April 19, 2021

Episode 8: Tobacco Ties (S1 The Search for Jermain)

by Stolen

Background show artwork for Stolen

The story of what happened to Jermain Charlo began long before she disappeared. And her legacy goes on long after.

Where to Listen


Lowell Hochhalter: My name is Lowell. I'm with the Lifeguard Group, and this will be our 18th search today. And if we don't find anything today, we'll search again.

Connie Walker: It's a Friday afternoon in June of 2020. The sun is shining bright overhead as Lowell Hochhalter addresses a group of about 40 people.

Lowell Hochhalter: We're not looking for professional searchers.

Connie: There are several members of Jermain's family here, and Guy Baker and a few dozen volunteers. We're all gathered outside the Evaro Bar on the Flathead Reservation. Everyone is here to search for Jermain.

Lowell Hochhalter: So what we're looking for today is any clothing. The footwear she was wearing were square-toed boots. She was wearing blue jeans, a brown Under Armour. She was wearing sunglasses that had kind of a blue tint on the lens on top of her hat, and her hat had a logo with three trees on the front.

Connie: I've heard this description of Jermain and seen the photo of what she was wearing so many times, but hearing it today feels different because these searchers are actually going to be out walking through the wilderness to look for Jermain and her belongings.

Lowell Hochhalter: If you come upon something that looks out of the ordinary, something that doesn't look right or doesn't feel right, let us know and then we can—we'll provide that to law enforcement again.

Guy Baker: If you find bones that you think could be human, that's important. So just mark that, let us know, and I'll try to get somebody up here this afternoon.

Connie: How can you tell if bones are human or not?

Guy Baker: You really can't. So if you're unsure, then let's get the forensic anthropologist to take a look at them, and if you find bones that you think can be human, let's err on the side of caution and just let me know.

Connie: We split into two groups. Vicki and Guy are part of a team that searches an area near the casino.

Vicki Morigeau: I have hope. Oh yeah, I always have hope. When we first started the searches, I mean, we had a lot of people come up here. People didn't realize how thick the woods are here. So it's like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Connie: I split off with a smaller group that includes Jermain's aunt Valenda. We head to an area of the reservation at the foothill of a mountain. Our search party is led by Mike McElderry, a retired game warden.

Mike McElderry: We'll just watch. We'll watch for the clothing, any of the other stuff. Again, it's two years, it's a long time. But you never know.

Connie: The area we're searching is heavily forested with lots of tall grass.

Connie: Wow, it's really—we're out in the thick of it, eh?

Valenda Morigeau: Yeah, it's—no matter where you go up here, it's—everything's pretty—the vegetation in here is super thick. And with all the pine needles, it'd be really easy to hide somebody.

Connie: We're following a path in the grass made by a vehicle—it looks like an old trail. Mike tells us if there's anything to find, it'll likely be close to this path.

Mike McElderry: And forgive me how this is, but to drag a body off—let's say something happened beforehand, but if they have to drag a body off, a person is pretty heavy. So, they are.

Connie: I'm trying to keep up with Valenda as she zig zags through the trees. She's trying to cover as much ground as possible. But it's hard to know what we're looking for. Is that mound in the ground something suspicious? What's under those pine needles over there? What would finding Jermain look like after two years?

Valenda Morigeau: This is like—the shittiest part is out searching.

Connie: Why is that?

Valenda Morigeau: Because in one sense you would hope that you find them, and another you don't. I guess, like, the hope that, you don't find them, like, not to, like, sound weird or anything, but it's hope that one day she'll come walking back through the door.

Connie: It's isolated here, there are no houses in sight. We're on a part of the reservation that is only supposed to be for tribal members.

Connie: Oh gosh, wow! Oh my gosh. What's this?

Connie: We come across a black plastic bag that's been ripped open, and I can see clothes inside. I see socks that look like they belong to a little kid, but it's hard to tell.

Valenda Morigeau: Hey, Mike! You want to come take a look?

