Background show artwork for Stolen: The Search for Jermain

When someone disappears in America, there is a playbook investigators follow. Where was she last seen? Who was she with? But those questions get more complicated when the person who has disappeared is Indigenous.

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Transcript

Connie Walker: A quick warning before we start the show. This series contains descriptions of adult subject matter, including details of violence and trauma. Please take care while listening.


Connie: Do you work here?


Bar Patron 1: No.


Connie: No, okay. We're doing a story about Jermain Charlo? Do you know her?


Bar Patron 1: Mm-hmm. I know who she is.


Bar Patron 2: Hello.


John White: Hey, how's it going?


Bar Patron 2: Good.


Bar Patron 1: And my niece who does work here knew her personally.


Connie: Okay.


Bar Patron 1: I know the family.


Connie: Okay.


Connie: It's a Saturday afternoon in June of 2020. My producer John and I are on the Flathead Reservation, where Jermain Charlo grew up. We've come to the Big River Cantina in Dixon, a bar where Jermain worked part time. We want to talk to as many people as we can who knew Jermain, to try to find out what happened to her.


Bar Patron 2: There's people that'll talk to you.


Connie: Good. Okay, great. Thank you very much. Let's go in that way. Can I get that for you?


Bar Patron 3: Oh, you can, but I got it. Thank you anyway, lady.


Connie: The Big River Cantina is a small, one-room bar. There's a little TV on a shelf in the corner, and above it a big speaker blaring country music. There's a lot of daylight streaming in from the windows, but it feels dark inside. Although we are on the reservation, most of the people in here seem to be white. But I turn to my left and see a young Indigenous woman behind the bar.


Connie: Hi. I'm doing a story about Jermain Charlo, and so she used to work here. Did you know her?


Alejandra: Yeah, that's my cousin.


Connie: Oh, really? Oh, hi, nice to meet you. I'm Connie.


Connie: It's hard to hear, but the woman says that yes, she knows Jermain. That she's actually her cousin.


Connie: What's your name, sorry?


Alejandra: Alejandra.


Connie: Alejandra. Nice to meet you.


Connie: I'd like to talk to Alejandra, but it's busier than you might expect for Saturday afternoon in a town as small as this.


Connie: Do you have, like, a minute to talk to us?


Alejandra: Yeah.


Connie: Do you want to step out here? It's just kind of loud in there. So we're doing a podcast about Jermain, and just trying to talk to as many family and friends and coworkers that we can. When did you hear about her disappearance?


Alejandra: My auntie actually told me that she didn't come into work one day when she asked her to. And she thought it was really odd because Jermain was always usually on the spot, you know? So ...


Connie: How big of a problem is violence against Indigenous women and girls here?


Alejandra: I think it is very—it's a big problem that nobody really has awareness about. My sister in law just went missing and was found, and it's a big problem, you know? And nobody really does anything about it.


Connie: Where did your sister in law go missing from, and where was she found?


Alejandra: She actually—her name is Selena Not Afraid, and she went missing in—over in the Big Horn County in between Billings and Harding.


Connie: Oh, I heard about that.


Alejandra: Yeah.


Connie: I'm so sorry for your loss.


Alejandra: Yeah, thank you.


Connie: It's heartbreaking.


Connie: I heard about Selena Not Afraid's tragic death last year. She was 16 years old when she went missing on New Year's Day in 2020. Her body was found 20 days later, not far from where she was last seen at a rest stop in southeastern Montana. A coroner ruled that her death was accidental, that she died of hypothermia after being left at the rest stop by the people she was with. Her family believes someone should have been charged in Selena's death. My producer John asks if Alejandra is ever fearful for her own safety.


John: Do you worry about this for yourself?


Alejandra: I'm more of a homebody. I mean, I'm always with my family and stuff. I don't really think about it too much. But after my sister—you know, my sister in law did, it was kind of an eye-opening. Like, it could happen to anybody. So ...


Connie: She's so young.


Alejandra: Yeah.


John: I just wonder are there things you do to protect yourself?


Alejandra: I mean, I always have, like, my brothers around me. Or, like, I'm always usually with somebody. I don't really do a lot of stuff besides come to work by myself.


Connie: What's it like to work here? I mean, you drive by here, you walk by here, and you think, "Oh, that must be such a quiet place." But there's always people.


