Ashley Loring HeavyRunner, who also went by Ashley Loring, vanished in June 2017. A member of the Blackfeet Nation, she was last seen on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. Her disappearance is part of an ongoing crisis of Indigenous women reported missing.
Ashley Loring HeavyRunner Goes Missing
The last confirmed sighting of Ashley Loring HeavyRunner came on June 5, 2017. A video taken that night, which was shared online, showed her at a party on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana.
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When Ashley’s family didn’t see or hear from her in the days after the party, they thought the 20-year-old was visiting a friend. They also assumed she might have lost her phone, something she’d done before.
Yet after Ashley didn’t visit her father when he was in the hospital, her family started to worry. Talking to Ashley’s friends revealed Ashley had been out of touch since June 5. Her family contacted Blackfeet Law Enforcement and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to report the disappearance.
“No one took it seriously,” Kimberly Loring, Ashley’s sister, told The Guardian of the official response. “They just said: ‘She’s of age, she can leave when she wants to.'”
The Investigation Stalls
A couple of weeks after Ashley went missing, a tip came in. The same night Ashley was last seen, June 5, 2017, a young woman had been spotted running from a vehicle on U.S. Highway 89 on the reservation.
With fewer than 20 officers on a 1.5 million acre reservation, Blackfeet Law Enforcement had few resources. But tribal police and the BIA conducted a three-day search in the area.
Ashley’s family members searched the same area. Her sister found a sweater and a pair of boots with red stains. The family believed they were Ashley’s belongings and turned the items over to law enforcement.
An environmental science student at Blackfeet Community College, Ashley had plans to move in with her sister and attend the University of Montana. However, to her family’s dismay, for months the BIA maintained Ashley was an adult who was free to leave on her own.
Because Ashley vanished on a reservation, multiple law enforcement agencies had jurisdiction: tribal police, the BIA and the FBI. Two months passed before the BIA focused its attention on Ashley’s disappearance. In February 2018, the FBI announced it was joining the investigation at the BIA’s request. By that time, the case was cold.
Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women
Ashley’s disappearance is not unusual. According to the National Crime Information Center, in 2020 there were 5,295 reports of missing American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls. In some counties, Indigenous women face a murder rate that is more than 10 times the national average.
Sovereign Bodies Institute (SBI) maintains a database of missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) in the United States and Canada. As of August 10, 2021, it held 4,749 names and stories of missing individuals.
Annita Hetoevehotohke’e Lucchesi, SBI’s founder, taught Ashley at Blackfeet Community College. Lucchesi entered Ashley’s name into the SBI database herself.
Why are Indigenous women experiencing so much violence? Jordan Gross, a professor at the University of Montana’s Alexander Blewett III School of Law tells A&E True Crime, “I, and other scholars in this area, believe that [the Supreme Court’s 1978 Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe decision] is one of the root causes of the MMIW crisis in Indian Country [a legal term referring to Indian reservations, dependent communities and allotments]. What it basically did is told tribes, you’re limited in what you can do when the person involved [in committing the crime] is non-Indian. And most Indians who suffer violent crime, suffer violent crime at the hands of non-Indians.”
Following Oliphant, Gross adds, “Reservations pretty much became pockets of lawlessness, where non-Indians know they can go and commit crimes, and nobody’s going to show up, and nobody’s going to investigate, because that leaves only the FBI to detain and really investigate things.”
Asked how to address the MMIW crisis, Lucchesi told Montana’s Great Falls Tribune in 2021, “Tribal sovereignty is the only thing that’s going to fix this issue. Tribes have to have the self-determination to protect their people and hold perpetrators accountable. Until that happens, there will be no change.”
Developments in the Ashley Loring Heavyrunner Case
On December 12, 2018, Kimberly Loring testified to Congress about her sister’s disappearance. She declared, “From the very beginning, both the Blackfeet Tribal Law Enforcement and the BIA have ignored the dire situation that Ashely is in and have allowed the investigation to be handled in a dysfunctional manner.”
Kimberly told Congress that the sweater she had found was misplaced by authorities. Though it later resurfaced, Ashley’s family has not received DNA testing results.
The investigation has had other developments. A man named Sam McDonald has stated he was with Ashley for days after the party on June 5, 2017. According to McDonald, on June 11, 2017, he drove Ashley to meet someone named “V-Dog,” whose real name was Paul Valenzuela. McDonald has said he fell asleep, and Ashley wasn’t there when he awoke. Ashley’s family has said she was romantically involved with Valenzuela—who had prior burglary and weapons convictions—and spent time with McDonald prior to her disappearance.
There have been no arrests or charges filed regarding Ashley’s disappearance. The FBI and the BIA confirmed that the case remains open and active.
The FBI tells A&E True Crime, “The FBI works in partnership with the BIA Missing and Murdered Unit and tribal law enforcement partners to investigate cases involving missing and murdered Native Americans which are under federal jurisdiction. No specific comment can be provided on an open investigation.”
The BIA tells A&E True Crime, “[Ashley’s] case information is visible from our new web page dedicated to finding missing and murdered individuals from Indian Country. Any new information officers receive that we can share publicly to help find her, we will update in this space.”
Ashley’s family has not stopped looking for her. Her sister Kimberly told the Great Falls Tribune in 2020, “The not-knowing is the worst part. We are holding on to hope, and we will bring her home. We try to look on the bright side, but we are living a nightmare.”
Ashley stood 5-foot, 2 inches tall and weighed about 90 pounds when she disappeared. Information about her case can be reported to the BIA by texting BIAMMU to 847411, calling 1-833-560-2065, or emailing OJS_MMU@bia.gov. The Salt Lake City FBI can be contacted at (801) 579-1400, (800) CALL-FBI or tips.fbi.gov. Blackfeet Law Enforcement Services can be reached at (406) 338-4000.
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