Connie: It looks like this is an abandoned campsite. There are burnt embers in a fire pit nearby, and beer bottles scattered around. They look through the bag and think it's probably not related to Jermain, but still, it's surprising to find anything this far out in the wilderness and realize that people have been here.

Valenda Morigeau: We're gonna head back up!

Connie: It was a hot, sunny day when we set out, but after a few hours the sky turns dark.

Valenda Morigeau: I was thinking we should probably get Connie back.

Connie: Our search for Jermain is cut short by the storm. We've been out here for hours, trudging through tall grass, going up and down riverbanks, but it feels like we've barely scratched the surface. Her family told me how hard it is to search up here, but it's even more difficult than I imagined. After two years, finding Jermain in this wilderness seems next to impossible.

Connie: In the summer of 2018, investigators were pursuing leads and executing search warrants, and they seemed to be closing in on a suspect. So why, two years later, are search parties gathering to comb the mountains for any sign of her? What happened to this investigation? And will we ever find the truth about what happened to Jermain?

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

Connie: Based on the search warrants we've seen, by August of 2018 the police were focusing heavily on the location of Jermain's cell phone after she left The Badlander bar. Jermain's ex-boyfriend, Michael Defrance was the last one seen with her. He told police he dropped off Jermain on a corner in Missoula. But her phone didn't stay in Missoula—it traveled down Highway 93 toward Evaro.

Connie: The search warrants say Jermain's phone was in close proximity to Michael's phone, and it was on or near his property from 2:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. on June 16. Police did a search of the DeFrance property looking for Jermain's belongings in late June, but they didn't seize any evidence, and were unable to locate her phone. But why was her phone in Evaro in the first place? Did Jermain forget it in Michael's vehicle? And if she accidentally left it behind, why was Guy never able to recover it? Vicki told me that police have asked Michael about it.

Vicki Morigeau: He told them that he had her phone.

Connie: The police? He told the police he had ...

Vicki Morigeau: Mm-hmm.

Connie: Why would he have her phone?

Connie: I asked Guy Baker about it.

Connie: But also, didn't he say he admitted to having her phone? Didn't—isn't that also what he ...

Guy Baker: Yeah.

Connie: So Michael admitted to having Jermain's phone that night. What did he do with it?

David Velarde: And he busted her phone.

Vicki Morigeau: Well, anyway, that's what he said.

Connie: When did he say he busted her phone?

Vicki Morigeau: He told one of the detectives that he busted her phone. He even told them that he broke her phone and it was in a garbage up by Idaho some place.

Connie: Her family says they heard Michael broke Jermain's phone and left in a garbage can along the side of the highway. I ask Guy Baker if this is what Michael told the police.

Connie: Her family says that her phone was destroyed and thrown out at some point. Is that something that you've investigated?

Guy Baker: Yep.

Connie: Like, on a highway on the way to Idaho?

Guy Baker: Yeah.

Connie: And you were never able to recover it?

Guy Baker: No.

Connie: Guy Baker has always stressed how important Jermain's phone is in his investigation. And the more I learn, the more I've come to understand just how important it is. It's not only the fact that search warrants confirm that Jermain's phone was traced at or near Michael's property, or that Michael admitted to police that he had it, or that it was destroyed, there's something else about Jermain's phone that Guy has hinted at.

Connie: Over the last year in several conversations, Guy has given me pieces of information like puzzle pieces about communications involving Jermain's cell phone and a person of interest that he says showed deception.

Connie: Guy mentioned this in our very first conversation in March of 2020.

Guy Baker: There was communications within 24 hours of her disappearance that I can't talk about. But that information is all relevant, and has helped us identify persons of interest.

Connie: I had no idea what he was talking about at the time. Communications within 24 hours of her disappearance? What does that even mean? I've since learned that cell phones usually communicate with cell towers when you send or receive a phone call or text. Did Jermain get a call or text? Didn't Michael have her phone? I didn't think too much about it until Guy mentioned it again a few months later.

Guy Baker: And there was additional cell phone activity that involves this other person that also is one of the deceptive things that he talked about. So we can't really discuss that.

