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As Seattle police charge man in stabbing death of Yakama woman, family raises awareness

Mavis “Boots” Kindness Nelson  (Courtesy photo)
Mavis “Boots” Kindness Nelson (Courtesy photo)
By Tammy Ayer Yakima Herald-Republic

TOPPENISH – A small group sat in the Meninick Chambers at the Yakama Nation main office as a Seattle Police Department detective prepared to talk about the investigation into the murder of their relative, Mavis “Boots” Kindness Nelson.

Homicide detective Josh Rurey drove from Seattle on Oct. 6 to meet with Nelson’s sister, Ernestine Morning Owl, who traveled from Pendleton, Oregon. To her right sat Ernestina’s daughter, Edwina Morning Owl, and Nelson’s daughter, Valentina Varela of Wapato. Yakama Nation Public Safety Commissioner James Shike sat with Marina Shike, also related to Nelson, along with a few other relatives and friends.

It was an unusual gathering. Rurey normally doesn’t talk to reporters, but Nelson’s family had invited the Yakima Herald-Republic and Rurey said that was fine. Meninick Chambers, located in a section of offices behind locked doors, are generally for meetings of tribal or other officials.

Nelson was a citizen of the Yakama Nation, and those who follow Yakama traditions say that when a loved one has died, the person’s full name shouldn’t be spoken or written, nor their photographs shared for at least a year, or until a memorial takes place. Edwina Morning Owl mentioned that during the meeting, as her mother has in talking about Nelson.

They chose to make an exception in hopes of bringing more awareness of the centuries-long crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people, which has impacted countless families throughout Indian Country. Within and around the Yakama Reservation alone, dozens of women, men and children have gone missing, have been murdered and have died mysteriously in known cases dating back to the fall of 1855.

The issue has received greater attention in the last few years, with state and federal legislation and efforts by authorities, including the Washington State Patrol, to better track and publicize cases.

Relatives and tribal officials are speaking out more about their missing and murdered loved ones. Yakama Tribal Council Law and Order Chair Jeremy Takala attended the Thursday gathering.

“It’s something we shouldn’t be hiding,” Takala said.

Nelson is among several Yakama citizens missing or murdered outside reservation boundaries. Many called her “Boots,” a childhood nickname for her love of Nancy Sinatra’s hit song, “These Boots Are Made For Walkin.’ ” The 56-year-old mother of three had family and friends all the way from Goldendale, where she grew up, to Seattle, where she was living when she died.

She knew Charles William Becker, the 32-year-old man accused of killing her. Seattle police arrested Becker on Oct. 4 after connecting him to DNA evidence found at the scene, according to the Seattle Police Department blotter. He was charged Oct. 7 and is in the King County Jail on $5 million bail.

Rurey wanted to tell relatives about the investigation into Nelson’s death and what led them to arrest Becker. He doesn’t usually meet with families and said he couldn’t do this over the phone or Zoom. Relatives told him they appreciated his efforts.

He warned them that details would be graphic and the process of getting justice for Nelson could take months, or years.

“It’s just the beginning. It’s going to be a long haul,” Rurey said.

Nelson was found about 1 p.m. June 20 in a wooded ravine near Ravenna Avenue Northeast and Northeast 45th Street on the University of Washington campus. People walking on the Burke-Gilman Trail discovered her remains nearby and university police contacted Seattle authorities for assistance.

She was identified by a tattoo, Rurey said, and had been stabbed multiple times. Investigators didn’t think Nelson died where she was found. They learned she lived alone in a studio apartment a little more than a block away.

Ernestine Morning Owl has said she last spoke with her sister the third week of April, when they were preparing for their mother’s memorial, and didn’t know Nelson had been missing when her remains were found.

As the investigation continued, police learned Nelson was in Auburn on May 19, Rurey said. She called Auburn police to report a domestic violence situation, saying she had been assaulted. In talking to police there, Nelson told them she had been drinking and would hire a ride home. Records indicated a Lyft driver took her back to her apartment.

Seattle police spoke with and eliminated the Lyft driver as a suspect. They also talked to the person Nelson had called Auburn police about and it was “likely not that guy,” Rurey said. “We spoke with her friends. … We interviewed another guy in Seattle and he had a good alibi,” he added.

Investigators didn’t find any overt signs of violence in Nelson’s apartment. They got her phone records, which showed multiple texts to a single number after she returned home from Auburn, Rurey said. Police got the records for that number, and a name: Charles W. Becker.

There are about 20 men with the name Charles Becker in Washington, and four with the name and middle initial of Charles W. Becker. One lives about two blocks from Nelson’s apartment, Rurey said, and admitted he had a friendly relationship with her.

Investigators now had fingerprints, phone records and DNA. Becker’s DNA was in state and federal databases from his 2016 second-degree manslaughter conviction in the 2015 death of his 4-month-old son in Pullman. He was living there then with the mother of his son while she was taking college classes, Rurey said.

Crime scene investigators searched his apartment and detectives interviewed Becker for about nine hours. They got a DNA sample from him and grainy surveillance video from a shopping plaza near where Mavis’ remains were found, Rurey said, among other potential evidence.

As he continued to tell relatives about the investigation, the information Rurey provided about what happened to Nelson was increasingly graphic. Her relatives bowed their heads and cried as they heard the horrifying details of her murder and the aftermath.

Rumors spread quickly, especially on social media. Rurey wanted to tell relatives what he had learned in investigating Nelson’s homicide to ensure they had accurate information directly from the source, not hearsay and stories shared by others. They appreciated that and gently told him when it was enough.

Detectives continue to investigate whether other suspects were involved in Nelson’s murder. “There’s going to be more testing,” Rurey said. “I hope that no one else is involved.”

Ne’Sha Jackson, a former tribal court judge who lives on the Yakama Reservation who advocates for missing and murdered Indigenous people and their families, attended the meeting Rurey had with relatives. She thanked him for his dedication to the case.

“Sitting here listening to all the effort it’s going to take … I can see the extent of the work,” Jackson said. “We have many, many families on this reservation who are crying. I commend you for coming.”

Nelson is buried at Black Wolf Cemetery outside Goldendale, near her mother, former tribal general council member Mavis George “Tamaslut” Kindness, and other relatives.

She had a unique laugh, worked hard in her job at a treatment center and was a kind and generous person, Morning Owl has said of her sister. Despite the horrific details of her death, “Don’t remember her that way,” she said.

Rurey encourages people to tell family members where they’re going and to be reachable. If a loved one is missing, report it early.

“Don’t take any pushback. Don’t take no for an answer,” he said. “Check in on your loved ones. There’s evil in the world.”

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