Alejandra: Yeah, there is quite a few people that come in here. And it's so small. So yeah, it does get kind of crowded.


John: Does it get rowdy at night?


Alejandra: It does, actually. Sometimes it does. People just being drunk and arguing over stupid stuff. There's been a few times people are trying to be kicked out, and it doesn't really go down as well as them just leaving. So stuff like that.


Connie: Well, thank you very much. Sorry for interrupting you at work.


Connie: Alejandra says violence against Indigenous women and girls is a big problem that isn't talked about very much. It makes me wonder: what's it like to be a Native American woman living in Montana? We head back inside. Alejandra takes her place behind the bar, and John and I hover near it.


Connie: So I'm just gonna grab my lemonade if that's okay?


Connie: We're only inside for a few minutes when I notice a man staring at us. Well, mostly at me. He looks like he's been here for a while. He's sitting on a stool near the bar, slightly weaving from side to side, as though he's trying to steady himself as he looks at us.


Bar Patron: What's that thing do?


Connie: It's a microphone. I'm working on a podcast. I'm doing a story about a girl named Jermain Charlo. She used to work here. Do you know her?


Bar Patron: She has family from around here. I'd never met her personally myself because I don't—but anyway, whatever.


Connie: Yeah. Yeah. So you've heard of her?


Bar Patron: She's from here.


Connie: Yeah. She's from—she grew up in the agency.


Bar Patron: I know where we're at.


Connie: Cool. Anyway, that's why I'm recording.


Connie: He keeps staring at us and honestly, it's making me uncomfortable. I can tell he's drunk, and seems kinda pissed off about something. I want to leave before he can say or do anything else.


Connie: All right. Are you ready?


John: Yeah, I think so. All right. Thanks a lot, guys. Alejandra! Thank you so much.


Connie: Thank you very much.


John: John, thank you.


Connie: I think about Jermain as we are leaving. If I feel this uncomfortable spending a half hour here in the middle of the day, what was it like for her? What is it like here at night? Did she ever feel unsafe? And what about outside of work? Did Jermain feel safe in this community? Was she safe?


Connie: When I started looking into the issue of missing or murdered Indigenous women in the United States, I quickly became focused on Montana. There are so many cases here. Why? What is happening to Indigenous women in Montana?


Connie: From Gimlet Media and Spotify, this is Stolen: The Search for Jermain. I'm Connie Walker.


Connie: When a young, healthy 23 year old goes missing, there are a number of plausible theories about what might have happened. She could have run away, been in an accident, been a victim of violence or taken her own life. But if you're an Indigenous woman in Montana and you go missing, there's another distinct possibility that authorities have to consider: that you've been taken for sex trafficking. It was one of the first theories on Detective Guy Baker's radar in Jermain Charlo's disappearance.


Guy Baker: I didn't know if she was, you know, being held somewhere against her will, or was incapacitated to the point that she didn't have access to the internet. Or maybe, you know, someone had her and had taken her phone from her, which is common in sex-trafficking situations.


Connie: Sex trafficking is actually Guy's area of expertise.


Guy Baker: Trafficking is when one person coerces another through force, fraud or coercion to engage in commercial sex, and that other person benefits from it.


Connie: He's worked dozens of cases in Missoula in the last five years. He said that a lot of people believe that trafficking only happens in big cities in other parts of the country, but it's actually a serious problem in Montana.


Guy Baker: Trafficking is the second-leading criminal enterprise on Earth today. It's unique in and of itself that a human is a reusable commodity. You know, if I have one girl and she's fetching $200 a trick and sold three times a day, that's $4,000 a week, that's $15,000 a month. All you need is a device, a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop, one guy can run multiple girls.


Connie: Even before Guy was assigned to Jermain's case, her family was hearing rumors that Jermain was being trafficked. There was one tip in particular that got Guy's attention. The tip came from two women who told police that they were at a party on the reservation when a couple of men showed up. The men were involved in drug trafficking, and one of the women overheard them speaking in Spanish.


Guy Baker: One of the females who understood Spanish got to believe that they were gonna be sold to these Hispanic males. So the females quickly left the residence and got away. So we don't have any indication that Jermain was there. But okay, here's two guys looking to buy a female, and now we have a missing female. Yeah, I definitely thought there might be a correlation.


