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MMIP Series | I-Team focuses on 2005 cold case murder of Indigenous woman Lakota Renville

Family and investigators believe case can still be solved
Lakota Renville
Posted at 5:38 PM, Mar 27, 2024

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — Over the past year, the KSHB 41 I-Team has investigated the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) crisis and the high rates in which young, vulnerable Native women are trafficked, murdered or go missing.

The I-Team found that this national crisis is happening in the Kansas City area, a place where the general public may not think about it.

READ MORE | Quana's Story | National MMIP crisis unfolding in KC with missing teen case
READ MORE | KC-area case of missing Native American highlights shortcomings of Savanna's Act

As we pick up our investigation, we focus on a nearly 20-year-old cold case in Independence, Missouri, involving a young Native woman named Lakota Renville, whose murder is reflective of the striking statistics found in MMIP cases.

Lakota Renville 2
Lakota Renville was a gentle and naive girl but it also made her vulnerable, her mother says.

"Tomorrow never came"

Renville has been gone from this world for 18 years, almost as many years as she was on it.

"I think, sometimes, when a person loses someone, they tend to think that, OK, the funeral’s over, now you go on. It doesn’t work like that," Renville's mother, Julie Watts, said. "It’s like it happened yesterday."

Those 18 years have passed without any answers about what happened to her, a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribal nation.

"There’s always a wondering, you know," Watts said. "A wondering if somebody's going to get caught or if Lakota's ever going to get justice."

Watts also wonders what her soft-spoken daughter would have become if she hadn’t been brutally murdered at the age of 22.

"She was just a compassionate person," Watts said. "She had a lot of empathy for people. She was like that ever since she was little."

Renville was shy and reserved. She had a soft spot for animals and the underdog. Watts remembers her daughter bringing home classmates whose parents weren't around or who needed a bite to eat after school.

Lakota Renville young
Lakota Renville was a shy, gentle, and compassionate girl, her mother says.

"She was just always really caring," Watts said.

However, being so gentle sometimes made her a target for bullies in high school.

"Lakota was quiet. So, you know, I guess people pick their victims," Watts said.

That's also how Watts would later come to feel about Renville's murder.

Renville graduated high school and was ready to see what the world outside Sisseton, South Dakota, had to offer.

It was hard for Watts, but all she could do was let go and watch her baby blossom.

Lakota Renville graduation
Lakota Renville graduated high school and was ready to see the world.

Renville was trying to find her way in life when she became the victim of a now-unsolved murder. Her body was found on October 16, 2005, dumped in a vacant lot on Pitcher Road off of 40 Highway in Independence.

"She was just right there, like I said, maybe 3 feet from the street," Carmen Deeters, a neighbor, told a KSHB 41 News reporter on the scene that day.

Renville was naked, wrapped in a blanket and possibly some carpet padding as well. According to the autopsy report, she was badly beaten and stabbed multiple times.

Then-Independence Police Department (IPD) detective George Parks said murderers usually try to cover up their crimes, but whoever killed Renville didn't seem to try at all, other than the blanket.

"There’s no evidence of anybody trying to conceal this body," Parks said in an interview.

lakota scene 2005
Investigators at the scene where Lakota Renville's body was found in 2005.

Investigators eventually identified Renville through her fingerprints.

"Now, we’re trying to open up the chapters in her life and backtrack and see if we can find what happened," Tom Gentry, the then-IPD spokesperson, said in a follow-up interview.

As police processed the scene, her family near the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation — mostly located within South Dakota — wondered if they’d ever hear from her again.

During a recent interview with us, Watts said she was expecting a call from Renville on the day she was murdered.

"She called me from payphones," Watts said. "The last conversation, she said, 'I'll call you Sunday, tomorrow.' But that tomorrow never came."

The investigation

Independence police say Renville's murder is still an open case. They won’t give us — or her mom — many details.

"That just means the case is still under investigation," Officer Jack Taylor, the former IPD spokesperson, said in a recent interview. "Right now, we don't have any leads on the case; we've investigated every lead that's come in."

Taylor said detectives questioned several people in 2005 and ruled out each one. It’s unclear if detectives have tried to re-question those people.