Connie: So this cell phone activity involved another person. But what about it was deceptive? We talked about this again in August.

Guy Baker: There were a few communications with the tower within the, you know, the 24 hours after she is missing, and then it was never—it was never on any network ever again.

Connie: So we know Michael had Jermain's phone that night, and Guy says it communicated with the tower after they left The Badlander at midnight and before 10:00 a.m. on June 16—the morning after she was last seen. And whatever that communication was, it involved Jermain's phone and a person of interest—and deception.

Connie: In one of our earliest conversations, I think it was the very first conversation, you said there were communications within 24 hours of her disappearance that was relevant, and helped you identify a person of interest. So could you tell us any more about that?

Guy Baker: No, probably not. And you got to remember the family knows. I'm not quite sure where they got their information. And as has been the case now, people have speculated with only knowing pieces of information, and come to conclusions that weren't entirely accurate.

Connie: I don't know what the communication was. Some of the people we talked to think they know. But this is one of the times that reporting on an open investigation where no one has been arrested or charged is especially tricky.

Connie: We want to have multiple solid sources for the information we present. And even though Guy has been open about a lot, there are still some things he just won't tell us.

Guy Baker: So remember I already told you that there was aspects of my investigation that could not be released. And I believe I told you that on the phone stuff when we talked about the first time. So no, I can't.

Connie: So at the end of the day, we just can't nail down what this deceptive communication was. But here's what we do know. Based on what we have read in the search warrants, it seems police knew a lot of information about Jermain's cell phone by August 2, 2018. That was the day Missoula County detectives applied for a search warrant to conduct surveillance on Michael Defrance.

Connie: The crime they said they were investigating had changed from unlawful restraint—which is a misdemeanor—to deliberate homicide overnight. The detective said he had reason to believe that it was likely that Michael would move to a gravesite or stash location on his property to move or tamper with evidence related to the offense of deliberate homicide.

Connie: The detective said he wanted to use thermal imaging cameras to watch where Michael went. Those cameras can tell if ground has been recently disturbed, or if hidden structures exist. It seemed like there was momentum in the police investigation. They wanted to do extensive surveillance of Michael, his property and his truck day and night for the next 10 days. So what happened next? From what we can tell, not much.

Connie: The return for this search warrant was never filed with the court, so we don't actually know if they did that surveillance on Michael's property. But we do know there were no more physical searches of the Defrance property until October—almost four months after Jermain went missing.

Connie: If police were investigating Michael in relation to a deliberate homicide in August, and in one of the search warrants we read they were concerned that Michael may tamper with evidence on his property, why did they wait until October to do a more thorough search? I asked Guy Baker about it.

Guy Baker: So there's a reason that I can't tell you, but it's very explainable. So if you only have one shot to do something, do you want to do it with the best resources you can possibly get and take a longer period of time? Or do you want to rush it on a one-shot opportunity with resources that aren't the best you can get?

Connie: What kind of resources did Guy want? And why weren't they available in August? Dani wondered too, and asked Guy about this.

Dani Matt: He says that they wanted to get the right kind of cadaver dogs. And in order to do that, they needed funding. And because of where the financial year was at, that they couldn't do it until October because there was no funding. But I mean, it's July, August, September, October. It's four months later. Four months, you know? I mean, anything could have happened.

Connie: We asked Guy if this was true.

Guy Baker: The new fiscal year started October 1. There's a couple other things, including a lack of money at the end of the fiscal year in September that was out of my control. So ...

Connie: Guy says there were canines available from Missoula County, but he wanted a specific kind of FBI-certified cadaver dog that is trained to find human remains.

Guy Baker: We waited to get the best dogs possible, and it took until October. There were a couple things beyond my control. So my intentions were to have it done in the summer. And it didn't get done until the first couple days in October. So sometimes you have control over things and sometimes you do not, but when it was done, it was done in a manner that was thorough enough that I have no question that the information we gained from it is legitimate and accurate.

Connie: There was one conversation that we had where we talked about the Missoula County sheriffs having dogs, but were they cadaver dogs?

