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706: A Mess to Be Reckoned With

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

It started as something that she was doing in her spare time and kind of took over her life. Lissa Yellow Bird searches for missing people, people nobody else is looking for, people the police have given up looking for. A reporter, Sierra Crane Murdoch, met Lissa in 2014 when Sierra was looking into the disappearance of a young, white oil worker, KC Clarke. He'd vanished a couple years before on the reservation Lissa's from in North Dakota. Lissa was investigating it too.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

She had just gotten out of prison. She was looking for a distraction, a way to stay sober. And she basically opened up her files to me and allowed me to see the degree to which she had involved herself in this case.

She had actually spent years. And she cracked that case through really, really non-traditional means, like by basically waging this campaign against the person who she believed had murdered KC Clarke. She mailed tens and tens of thousands of fliers around western North Dakota.

Ira Glass

The flyer said, "Beware", with a photo of the guy she thought murdered KC Clarke and his wife. And they did turn people against him. But at the same time, Lissa befriended the wife.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

They were texting each other almost every day. They were talking on the phone constantly. And so she had this really intimate window into the lives of these people she was trying to investigate.

And through that window, she was able to see their vulnerabilities. So at the same time that she was maintaining this faux friendship with this woman, she was also completely undermining her and her husband. And the case broke open.

Ira Glass

Sierra spent years with Lissa, watching this play out, and ended up writing a book about Lissa and the case. They got close. Sierra would stay at Lissa's apartment for months. They'd drive through the badlands, running down leads, talked for hours every week when Sierra wasn't in North Dakota.

And during those years, this thing happened. Native American families started asking Lissa to look for their loved ones. Lissa's Arikara, a member of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation. Remember, Lissa was just kind of inventing how she did this work. Before this, she'd been a welder, a prison guard, a social worker, did some law enforcement work and studied criminal justice in college, but she'd also been a drug dealer.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa has lived on both sides of the law, which is what makes her so good at what she does. She's gone to prison. She knows how law enforcement operates from a perpetrator's point of view as well.

Ira Glass

In dozens of cases now, sometimes on her own, sometimes with law enforcement. Lissa has deployed the same doggedness and resourcefulness that she marshaled in that first case. Like, for example, when a woman named Olivia Lone Bear went missing from Lissa's reservation in 2017, there was this national search for her. But Lissa's theory was she might not be far from home, where she was last seen. And one day, she decided to take a boat out on the lake near Olivia's house with some fishing sonar that she'd bought years earlier thinking someday it might come in handy to find missing people.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

She just launched the boat. And yeah, within about 10 minutes, her younger relative spotted some shape on the fishing sonar and said, hey, Auntie, what's that? And Lissa looked at it, and it was a truck. And Olivia was inside.

Ira Glass

Months before this, Lissa and Olivia's family had tried to convince law enforcement authorities to look in that lake.

Lots of Native Americans go missing and are never found. We don't even have good statistics on this, because the cases are so underreported and poorly tracked. A big part of the problem? There are these federal laws that limit who can investigate cases and how they can investigate them on reservations, which leads to a jurisdictional tangle. And it's often not clear which law enforcement agency is supposed to take a case.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

If you don't know if they disappeared from on a reservation or off a reservation, it's really hard to say whose responsibility that case is.

Ira Glass

On the reservation, tribal police or the federal authorities. Off the reservation, city, or county, or state police.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

But because it's so unclear, those cases can become a lot lower priority, or those cases can be ignored by all jurisdictions. And that's where Lissa Yellow Bird comes in. She searches for the people who slip through these jurisdictional cracks.

Ira Glass

So what's the story you're about to tell?

Sierra Crane Murdoch

So in 2016, Lissa's own niece went missing. And this was the first time that she went searching for someone who wasn't a stranger. She just never expected that it would happen to her own relative.

But this case is really remarkable for a lot of reasons. For one, she figured it out in just five days. She also recorded all of her conversations, which is something that Lissa does a lot. She saves everything. She photographs everything. She records everything.

And Lissa gave me these phone calls that she'd recorded over the course of these five days. And they were just incredible because they really showed how she was able to break this case open in a minute-by-minute way.