Connie: The idea that Jermain could have been stolen and forced into sex trafficking sounded scary. Like something you see on tv shows or movies. It's actually the premise of a TV show on ABC called Big Sky, based in Montana. The show has drawn complaints from tribal organizations for misrepresentation. It depicts white women being abducted, but the truth is Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking.


Connie: I wanted to understand how trafficking is affecting Indigenous communities, so I went to a conference last year in Arizona with advocates and experts from across the country. It was mostly Indigenous women who were fighting to prevent violence in their communities. And I quickly learned how closely connected trafficking is to the issue of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls. I was struck by how many people there had a personal connection. They had lost someone in their family, or knew of someone who had gone missing or been killed.


Lauren Small Rodriguez: So it is possible, like, for Jermain, for this to happen, because I've seen it firsthand.


Connie: One of the women I met there was Lauren Small Rodriguez. She's from the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in southeastern Montana, but lives in Missoula. She's the person who initially told me about Jermain Charlo and suggested that I look into her case.


Lauren Small Rodriguez: This happened, you know, only a few blocks away from where we are having this interview right now.


Connie: Lauren and I are in downtown Missoula, not far from where Jermain was last seen.


Lauren Small Rodriguez: And so that's a very scary thing that we are still being targeted as Indigenous women and girls. This happens. A lot of our girls are being trafficked, or they're here in our town and a boyfriend has control of their money, has control of all of their form of communication to their family. And they won't let them out of sight. And they will abuse them whenever they want sex. If they want some extra money, they'll, you know, have other people have sex with that woman.


Connie: But it's not just men these women know. Indigenous women have to be on high alert among strangers as well. This region became a hot spot for the sex trade during the oil boom that peaked in the early 2000s, and drew tens of thousands of oil workers. But now, even as the oil boom has waned in Montana and neighboring states, sex trafficking continues to be a problem.


Connie: Interstate 90 runs 500 miles through Montana. It's a long and lonely highway on which women and girls are trafficked. It passes directly through Missoula.


Lauren Small Rodriguez: You have to be on alert because you can be harassed. You can be, you know, groped. You can be followed to your car. You can be pushed in. You can be kidnapped. And so we were always taught if someone throws you in the car, if someone tries to kidnap you, scream and fight and gouge eyes, do whatever you can, because that's gonna be your last chance of fighting for your life. Even if there's a gun involved, you need to fight. Don't let a weapon scare you, because it's either you fighting back or being murdered.


Connie: Lauren says that, as an Indigenous woman in Montana, she was taught by the older women in her family to be careful. She says she has a cousin who was killed, and another who she believes is being trafficked right now.


Lauren Small Rodriguez: The fear is being taken. That's a big fear for a lot of our women and myself is that, if I'm in a place where there's a lot of men around—especially a lot of white men around—I'm worried.


Connie: There is a long history of Indigenous women being exploited. It goes back over 500 years. Christopher Columbus wrote about settlers looking to buy Indigenous girls as young as nine and ten years old. Pocahontas and Sacagawea are two of the most well-known Indigenous women in American history. But the reality is both of those women were girls, teenagers when they were forced into marriage with white settlers twice their age.


Connie: Even today, Indigenous women are more likely to be sexually assaulted than any other group. And more than half of those assaults are committed by white men. Academics say that the hypersexualization of Indigenous women in mainstream culture contributes to the violence that we face. They say that stereotypical depictions of Indian princesses or sexy Pocahontas costumes aren't just harmless fun, but can lead to real violence against us.


Connie: Lowell Hochhalter from The Lifeguard Group sees it all the time.


Lowell Hochhalter: You know, there were ads that were being posted, you know, get the full Montana experience, as they're advertising to have an Indian girl.


Connie: Like in one of those back pages?


Lowell Hochhalter: Yeah. Like on an online ad.


Connie: And she was an Indigenous woman?


Lowell Hochhalter: Oh, yeah. There were several.


Connie: Lowell says he could see why Jermain might have been targeted.


Lowell Hochhalter: She's got a very exotic look about her. And this isn't my language, this is, you know, thinking in the language of a perpetrator, right? She's very marketable. Tall, slender, exotic looking, dark hair. Took care of herself. Knew how to apply her makeup. Very marketable.