Guy Baker: I don't know what their capabilities were, that's why I went with FBI dogs. So we have certified canines that we knew what their capabilities were. They were the best resource to get, and I took the time and effort to get the best resource we could get.

Connie: And do they cost money when you use those dogs?

Guy Baker: Nope.

Connie: So why the wait until the new fiscal year?

Guy Baker: Issues that were beyond my control, logistics of getting the dogs here. So they were from other states.

Connie: So it's the cost of transporting the dogs was prohibitive and couldn't have happened in August?

Guy Baker: I didn't say that, no. It didn't cost us anything to get the dogs here, so it was just the logistics of getting the dogs here. They got here as soon as they could, and it was later than I would have preferred.

Connie: So it sounds like it was logistics and some issue related to the new fiscal year that delayed the search of the Defrance property. So In early October, Guy Baker searched Michael Defrance's property.

Guy Baker: We spent two days with multiple FBI dogs and probably eight to 10 detectives that were there for two whole days.

Connie: After searching for two days, Guy thought that he was about to solve the mystery of Jermain's disappearance when he found blood on multiple items.

Guy Baker: I actually thought, "This is it. This is where it led to. This is where we're gonna figure this thing out. Because now I have evidence with blood on it."

Connie: Wow. Oh, gosh! Was it a lot of blood? Or was it ...?

Guy Baker: It was blood on multiple items of personal clothing, and inside a location that seemed reasonable that that would explain what happened to Jermain. And that, coupled with other evidence that we had, led us to that location.

Connie: Guy made a judgement call in putting off the search to get the best dogs, and it seemed to him his gamble paid off. Guy sent the evidence to the crime lab and waited for the results. He says it took several months before he received them.

Guy Baker: We had numerous items that had blood on them, human blood, that I was not only hopeful, I kind of expected it to come back to match Jermain. But ultimately, it did not.

Connie: Guy said the results from the crime lab were inconclusive, which is a confusing result. It means that the blood he found didn't match Jermain, but inconclusive also means that they couldn't rule out that it was hers.

Guy Baker: Sometimes they can rule it out because this is not a match, and that's the answer you have. Other times they can say it is a match. And then the third option would be that it's inconclusive.

Connie: The Montana Crime Lab confirmed it received samples in Jermain's case, and the results came back as quote, "no conclusion." "No conclusion" and "inconclusive" are often used interchangeably. We spoke to a forensic expert about what it means for a blood analysis to come back as no conclusion. She says it's actually pretty common for blood to be difficult to match, and that there are lots of reasons why.

Connie: Several people's blood or DNA could get mixed together at a crime scene, making it more difficult to analyze. It could also be there's not enough of a sample to analyze, or that the sample has been degraded due to heat, weather, chemicals, cleaning agents or even water can affect a sample. She said the more time that passes, the more likely any of these factors could degrade the blood.

Connie: So the search of the Defrance property didn't yield the evidence Guy hoped. Jermain's family can't help but wonder if things would have turned out differently if Guy had done the search sooner.

Dani Matt: He's come at me at with the line, "Well, you know, I can't imagine this happening to my family." Well, you know, imagine this happening to my family. And if it was your daughter, would it have taken them four months to go look for her? Would it? It wouldn't have. Finances—you know, funding wouldn't have been an issue if it was his kid. It maybe not have been an issue if it wasn't a child from the reservation. I hate to put it that way, but I mean, they've got money to send Two Bear Air right up here because somebody didn't come down off the mountain the other day.

Dani Matt: Okay. Well, she didn't come home. She was last seen with an abusive ex-boyfriend. We're not gonna go knock on his door? We're not gonna search his property? Is it because she's Indian? Is it because she's from the reservation? Oh, let me go get lost up on the hill up here. Will they send the search and rescue teams for me? You know, where was the search and rescue for her? It wasn't there. So tell me again, Detective Baker, that you would do the same for her as if you would do it for your own family, because you didn't. He didn't. None of them did.