Ira Glass

Sierra says another thing about this case-- she and Lissa talked for hours all the time about everything. But after those five days when Lissa was working this case--

Sierra Crane Murdoch

She just kind of went quiet about it. We didn't talk about it for years, which is really unusual because Lissa is always talking about her cases. She just never talked about this case again, though. And I knew that-- I knew because she was so quiet about it, and I knew also because it was her own relative that it had affected her in a way that no other case had.

But I didn't really know why, entirely. I thought there was something else going on. And three years passed, and that was when she finally said, OK, yeah, I'm ready to talk about it. She wanted to talk about it.

Ira Glass

Sierra suggested doing a story, and Lissa said yes. She wanted people to hear it. And that is what we're bringing you today. We listen in on this exceptional investigator, Lissa Yellow Bird. Those phone calls, they are really amazing. She just knows how to read people and how to pull information out of them that other people cannot get. And we hear her crack this case in five very intense days.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And before we get to this story, a heads up. This story mentions violence, including sexual violence. Here's Sierra Crane Murdoch.

Act One: Act One

Sierra Crane Murdoch

The last time I saw Lissa, we were at her grandma's house on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. This was in February. Her mom had called her over to find their missing cat, not something Lissa usually searches for, but she drove over right away in her hot pink pajamas.

And while everyone's eating breakfast, Lissa walks to the window, stares out with binoculars. Lissa thinks some coyotes got the cat. A few days earlier, her mom bought a hunting rifle, and everyone's cracking up at the idea of Lissa's mom, a retired professor who doesn't like to be outside and who's never had a gun, taking to the porch with her rifle. Lissa asks her nephew, Mercury, to teach her mom how to use it.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Yeah, it's a scary situation, Mercury. We need your help.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa goes to the bedroom to get the rifle. She comes back holding a guitar case and hands it to Mercury.

Mercury White

This is perfect.

[LAUGHTER]

Lissa Yellow Bird

I wasn't even paying attention. It's like, oh. [LAUGHS]

Mercury White

I picked it up by the neck, and I thought it was a barrel and stuff. It was a Fender guitar.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Sing some songs to those coyotes. [LAUGHS] Ooh-- you'll be out there with the chair, just singing away.

[LAUGHTER]

My bad. OK, everybody got the laugh of the day.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

The Yellow Birds are really close. At any time, you'll find four generations of them just hanging out at Lissa's grandma's house for days on end. And it was at this house-- everyone eating, laughing, watching television-- where they last saw Lissa's niece, Carla Yellow Bird, before she went missing. That was in August of 2016.

At first, they weren't that worried. Carla didn't live with the Yellow Birds. She lived about two hours away off the reservation, but she was always stopping by, sometimes stayed the night. She was 27, had lots of energy, confident. She'd walk into her family's house, plug her iPhone into their speakers, and start jamming hip hop.

And it wasn't unusual for Carla to take off for a few days, not answer when they called. When she stopped coming around, her family told Lissa, don't worry.

Lissa Yellow Bird

We were like, oh, she's just out doing her thing, or she's probably doing something she shouldn't be. So, she'll come out.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa was starting to worry though. Carla was the daughter of one of Lissa's favorite relatives, Uncle Chucky. He died a few years earlier. One of the last things he'd asked Lissa was to look out for Carla.

Then one morning, Lissa had a dream about Chucky. It wasn't long. He just kind of appeared, and he said, you need to go get Carla now. Lissa called her family and found out the night before they'd asked a holy woman to come to the house and pray for Carla. They hadn't wanted to tell Lissa.

Lissa Yellow Bird

And I was like, what do you mean you had a ceremony? So if you guys didn't think anything was wrong, what would you be having a ceremony for? And I said, look, somebody needs to come clean with me and tell me what the hell is really going on.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Her mom told her they actually were really worried. At this point, no one had heard from Carla in weeks.

Lissa Yellow Bird

And I said, why did you guys lie to me? Well, we didn't lie, we just don't want you to put all this stuff out on social media, and we know that's probably what will happen.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa's family told her they didn't want it on social media, out of protectiveness for Carla. Carla had been in some legal trouble. She was addicted to meth. They didn't want to make things harder for her. Lissa thought maybe they were also embarrassed. In the Yellow Bird family are professors, anthropologists, social workers, all very aware of the stereotypes used to shame native communities.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Being drunken, being filthy, being all these labels that they give us that, when something of that nature takes over one of our family members, the last thing we want to admit is that it's hit us. I think what it boils down to is trying to keep a good reputation. So I think that played a major role of shame.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa's seen this firsthand with how the family treated her. She was addicted to meth, spent three years in prison for dealing. For a while, her family avoided her. Even now, Lissa's been sober 15 years, and they don't like to talk about it. Lissa's mom doesn't even use the word "prison." She calls it "Lissa's other college."