We asked Taylor what it’ll take to break the case.

"Blood evidence, DNA evidence, somebody that actually witnessed something that night," Taylor said.

Taylor confirmed DNA has been tested and that detectives "have been looking at DNA evidence," but would not elaborate on what other types of evidence were left at the crime scene.

"We don't have a suspect, so that could jeopardize the case down the road," Taylor said.

One crucial piece of evidence, however, could be key to solving the case: the blanket Renville was wrapped in.

"We don't know if it's unique but that's what we're trying to find out," Taylor said.

IPD wouldn’t show us the blanket in person and have only released one picture of it. KSHB 41 News cropped out the top of the image where Renville's blood stained the fabric.

Renville rug cropped
Lakota Renville's body was found wrapped in this blanket.

The blanket has a distinctive southwestern design with a steer or cow skull in the center.

IPD wouldn’t say if they’ve tried tracking down a manufacturer.

"It could have just been in someone's house and maybe somebody was in the house and recognizes, 'Yeah, I remember Bob had that blanket on their couch.' So it could be something as simple as that," Taylor said.

It’s the same call for tips police made 18 years ago.

"We would just like to find the perpetrator of this event for justice’s sake," Gentry said back then.

A witness told police they saw a brown early 1990s Ford Explorer in the area where Renville's body was found.

This is a stock picture of a 1991 Ford Explorer that could be similar to what the witness saw.

brown 1991 ford explorer
A witness told police they saw a brown, early 90s Ford Explorer, similar to the one in this picture, in the area where Lakota Renville's body was found.

Trying to survive

At the time, police believed Renville was living in northeast Kansas City.

A 2012 article in the Kansas City Star newspaper says in the early days of the investigation, police also believed her killer may have picked her up at Independence Avenue and Myrtle Avenue, an area that’s always had a reputation for trafficking, whether it's drugs or people.

"Victims are most vulnerable when they're in situations like that, in a town where they don't know anybody and they're dependent on this person who says they're going to treat them right, but they don't," Watts said.

Watts says Renville met a guy in a chat room, and in the summer of 2004, Renville left the family home and drove all the way down to the Kansas City area to meet him.

She soon found out that the man and the relationship were not what she thought.

"He was sending her out to meet guys," Watts said.

It's hard for Watts to say the words.

Watts says Renville told her over the phone this so-called boyfriend was abusing her and sex trafficking her.

"For a young gal who's never been out in the world and been naive her whole life, you know, people back then, they didn't know about sex trafficking," Watts said. "For her to survive, she had to do those things. I mean, that's what she probably felt."

Renville told Watts that one time, the boyfriend took all her clothes away and tied her up in a basement for three days.

Watts begged her daughter to come back home for good.

In March 2005, Renville's older sister, Waynette, sent her money to come home. Renville went home, but it didn't last long. Watts said Renville was out the door, heading back to Kansas City a couple days later.

Watts didn't realize until after her daughter's death that it's extremely difficult for women to leave their traffickers.

"I would pray every day that she would come back, and when she did come back, she came back in a body bag," Watts said.

Renville's last contact

Renville's autopsy references a possible clue — a phone number written on her left palm. IPD will not tell us whose number it was or if they investigated that lead.

But maybe Renville's boyfriend knows the number.

"He's the one who sent her out. He should know where she was if that was his job, per say," Watts said. "That's why I think he's just not saying things. "

Watts told us the boyfriend’s name, but KSHB 41 News will not name him because he’s never been charged with a crime in relation to Renville's case.

KSHB 41 News asked IPD if the boyfriend was ever a person of interest.

A police spokesperson responded, "We can not answer any of the questions you presented due to the open status of this case. I do hope that your story can help give traction or get the attention of anyone with information about this case that help solve her case."

We haven’t been able to reach the boyfriend to ask him what he knows about Renville's murder.

The I-Team reached out to advocates and organizations in Kansas City that work with women who have been trafficked. We hoped maybe someone who was doing outreach in 2005 would remember Renville. We didn't have any luck, but if anyone who knew Renville sees this story, we'd love to talk with them.

Lakota with kitten
Lakota Renville was living in Northeast Kansas City when she was murdered in 2005, according to police at the time.