Connie: Her family's anger about the delays in Jermain's case are compounded by the fact that Guy says just because he didn't find evidence of Jermain at the Defrance property, doesn't mean that he's ruled out Michael as a suspect.

Guy Baker: It's very much a theory I continue to look into. It just wasn't the physical evidence to corroborate what I needed.

Connie: It's not the only theory Guy is investigating. He's told me from the start there were three theories that he's looking into: one is connected to the person Jermain was last seen with; one is that she was trafficked; and the other has to do with a tip that he got in 2018, that a woman was killed during a drug deal on the reservation.

Connie: Guy said he spent months investigating that lead, but ultimately was unable to uncover any evidence that it even happened—or that it had anything to do with Jermain.

Connie: Which of the theories that you have, do you have one that you think is the likely theory that—do you have a theory about what you think happened to her?

Guy Baker: I do. I have no doubt Jermain Charlo is a victim of a criminal act. I don't think she's alive. I am leaning more towards one of those three, but I can't rule the other two out.

Connie: Guy tells me at this point, one of three things would need to happen for him to solve Jermain's case.

Guy Baker: Well obviously, you always want a confession because the confession provides details, and you want to have details that you can corroborate.

Connie: Another possibility is that someone out there knows what happened to Jermain, and they could come forward.

Guy Baker: Somebody's got a big secret, and if there's more than one involved, and sometimes loyalties change and people change in life, and I'll figure it out.

Connie: And then there's a third possibility. And it's the one that Jermain's family is most desperate for.

Guy Baker: We have to find Jermain. And we find her remains, and we process that scene, and then we hopefully zero in on a suspect.

Connie: But Guy says that it's not enough just to find Jermain. Her remains also have to provide some evidence about what happened to her.

Guy Baker: You know, put the suspect at the crime scene, or put the crime scene on the suspect kind of thing. So you're looking at retrievable evidence, You know, let's say somebody is killed in one manner: strangulation. Maybe that's not gonna prove when you only have bones, as opposed to if they're shot in the head and there's a big hole in the skull. You're looking for evidence on the bones to show trauma.

Connie: Guy says he continues to follow up on any leads he gets. And although he says he has multiple theories about what may have happened to Jermain, it's clear that one of them keeps him up at night.

Guy Baker: I'm comfortable that I've identified who's involved in the disappearance of Jermain Charlo.

Connie: What's it like to feel like you know that, and still two years later, you know, not being able to lay charges?

Guy Baker: It's obviously very frustrating. You know, like I said before, I think about Jermain most days and many nights laying in bed, looking at the fan, trying to fall asleep. I think about Jermain, every 16th of every month it bugs me. It's absolutely frustrating, the most frustrated I've ever been on any case I've ever had. But just as committed, if not more committed because I don't like to lose. So I mean, I have to do what's necessary for Jermain because she's not here to be able to help me. I have to do it, and I'm gonna do it. And I'm gonna do that for her family to bring them closure. And then also ultimately bring the person to justice who's responsible for what they did to Jermain Charlo.

Connie: It's hard not to look back on this investigation and feel frustrated that it's come down to this: hoping that someone will come forward and talk to police, or that someone will discover Jermain's body. And what if she's never found? And what if no one ever comes forward or confesses? Is that the end of the road for this case? Maybe not.

Tad Dibiase: I literally said to the detective, "I'm moving to your state. I'm getting sworn into the bar, and I'm trying this case myself."

Connie: That's coming up after the break.

Tad Dibiase: You know, to me, murder is the ultimate crime, and a no-body murder is the ultimate murder.

Connie: Tad Dibiase is a former assistant US attorney, and he's an expert on prosecuting homicide cases where there is no body.