Lissa couldn't disagree more with this attitude. She believes that when someone goes missing, that's the worst possible time to hide the facts. Often the things someone is trying to cover up can be part of what led them to go missing in the first place.

Lissa called Carla's mom, Loretta. Loretta lived a few hours away on another reservation, and the Yellow Birds didn't know her very well. Carla's parents weren't together long. Loretta told Lissa she'd reported Carla missing a few weeks earlier. Lissa offered to help find Carla, and Loretta said yes.

So Lissa got to work. One of the first people she called was the officer responsible for the case, April Jose, a detective for the city of Mandan, where Carla lived. April said she'd learned that in the days before Carla disappeared, Carla was on the Fort Berthold Reservation, and she might have gone to a second reservation, called Spirit Lake. But April didn't have jurisdiction on reservations. She was a city cop.

This is another part of the jurisdictional tangle in these cases. April was trying to follow every lead, but she could only go so far. To interview suspects on the reservation, she needed the cooperation of law enforcement there. It's part of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But no one was calling her back.

Lissa Yellow Bird

She did tell me this spans five states and three reservations. My hands are tied. And I said, mine aren't. I'll go wherever. This is my niece.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

So Lissa did exactly the thing her family didn't want her to do. She opened Facebook and wrote, "Carla Yellow Bird has been missing, and I want to know any and all info related to her disappearance before I take this to the next level." People in the broader native community know Lissa, the work she does. When she puts something on Facebook, people respond, give her leads they might be more cautious about giving police. She started getting calls right away, and she learned Carla was last seen driving around with two men on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation.

Lissa Yellow Bird

And they just describe it was an older car. It was smaller. It had two different kinds of paint, maybe a replacement front quarter panel. And it had plastic on one window.

So when I put that out there, people from Spirit Lake, people from Bismarck were like, hey, we saw that car. We saw these people. We know Carla. That car belongs to Suna Guy's father.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Suna Guy, she hears this name a few times. He's a member of the Spirit Lake Tribe. So Lissa posts again on Facebook, says her niece was last seen with Suna Guy, gives his full name. And within a few hours, she gets a call from a blocked number.

Suna Guy

Why is my name being put in stuff when I don't even know what's going on?

Lissa Yellow Bird

OK, that's fine. I appreciate that.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

It's Suna.

Suna Guy

I'm not a bad guy, you know what I mean? If there's a way I can help anybody, I try. I mean-- what's your name again? I don't even know your name, but I'm calling you.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Here, I'll spell it for you, OK?

Suna Guy

Yeah.

Lissa Yellow Bird

It's L-I-S-S-A.

Suna Guy

Lisa? Lissa?

Lissa Yellow Bird

Lissa.

Suna Guy

Lissa.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Say it 16 times, and you won't forget it.

Suna Guy

[LAUGHS] Yeah.

Lissa Yellow Bird

So do you have any other insight into what happened to Carla?

Suna Guy

Do I? No, I don't. I'm just trying to clear up the air where-- hey, I made contact with you guys. I'm just letting you guys know only what I know. That's all I know.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Hmm. Well, your efforts are duly noted.

Suna Guy

Mm-hm.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

There are long stretches where Lissa doesn't say anything, just lets Suna fill the silence. Lissa sounds sort of unimpressed, which is tactical.

Lissa Yellow Bird

So do you want to give me your phone number? Or do you feel kind of paranoid about that?

Suna Guy

Why would I be paranoid? What I'm just saying-- does all that mean--

Lissa Yellow Bird

Well, I don't know. I'm just saying, you know? I understand where you're coming from.

Suna Guy

You know what? Put it like this. Only certain people have my phone number.

Lissa Yellow Bird

OK, so you don't want to give it to me then? Is that what you're saying?

Suna Guy

Yeah, because you know what-- [SCOFFS]

Lissa Yellow Bird

OK.