Connie: The idea that Jermain would be considered marketable to predators turns my stomach. Lowell says it wasn't just her looks. That in the first few weeks and months of Jermain's disappearance, they got several leads that pointed to possible sex trafficking.


Lowell Hochhalter: Within the first, you know, five or six months, we were getting multiple calls a day. "We saw over here." "This is where she's at." "We saw her here." "We're in Seattle, saw the posters. She's down at this beach." "She's up in Whitefish." "We saw her at the train station." You know, we don't share that with the family because that I mean, emotionally, physiologically, would have destroyed them.


Connie: Despite Lowell's efforts, Jermain's grandmother Vicki says she was hearing rumors too.


Vicki Morigeau: You get people who say this and that, and then we tell them, "Call the police." They don't. And we've heard some pretty gory shit.


Connie: Jermain's family has heard some terrible rumors about her that arrive directly to their inboxes. Things they don't want to imagine. Some that claim Jermain has been a victim of violence, and others that say she's being trafficked.


Vicki Morigeau: We've talked to Lowell. I said, you know, she could have been trafficked. I even encouraged them to be in Butte. People have said they seen her there. We don't know for sure. You listen to rumors, but you also know there's some truth to it. There's a lot of people missing in Montana trafficking between Butte and Seattle, Washington.


Connie: In the months following Jermain's disappearance, Vicki was so worried that Jermain was being trafficked, the thought of Jermain being out there somewhere, possibly being held against her will was agonizing. Vicki felt she had to do something.


Vicki Morigeau: Dear Jermain, if you're anywhere at all that you can read this, please know I love you. So many people love you. We pray you'll feel this love, and it will strengthen you to survive whatever it is you're dealing with or whoever has you.


Connie: Vicky wrote this letter to Jermain and posted it on Facebook. She was hoping that somehow Jermain would see it, and that it would give her the strength she needed to get out of whatever situation was keeping her from coming home.


Vicki Morigeau: We know you would not just walk away from your family, and especially not your sons, Thomas and Jake. They need you now more than ever.


Connie: As terrible as it is to imagine that Jermain was being coerced or forced into trafficking, for her family, it sometimes seems like it's the best possible scenario to explain her disappearance.


Vicki Morigeau: I know it's wrong to say you hope it's trafficking, because then you know there's that chance you might get them back. Yeah. And that's a hard thing. It's nothing that I'd wish on any girl ever.


Connie: To hope that Jermain was being trafficked because then at least she would still be alive and there is some chance that she could come home, shows you the agony that Vicki has been through these last two years. I can understand why she wanted to believe this was happening to Jermain, but I wondered if there was anything else going on in Jermain's life that led people to think she might have been trafficked?


Lowell Hochhalter: Human trafficking is nothing more than the exploitation of vulnerabilities. And Jermain would check off a lot of vulnerable boxes.


Connie: Lowell has developed a close relationship with Jermain's family, and has gotten to know Jermain through them in a way that few have.


Lowell Hochhalter: Those vulnerabilities can be anything from loneliness, to a tough family situation, to bullying, whatever that vulnerability is, a perpetrator, a pimp, a trafficker will find that vulnerability, and he will leverage it and he will use that to exploit whoever he can.


Connie: Lowell thought that learning more about Jermain could help in his searches for her, so he asked her family if he could read some of Jermain's journal, and they agreed to let him.


Lowell Hochhalter: For a young girl, her understanding of life and her experiences were very—she had a depth of knowledge. She had been through some things. You could tell that.


Connie: So you got to read some of her inner thoughts? You must have some insight into her personality and her state of mind. How would you describe her as somebody who's gotten to know her in that way?


Lowell Hochhalter: Very introspective, very aware of what was going on around her. But at the same time, there was an innocent naivete that was there. She was a person of hope. She wanted the best for her kids. She wanted to be something more than what she was. She had goals. She wrote of those goals. She was definitely in touch with her emotional side.


Connie: What were her goals?


Lowell Hochhalter: She wanted to raise her boys. She wanted to be a good mom. She wrote about that a lot.