Tad Dibiase: The most serious crime is killing someone, and the most difficult murder case is when you don't have the body. Because in any murder case, the body is the most important piece of evidence. The body gives you: How did the murder happen? Were they poisoned? Were they shot? Were they stabbed? It gives you: when did the murder happen? Did this happen an hour ago because there's no rigor mortis set in? Did this happen a week ago? Did this happen six years ago because I got a skeleton. The body tells you the third thing, which is where did the murder happen? If you don't have the body, you don't know. Did it happen in a house? Did it happen outside? Did it happen in a park? Did it happen in one location and the body was transported to another location? So it's an enormously challenging murder case, and murder cases generally are hard cases.

Connie: It used to be that prosecutors would never take a case if there was no body. But Tad says that's changing.

Tad Dibiase: There have been no-body murder cases successfully prosecuted in all 50 states, everywhere. And I find the reluctance is less. Occasionally, I run across prosecutors who say, "Oh, I'm not gonna make this case, I'm not gonna take it. I'm not taking a case without a body." Which is bullshit. And there was one time I remember they brought me a case that was so strong it was ridiculous. And I literally said to the detectives, "I'm moving to your state. I'm getting sworn into the bar, and I'm trying this case myself, because it is ridiculous that this prosecutor won't try this case."

Connie: Tad takes on no-body cases now for free. He helps prosecutors and police decide if they have the evidence they need to pursue charges in cases where they don't have a victim's body. And from his experience, there are some things a case needs to be successful.

Tad Dibiase: So the gold standard of no-body murders is what I call the three legs of a stool. So leg number one is forensic evidence, which is kind of what every prosecutor wants, right? Because it's unassailable, it's not an eyewitness ID, it's not testimony. The number two leg is what I call confessions of friends and family. That is, the suspect tells someone. Maybe he tells a jailhouse informant, maybe he tells his family, maybe he tells his next girlfriend.

Tad Dibiase: So you have that. And then the third leg of the stool is confession to the police. In a no-body homicide, those are generally the three quantums of evidence that you get. A good no-body homicide case has all three legs of the stool. A bad or a tough one doesn't have any of them. You can make it with none of them, but it becomes hard.

Connie: I haven't told Tad any of the details of Jermain's case yet, but I think of it when he tells me something that I didn't know about what is considered forensic evidence.

Tad Dibiase: And that can be, you know, DNA, it can be hair and fiber. But some type of forensic—it can be cell tower, you know? Rock solid ...

Connie: Cell tower stuff?

Tad Dibiase: Cell tower is considered forensic evidence, because it shows A) where the defendant's phone was, where the woman's phone was, and the defense says, "I wasn't with her." Well, how come your cell phone was next to her for six hours? So those are what you look for.

Connie: Guy and Tad have been in contact, and Tad is now reviewing Jermain's case. But we don't know what, if any, advice he's offered. We reached out to the Missoula County Attorney's office. They told us they haven't reviewed Jermain's case for possible charges because it hasn't been referred to them by police. They told us proving guilt beyond a reasonable doubt is very hard when there is no body. They've only ever pursued one other no-body case, and it's now under appeal.

Connie: In telling Jermain's story, both her disappearance and everything that led up to it, in many ways this podcast has also been about her ex, Michael Defrance. Michael's never been named a suspect, or arrested or charged in connection with Jermain's disappearance. But he is central to a lot of the questions that I have about Jermain.

Connie: I wanted to talk to Michael. I've reached out to him several times over email and he never responded. I could never find a phone number for him, but I found one for his girlfriend at the time, and I decided to give it a call.

Michael Defrance: Hello?

Connie: Hi, is this Michael?

Michael Defrance: Yes.

Connie: Oh, hi. My name is Connie Walker. We've never met, actually, but I'm a reporter for Gimlet Media, which is a podcasting company. And I'm working on a story about Jermain Charlo. I'm actually working on a podcast, so I'm recording this call.

Michael Defrance: Why didn't you call my number? Why did you call my girlfriend's number?

Connie: I don't have your number.

Michael Defrance: How did you get her number?

Connie: I found it, like, on a white pages. But I just—I mean, I really ...

Michael Defrance: That's a little creepy.

Connie: I apologize. I mean, I would have preferred to call you directly.

Michael Defrance: Yeah, we get a lot of shit like this all the time. So yeah, it gets really annoying after a while.

