YAKIMA – The FBI says a string of deaths on the Yakama Reservation was not the work of a serial killer.
Federal officials on Wednesday released the findings of a two-year cold-case investigation of 16 deaths from 1980 to 1993.
“I think what the probe did, I would hope for the last and final time, was dispel any notion that this was the work of a serial killer – it’s not,” U.S. Attorney James McDevitt of Spokane said. “I think this was the most extensive, comprehensive review to date that has garnered every shred of evidence that law enforcement had.”
Of the 16 cases, the FBI says two resulted in murder convictions, 10 are believed to be homicides, two were ruled accidental drowning, one was hypothermia and another was inconclusive.
In many of the cases, evidence was eroded by the elements. In others, only skeletal remains of victims were found. The deaths stymied investigators for years and instilled fear in an otherwise close-knit American Indian community.
In three cases, agents were able to identify suspects, but there wasn’t enough physical evidence to bring charges, the FBI said.
Some of the cases may never be solved, McDevitt said.
“Unfortunately, that’s always a possibility,” he said. “This isn’t the end of it. I think it’s the end of the chapter of whether there is a serial killer loose.”
The report was to be released in January but was delayed because of the investigation into the death of Daisey Mae Tallman, whose skeletal remains were believed to be found in May 2008. Investigators are waiting for DNA test results to confirm the victim’s identity.
In the 1980s, at least two investigators from Yakama tribal police and the Bureau of Indian Affairs said they saw similarities in the victims, such as the women’s ages and race. Most of the women who were killed were Native American.
In 2001, prosecutors used DNA evidence to convict John Bill Fletcher for the 1987 stabbing deaths of Theresa Branscomb and Bertha Cantu.
The cold cases were reopened after U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales visited the Yakama reservation in March 2006 and promised an investigation.
Local families of the victims remain skeptical on whether authorities put enough effort and resources into solving the cases.
Caroline Looney said she still hasn’t been interviewed by an FBI agent in the death of her 39-year-old sister, Alice Ida Looney. She went missing in August 2005, and her body was found wedged under a tree near Toppenish on Nov. 30 of that year. The FBI lists the cause of her death as inconclusive.
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