DNA waiting for a hit

We learned that DNA was collected from Renville's rape kit.

That DNA is regularly run through CODIS, the national DNA profile database, to see if it matches any convicted offenders. So far, Taylor says there haven't been any hits in the system. If there is a hit, the case detective will get an email.

"I know there was something recently within the last year they did with DNA. Again, I don't want to go into the specifics," Taylor said.

We reached out to Angela Tanzillo-Swarts, a DNA expert who works as a clinical assistant professor with the University of North Texas's forensic science program.

"It could be one of those DNA profiles that's just sitting in CODIS waiting for a hit," Tanzillo-Swarts said.

She’s not working on Renville's case, but we sent her the information we have, including the autopsy.

"It could be whoever did this to her, whether one person or several, they might have had a criminal history, but because it wasn't a qualifying offense at the time, their sample didn't get put into CODIS," Tanzillo-Swarts said.

Missouri’s first DNA-related bill was signed in 1991, which required every person convicted of a violent felony offense to have their blood collected for DNA profiling. In 2004, that law was expanded to include all felonies, sexual misdemeanors and some out-of-state offenses. The first DNA collection occurred on January 1, 2005.

Most recently, in 2009, the law was expanded a second time to include anyone 17 and older arrested for burglary in the first or second degree, plus people determined to be sexually violent predators and people required to register as a sex offender.

Tanzillo-Swarts said cold cases like Renville's really come down to the DNA and technological advances over the years.

"They could even go down the route of the forensic genetic genealogy, if they have developed any DNA profiles," Tanzillo-Swarts said. "You can also do forensic phenotyping, which is when we're looking at the externally visible characteristics, you can have predictions on what a person may look like."

The detective on Renville's case won’t say if they’ve done this type of testing.

Remembering Lakota Renville

So, it's a waiting game, one that only gets harder with the passing years.

"It's not that I gave up, because I still want justice for Lakota," Watts said. "Every year we go out and we do a MMIW walk — missing and murdered indigenous women."

Watts' commitment to justice for her daughter is etched on Renville's headstone: “I'll love you forever, my baby you’ll be.”

The sweet vow is from a well-loved children’s book Watts read to Renville when she was little.

After Renville's murder, her family traveled to the Kansas City area. They visited the scene and held tribal ceremonies to "recover her spirit and take it back to her home reservation." They returned the year after, as well.

Lakota vigil 2006
After Lakota Renville's murder in 2005, her family and friends from South Dakota came to the Kansas City area to visit the scene. Here, they are holding tribal ceremonies to help her spirit move on.

Despite not hearing from any IPD detective in years, Watts says the family still expects and hopes someone cares about Renville's case.

"We already know there's no closure," Watts said. "What would give us comfort is knowing she's not forgotten."

The Kansas City Indian Center hasn’t forgotten about Renville. They gather every year in the overgrown lot on Pitcher Road to honor her life.

Lakota Renville 18 year memorial
The Kansas City Indian Center honored Lakota Renville's life on the day marking the 18th year of her unsolved murder.

"The Indian Center tried to be here for her family as they were going through that then, so it's important for us to continue to be there now, so people don't forget and so that there can be justice," Gaylene Crouser, director of the KC Indian Center, said.

KSHB 41's I-Team is not going to forget, either. We’ll continue to cover Renville's story and bring you the latest developments in the case.

The Sovereign Bodies Institute, a national grassroots organization that researches MMIP cases and helps families, is working with Renville's family. The Institute paid for a billboard calling for tips in the case, which will stand at 78th Street and Troost Avenue throughout the spring.

Lakota billboard
Lakota Renville's family hopes this billboard will help generate tips on her murder.

"I’m hoping that Lakota's billboard is a reminder to folks that we are all affected by the MMIP crisis somehow," Annita Lucchesi, founder of Sovereign Bodies Institute, said. "As a community, we are all connected, and when something like this happens, we all have a responsibility to spread awareness, support the family and advocate for justice."

Anyone with information about Renville's case can call the Crimestoppers TIPS Hotline, the Independence police, or send I-Team reporter Sarah Plake an email at sarah.plake@kshb.com.

Any tip — big or small — could finally bring Renville's family justice.