Connie: Yeah, I mean, it's—you know, it was really important for us to talk to you directly. You know, we've obviously talked to her family, but we really want to be fair and know the truth, and we want to hear your side. So this is your chance to tell us.

Michael Defrance: Well, I don't want you to tell you and have it on, like, live TV and stuff.

Connie: It's not live.

Michael Defrance: I've already told a lot of people how she is. So why can't you get stories from somebody else? I'm not going to answer questions over the phone, sorry.

Connie: Well, are you ...?

Michael Defrance: There's stuff about her that, you know, I'd rather not people to see on the internet or whatever. And stuff about me. It's just, you know, it's not okay with me. So if you want to make a podcast or something, then look up the stories or whatever. But calling me over the phone? Like, this is not okay. Rather I think it's pretty immature and kind of bullshit.

Connie: Well, we're doing this story, like, with or without you.

Michael Defrance: So please stop harassing us over the phone.

Connie: Michael ...

Michael Defrance: It's really getting annoying.

Connie: Sorry, Michael. I know that, like, we could come out there and talk to you if you'd be open to it. But we've heard a lot of things about you and about your relationship with Jermain, and this is your chance to tell us your side. And we also want to know, like, you know, what can you tell us about her disappearance?

Connie: He hung up. Fuck!

Connie: I reached out to Michael again several times since we began releasing episodes of this podcast, with more questions about Jermain, their relationship, her cell phone and what happened on the night she went missing. But I haven't gotten a response.

Connie: I wonder a lot about Thomas and Jacob, Jermain and Michael's boys. They live with their dad, and they're now big brothers to two other kids. They were two and three years old when their mom went missing. Now they're five and six. Jacob was probably too young, but does Thomas remember his mother? What does he think happened to her? What was he told about where she is?

Connie: Jermain's family hasn't had any contact with the boys, but Dani says she occasionally sees a photo of them on social media.

Dani Matt: I'm just—you know, when I see the boys in the pictures and stuff, I just am glad to know that they're healthy and they appear to be happy. I don't know if they are or aren't.

Connie: Dani thinks about Jermain's boys a lot. She organized an online fundraiser for a billboard for Jermain. When she put it on the highway that connects Evaro to Missoula, she did it with Thomas and Jacob in mind.

Dani Matt: The reason it was placed at the bottom of Evaro Hill was because every time Michael and them had to drive to Missoula, the boys would at least see a picture of their mother, because I don't know if he talks to them about her.

Connie: Losing Jermain is devastating, but losing their connection to her kids causes her family even more heartbreak and grief.

Dani Matt: With our relationship not being strong with him because of the circumstance, we don't get to see the kids. We're here. We don't get to see the boys grow up. My mom doesn't get the grandbabies. I don't get my nephews. My sister doesn't get her grandkids. We—we've not only lost Jermain, we lost the kids. We lost the kids. We lost my niece. We lost—my sister is still lost. My nephews are doing the best they can. My—Jermain's little sister? I think sometimes she just powers through it. She—I think she just holds way, way too much in, and that's not good to hold that much in, but I mean, she's got to live every day. We all have to. We have to make a living. We have to continue life. But it's continuing life with all of this weight.

Connie: I'm in awe of the women in Jerman's family, the way they carry the loss of their loved one and keep going. Taking care of their families and one another, and all the while pushing for justice for Jermain.

Dani Matt: This case will break at one point because we're so determined, and we're not gonna let it go unsolved. We're determined. And so at one point, we will find her and we will bring her home.

Connie: Jermain Charlo's 26th birthday is coming up on April 24. Since her disappearance, her family marks these important days with tributes on Facebook, including pictures of Jermain from happier times. I've pored over those photos, videos and posts, and I feel like I've gotten to know Jermain a little bit. That through talking to her friends and family, I got a glimpse of a bright, funny young woman, who held onto a playful spirit despite the violence and trauma that marred her life.