Connie: I saw some pictures on Facebook of Jermain with her two boys, Thomas and Jacob. Thomas, the older one, looks like his mom. He has brown skin and dark hair and eyes, and they share a mischievous smile. Jacob, the younger one, has lighter hair, he's almost blond. He's chubby and sweet. There's one photo where both boys are both asleep curled up in her arms, and you can see their little heads almost touching as they rest on her chest, and Jermain is looking right into the camera with a content look on her face.


Connie: Lowell says Jermain had dreams and goals, but that there were things in her journal that hinted at darker times too, things that made him worry that her disappearance could be related to trafficking.


Lowell Hochhalter: I mean, there was some dysfunction there with mom and dad not being together and things like that. There maybe was a higher level of vulnerability that was there for her. It's what perpetrators—it's what they're using to attack and exploit native women.


Connie: The things that Lowell sees as Jermain's vulnerabilities: that her parents split up, that she was a single mom, that she struggled with poverty, are all familiar to me. I grew up with that experience. So did many women in my family. It's a very common situation for Indigenous women. But it's not just those vulnerabilities that native women have to contend with. Indigenous women and girls face some of the highest rates of violence—not just in Montana, but across the country.


Connie: No one knows exactly how many are missing or murdered in the United States, because no one is really keeping track of that data. But the statistics that do exist paint a grim picture. 84 percent of Indigenous women have experienced physical, sexual or psychological abuse. More than one in two Indigenous women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime.


Connie: In some tribal communities, Indigenous women have murder rates that are over 10 times the national average. Just being born an Indigenous woman in the United States made Jermain more likely to become a victim of violence.


Connie: Coming up after the break, Guy Baker focuses on leads from the night Jermain disappeared.


Guy Baker: Sometimes the evidence, or the footprints if you will, can evaporate quickly and that person is gone.


Connie: I'm driving with Guy Baker on I-90. It's that busy highway known as a trafficking route between Seattle and Missoula. Suddenly, Guy pulls over onto the side of the road just on the outskirts of the city.


Guy Baker: I'm just trying to get off the freeway close enough, and you'd be on your side. It'll be good. So it's that one back there if you wanted to—did you want to look at that?


Connie: Oh, yeah. Oh wow, yeah. I didn't see that. Okay.


Guy Baker: We can walk up there if you want.


Connie: Yeah, okay. It's the billboard of Jermain.


Connie: We walk up to the billboard. On the left side is a 12-foot picture of Jermain, and on the right side, it says "MISSING" in big letters.


Guy Baker: So just like that, I mean, I put my cell phone on there, not just the police department's number, that's my cell phone.


Connie: I've seen the photo of Jermain before. It's on all of her missing person posters. She's looking straight into the camera with a serious expression. She has a baseball cap on, with iridescent sunglasses on the brim. The photo is cropped so you can only see her face, but I know she's wearing a brown hoodie, blue jeans and cowboy boots, because this photo was taken just hours before she went missing.


Guy Baker: It kind of gives me goosebumps just looking at that. Also because it's cold out, too. But, you know, you look at her face, you look at her eyes and, you know, it just—if something bad happened to her that night, you know, she never knew what was coming.


Connie: It's heartbreaking.


Guy Baker: Well, just like every homicide victim. I mean, obviously no one knows that that's gonna happen to you, you know? You get up every day kind of the same way, and you go to bed every night the same way. You have a routine. And every day you get up, you assume you'll go to bed that night. But some of us don't, right?


Connie: Guy just said "like every homicide victim" when he was talking about Jermain. It catches me off guard. He may just be talking hypothetically or about other cases he's worked on, but I wonder if he knows something about Jermain's case that he's not telling me.


Connie: Guy told me that he's looked into several tips that Jermain may have been trafficked. He said that early on in his investigation, he found the men who were on the reservation, the men who were allegedly looking for women to traffic around the time Jermain went missing.


Guy Baker: So I've identified those suspects that are the non-resident Hispanics, and they've been interviewed also.


Connie: Guy says those men were involved with drug trafficking, but he never found any evidence they had anything to do with Jermain's disappearance. And every other tip he looked into about Jermain possibly being trafficked was also a dead end. Still, it's something he can't rule out.


Connie: But while he was investigating those trafficking theories, Guy was also looking into the leads from the night that Jermain disappeared, and information that came from the people who were the last to see her.


