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Silence Envelops Mystery Many Feel They Have Solution, But Lack Proof

Eight years ago Friday, somewhere on the road between Tensed and Plummer, 26-year-old Tina Finley stepped into the rainy night and fell off the face of the earth.

The slender, almond-eyed woman’s disappearance remains one of the great mysteries on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation. But it’s a strange sort of mystery: Everybody thinks they know what happened.

Those who can prove what happened, however, remain stubbornly silent, apparently afraid to speak up for fear of losing their lives.

Although her body never has been found, no one believes Tina Finley still is alive. Her sisters are trying to have her declared legally dead, and plan to put up a tombstone.

The family and a federal criminal investigator are sure Finley was murdered that night. They say they even know the names of the killers, who remain on the reservation.

“There’s no doubt in my mind. I know who the guys are that did it,” said Bureau of Indian Affairs criminal investigator Jack Hale. “But I’ve got to prove it.”

“I just don’t see how people on this reservation can be so cold-hearted,” said Finley’s sister, Debbie Aripa. “I’m positive there are people here who know everything and just aren’t saying anything.”

Born in 1962, the child of a Coeur d’Alene Indian mother and a Flathead Indian father, Finley was raised on the Coeur d’Alene reservation. Aripa said their parents’ drinking eventually split up the family. The seven children grew up in foster homes.

“Terrible things happened in her (Finley’s) foster home,” said Marlene Justice, the oldest child. Justice said she thinks her sister was sexually abused.

At 14, Finley ran away from her foster home. She hitchhiked to Seattle, and eventually to California. At 17, she phoned her uncle, tribal elder Felix Aripa, who bought her a bus ticket home from San Jose.

“To Uncle Felix, Tina was almost like his daughter,” said Debbie Aripa. “He looked after her.”

Finley moved in with her uncle, and learned to cook and clean. She held several jobs, and considered following her sister’s example by enrolling at North Idaho College.

Then came the night of March 8, 1988. Hale and family members say Finley played pool at a Plummer bar, then went to a Tensed birthday party. Investigators think that’s where she met the people responsible for her disappearance.

Finley left the party, and went to Tensed’s Circle H Saloon. A man there later told police he gave her a ride to Plummer, dropping her off about a quarter-mile from home. Hale said the man passed a polygraph test, suggesting he’s telling the truth.

But Finley never made it home.

The next day, Justice recalls sitting in microbiology class when suddenly she felt a sharp chill brush past her. Then another.

She said she believes those chills were the spirits of her dead sister and grandmother.

Shortly after Finley’s disappearance, her purse, identification card, and shoes were found sitting on the side of U.S. Highway 95, which bisects the reservation. Many people began to think Finley was dead.

Her family and tribal volunteers began searching, digging pits to try to find her body.

“Everyone was looking for everything they could find, a hairbrush, anything,” Justice said.

Finley’s father, who still lives in the area, sought out Indian spiritualists, who said Finley’s body was near water and something white. It didn’t help much.

Investigators searched an abandoned car and house at DeSmet, finding several of Finley’s belongings, and a business letter addressed to one of the suspects. A search of a Plummer home that fall found Finley’s jacket.

Hale said investigators questioned two suspects.

“They both flunked the polygraph,” said Hale. “But you know as well as I do that a polygraph isn’t admissible in court. It’s frustrating.”

“We know who it is,” he said, “but the burden of proof is sitting on us.”

In 1991, divers searched for Finley’s body in a small pond on a back road. In 1992, a road worker found a grave-shaped pit at McCroskey State Park. Hale thinks it was intended for Finley’s body, but that the grave-diggers were disturbed, or decided it was too close to a road. He thinks Finley was abducted and killed somewhere near Tensed.

One night, exactly a year after Finley’s disappearance, Justice says she had a dream.

Justice dreamed of lying in the glare of headlights in a forest clearing. She was crying and begging three or four male attackers not to hurt her anymore. She dreamed that she was beaten to death, dying just as dawn began to tinge the eastern sky.

Could Finley simply have run away, and still be alive somewhere? Her family, friends and law enforcement don’t think so. They say Finley, a fastidious dresser, wouldn’t have left behind her expensive clothes, her ID, or her welfare check.

Although the case remains officially a missing persons case, there have been no reported sightings of Finley, no notes to her family, no calls.

Several years ago, someone in Oregon used Finley’s Social Security number, and was detained for questioning by the FBI. But it proved to be merely a coincidence, Justice said, a case of a worker making up a fake number that happened to match Finley’s.

The FBI has now taken over the case.

“They’re classifying her (Finley) as a missing person,” said Hale, “but I don’t believe that.”

Hale picked up the case in April 1991, when he transferred from Oregon to Plummer, headquarters of the 1,400-member Coeur d’Alene Tribe. In news stories on the case, the soft-spoken Oklahoman was consistently optimistic, saying year after year that investigators had new leads and were close to solving the case.

But last September, when the 53-year-old Hale accepted a promotion to an investigator’s post in Arizona, he left behind a Finley file several inches thick - and a maddeningly unsolved case.

“It’s my only regret, not being able to finish it out,” he said.

One of the last things Hale did before leaving Idaho was to go around the reservation, tacking up a fresh batch of posters about the case. The FBI is offering a $5,000 reward “for information leading to identification of those involved in her (Finley’s) disappearance.”

“I had my heart set to crack that case,” Hale said, “but we have some people here that won’t crack.”

That’s the root of the problem: despite some evidence and enough third-hand whispering to convince investigators they’ve solved the case, no one’s provided enough information to charge the suspects.

Hale and Finley’s family believe that the suspects have told acquaintances what happened that night. All it would take, Hale said, is for someone to step forward and say they heard the suspects confess to the murder, or talking about details that other people wouldn’t know.

But people are afraid.

The several suspects, some of whom are ex-convicts, have histories of violence.

“That’s historic in Indian Country. People won’t come out, because things happen. They’re afraid of repercussions,” said Hale. “Somebody’s got to be brave enough to come across.”

Anyone testifying against the suspects, he said, could go into the federal Witness Protection Program.

But families on the reservation are extremely close-knit. It is not unusual for a funeral to draw hundreds of people. Becoming a federal witness and moving away to a new life, Justice said, would be tantamount to banishment.

Even today, Finley’s mother and uncle occasionally scout around the reservation, trying to find Finley’s body.

For their own sense of peace, Justice said, the family is trying to have Finley declared legally dead. They plan to put up a gravestone at the tribal cemetery, on a windswept rise overlooking DeSmet.

Justice said she’d also like to buy a baptismal font, in Finley’s name, for the tribal mission church at DeSmet. Justice said her sister, who miscarried with twins, loved children.

“We thought that would be a way for her to touch every single child born here,” she said. “All we can do is get a stone. And tell our children about their Aunt Tina.”

Justice still wants the case solved, and still prays for some witness to step forward.

But after years of grief, she also said she’d made a kind of peace with whatever happened to her sister. Sitting in a church service, Justice began crying and decided she could get over it.

“If God could forgive, then I can forgive. …” she said. “If they don’t get justice in this world, they’ll get it in the next.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos

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