Connie: Jermain was surrounded by strong, resilient women, who themselves are survivors. But I'm angry that they have to be so strong. This podcast has tried to uncover the truth about Jermain's disappearance, but we've also exposed the systems that failed her. Why do so many Indigenous women like Jermain have to live through childhood trauma? Why didn't Jermain get the support she needed to leave her violent relationship sooner? Why did her family face jurisdictional roadblocks to even report her as missing? Why didn't police respond more urgently in the early days and months of her disappearance?

Connie: It may be too late for Jermain Charlo, but her family is using their strength to try to make sure that another Indigenous family doesn't face the same grief.

Connie: Valenda has become a vocal advocate for missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls, and she's helped the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes try to address this crisis. The tribe is the first in the country to develop a community plan to better respond when someone goes missing. Now all of the law enforcement agencies that have jurisdiction on the Flathead Reservation will have a coordinated response.

Valenda Morigeau: Hello, everyone. My name is Valenda Morigeau. You don't know me. I wanted to thank everybody for coming out, not just helping us search, but supporting the Lifeguard Group.

Connie: After the storm cleared on the day that we searched for Jermain, we gathered again outside the Evaro Bar for a fundraiser for the Lifeguard Group. Jermain's family wanted to support Lowell because he's been so supportive of them.

Connie: Vicki stood off to the side. She looked worn out after a long day of searching.

Connie: How are you feeling today? You must be tired.

Vicki Morigeau: I am, yeah.

Connie: Lowell has gotten to know Jermain's family over the last two years, and has seen the toll that Jermain's disappearance has taken on them.

Lowell Hochhalter: You know, every time I see Vicki on one of our searches, I can just see the—you know, to be honest, I think it's physically, I think it shows physically on her. The first time I saw Vicki, she stood upright, straight. But now there's a little bit of a bow in her back. And I think—I think she physically carries this burden.

Connie: Vicki is the matriarch of her family. She’s gone through her share of pain and heartbreak in her 62 years. But not knowing what happened to her granddaughter seems almost more than she can bear.

Vicki Morigeau: We need the closure one way or another. That's what I hope for, is that we get some answers. I just want to know what happened and whoever did it.

Valenda Morigeau: Today, we've invited Ya man soot singers to come and sing a healing song for Jermain. And we've asked Lenay, Precious and Liliana and Naomi to come out here and dance for us. We're gonna—they're gonna—today they're dancing for our family to heal our broken hearts. And for Jermain. I want to thank everybody for coming out here and supporting our family, and to all the drummers and the dancers for coming out here and doing this for us today.

Vicki Morigeau: I know my kids and my grandkids are the ones that hurt, you know? But I know I have to be the strong one. And I've tried to be level-headed. When people say, "Oh, how are you doing," you know? It's like, how do you think we're doing? We can go some days. There's days that we have tons of hope. There's days that, you know, you think the worst. You're like a roller coaster every day. Just depends.

Connie: What gives you comfort?

Vicki Morigeau: There's not. It's hard. I think the thing that will—you know, if we don't ever find her, I got to make sure those boys know us, they know their mom, who their mom was. That would give me comfort.

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

Connie: Our producers are Meg Driscoll, John White and Anya Schultz. Our editor is Devon Taylor. Additional help from Jennifer Fowler, Nicole Pasulka, Jule Banfield 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, Reyhan Harmansee and Rachel Strom. And thank you for listening.

Vicki Morigeau: So before we quit, real quick, you wanted to know about the tobacco ties. And maybe we can all—all four of us just do that before we go. And the tobacco ties are prayers. So our prayers, our thoughts, everything go into this. So this is southern cedar, and the tobacco is our offering for our prayers. So I just folded all the tips in. And then I just make sure that I gather up the stuff in between. I just pull it together, and kind of give it a twist. Take my string. So my prayers, you know, they are all in there. Just wrap it a couple times.

Connie: What do you pray for?

Vicki Morigeau: I'm praying for the return of Jermain. That we find her, and that our stories that we've come out with you get out there and gives us some answers to find her. And just a reminder to let her know that we love her. We're always there.