Connie: Video footage captured Jermain leaving The Badlander bar, walking down the alley and turning a corner. It was the last confirmed sighting of Jermain Charlo. The last time police had proof that she was alive. But there were other claimed sightings of Jermain in Missoula, and in the days and weeks following her disappearance, one sighting in particular kept popping up.


[NEWS CLIP: Missoula police are identifying persons of interest in the disappearance of Jermain Charlo, a Native American woman in her early 20s, was last seen in Missoula in the early hours near Orange Street Food Farm.]


Connie: Someone said they last saw Jermain near the Orange Street Food Farm. It's a grocery store in Missoula, about a five minute drive from The Badlander bar. Early on, Lowell Hochhalter from The Lifeguard Group says it became an area they focused on in their searches for Jermain because it was an area that she frequented.


Lowell Hochhalter: It sounded to us like she was dropped off in the parking lot of Orange Street Food Farm several times. That was kind of a major pit stop for her because her boyfriend lived close to there.


Connie: Jermain's boyfriend Jacob lived near the Orange Street Food Farm, and Jermain was supposed to stay at his place on the night she went missing. So whoever saw Jermain there that night must have seen her after she left The Badlander after midnight.


Connie: I decide to go to the Orange Street Food Farm. I think about what Lauren Small Rodriguez said about how Indigenous women in Montana live with the fear of being taken. Could Jermain have been taken from this place? Is it unsafe?


Connie: Okay, so it's about eleven o'clock at night, and I'm here in the parking lot. It's very quiet. Like, the parking lot is basically empty. I think there might be just one other car that is parked here for the night.


Connie: Although there's an occasional car zooming by, this really is a quiet residential area. In some ways, it feels more dangerous than the bustling downtown with the rowdy college crowd. Because if something happened to Jermain here, there would be no one around to see it.


Connie: If you leave the Orange Street Food Farm and you start walking down a very quiet residential street, And it's very dark too, actually. Like, there are no streetlights on this street. And as you get further away from Orange Street, it gets darker and quieter, actually. I'm not frightened, but I'm not gonna lie and say it's not a bit spooky.


Connie: Although Indigenous women are at a higher risk of being trafficked, like most people, we're still more likely to face danger closer to home, from people we know. And I wonder if that was true for Jermain.


Connie: That question became a focus of Guy's investigation.


Guy Baker: I had the facts of the case that were related to her disappearance, and who she was with and what that person said.


Connie: Guy says that Jermain wasn't alone that night. Someone was with her. Someone she knew.


Guy Baker: They had traveled to several different bars, a couple of those in the downtown area of Missoula. She left the downtown area with the person whom she knew, and who she was out with that night.


Connie: Jermain was seen leaving the bar with another person that night. Lowell says that this is the same person who said they last saw Jermain at the Orange Street Food Farm.


Lowell Hochhalter: You know, I don't know. I'm trying to be super careful with my language, too. I don't want to break our trust with law enforcement either. But I think—I know that that's been—you know, that definitely she was dropped off there because her boyfriend lived close. And I don't know if she was trying to keep that relationship with her new boyfriend under wraps. I don't know.


Connie: And can you tell us anything about the acquaintance she was with, or can you tell us who he was?


Lowell Hochhalter: Hmm. [laughs] I know that it was somebody that she was in a relationship with before. I do know he was the last one to see her.


Connie: On the next episode of Stolen: The Search for Jermain, we go back to the night she disappeared, and learn about the person she was last seen with.


Vicki Morigeau: And then he gave me a name where he said he was gonna drop her off. She was gonna go see this girl.


Connie: And you said you did—you said you did eventually talk to him?


Lowell Hochhalter: Yes, absolutely. I personally talked to him. Yes.


Guy Baker: We could not prove that things went down the way he claimed, but I do know some of the things he claimed were absolutely not the truth.


Connie: Stolen is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Connie Walker.


Connie: Our producers are Meg Driscoll and John White. Our editor is Devon Taylor. Additional help from: Jennifer Fowler, Anya Schutlz, Nicole Pasulka and Heather Evans.


Connie: Theme song and mixing by Emma Munger. Original music by Emma Munger and So Wylie. Special thanks to Lydia Polgreen, Collin Campbell and Reyhan Harmanci.