news, I knew right away that he killed her."

Person of interest

The 1995 letter Lyon wrote to the family said there was a criminal possibility in the case and RCMP "quickly examined" it.

"We may ask Fred Lagrelle to submit to a polygraph examination as there is a remote possibility we don't have the whole truth," the letter reads.

Both Rocky Mountain House RCMP and the Calgary Police Service have since handled Running Bird's case and investigators have identified a person of interest.

"[That person] has since passed away," said Cpl. Hal Turnbull, an Alberta RCMP spokesperson.

Lagrelle never took the polygraph test and in 2016, he drank himself to death, according to Crowchild.

Legacy

On May 25, 1995 — two months after Running Bird disappeared — an Alberta court awarded Crowchild custody of the children her daughter shared with Crier, who was later beaten to death.

Around the same time, Lagrelle gave the son he shared with Running Bird to his aunt, Crowchild said.

Running Bird’s daughter now has children of her own but, Crowchild said, she continues to struggle with the loss of her mother.

“I tried to take her with me to the missing woman things … she finds it too hard,” she said.

The son Running Bird shared with Lagrelle lives in the aftermath, too.

“He’s pretty angry,” Crowchild said.

“I’ll hug him and I’ll say, ‘It’s OK. Just talk about what you know.’ I said, ‘Because you were with your dad … you had to know what happened to your mommy.’ [He said], ‘No, I don’t want to talk about it.’ He gives it a real cold shoulder.”

For Keith Running Bird, trauma has reverberated through the life he lives without his sister, but he’s found meaning in it.

“That’s where my attitude changed toward women,” he said.

“My mom always told [me], ‘You don’t hit your wife. If you’re going to hit your wife, put my face in front of that and see if you can hit your mom.’”

Still, he said he’s had no closure.

“I know I’ll never see my sister. I’ll never get to say hi. I’ll never get to hear her laugh. I’ll never get to hear her say, ‘I love you,’ or, ‘I’ll see you next time.”” he said.

“In the Blackfoot language, there is no word for goodbye.”

Do you have more information on any of these cases?

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CBC News continues to investigate missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in Canada, looking at the unsolved cases and telling the stories of the families and communities.