Suna Guy

You make me feel like I've got something hiding or something. Maybe I did-- I mean, I feel I'm doing something right by contacting you and letting you know.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Well, I'm not-- like I said, I appreciate it. I'm not trying to give you that feeling. I'm not trying to give you that feeling at all.

Suna Guy

You know what I mean?

Lissa Yellow Bird

What I'm trying to do is I'm trying to find out where my niece is at.

Suna Guy

Yeah, I understand. And like I said I mean, if I knew more than what I only know-- I'm being honest to got truth-- I would give you all the information I do know-- I would know, you know what I mean?

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa spends a lot of this conversation trying to get Suna to give her his number. I should say Lissa is really good at talking on the phone. She told me once, you know me, I'll keep a dumbass on the phone forever.

Suna Guy

Yeah, I try to help people the best I can.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Yeah, well, I sure could use your help finding my niece.

Suna Guy

I mean, most definitely. Like I say, I mean, sorry, I'm not trying to be an asshole or nothing, but I mean, if I come across and hear anything, I'll contact you, you know what I mean?

Lissa Yellow Bird

Yep. Well, it's the only way we're going to get to the bottom of things, OK? So you'll call me in the morning then?

Suna Guy

Yeah. Like I say, I mean, I don't got nothing to hide. Other than that, I got my kids up here. I got to get them ready for bed here. My wife gets off work here pretty soon, so--

Lissa Yellow Bird

All right.

Suna Guy

All right. Have a good night.

Lissa Yellow Bird

OK. Thank you.

Suna Guy

Yeah, bye.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Bye. Mother fuck.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa thinks he's lying. Suna knows something. The next day, Lissa tracked down the other guy people had seen in the car with Suna and Carla the night she disappeared. He was a friend of Carla's, named Jason. Lissa got him on the phone.

Jason

Don't know if she's OK or where she's at.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Jason said Carla had drugs she wanted to sell in Spirit Lake, so Suna had offered to pick her up a few hours away and drive her and Jason back to the reservation. When they got there, Jason said Suna ditched him and took off with Carla and some other guys, guys who are known as scary, violent. Then hours later, Jason ran into them again, but Carla wasn't with them.

Lissa Yellow Bird

You know what? I'm thinking they killed her.

Jason

Knowing Suna, he--

Lissa Yellow Bird

He'd kill her.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa was starting to feel sure that Carla was dead. At the same time, she was gathering leads. She was also talking almost every day with April Jose, the detective in Mandan. April had gotten a hold of Carla's phone records, bank account, and seen no activity.

Lissa decides she needs to apply more pressure, so she goes on Facebook again, blasts Suna's name in another public post. She writes, "I have been given information that Carla was last seen riding with Suna Guy. Please contact me by private message. Your confidentiality is assured." And then the phone rings.

Suna Guy

Hello. Is this Lisa? Lissa?

Sierra Crane Murdoch

It's Suna.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Remember what I said? If you say it 16 times, you'll remember it?

Suna Guy

Yeah. Well, what is this that you're posting on Facebook that your niece was last seen with me and my girlfriend?

Lissa Yellow Bird

Oh, I didn't say your girlfriend. I didn't say your girlfriend. You need to reread the post.

Suna Guy

Well--

Lissa Yellow Bird

You need to get honest with me, because I'm done playing.

Suna Guy

Well, I been only honest with you. I don't know what you want me to make anything else up more, I mean, because I'm not making nothing up.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Well, from what I understand, Carla's gone. And you know what? Oh, well, she's gone. There's nothing I can do about that, but I want to know where her fucking body is. I'm done playing this shit.

Suna Guy

Do you know what? You're making me feel like I got to say something. I don't know.

Lissa Yellow Bird

You know what? You know what, Suna?

Suna Guy

Huh?

Lissa Yellow Bird

Nobody cares about how you feel. I just told you I want my niece's body back. Somebody better fucking come up. What is it going to take, some cash so y'all can go get high again?

Suna Guy

Who's getting high?

Lissa Yellow Bird

You're getting high. Don't play me.

Suna Guy

[INAUDIBLE]

Lissa Yellow Bird

Don't play me. You have a reputation out there. You have a reputation.

Suna Guy

Of what?

Lissa Yellow Bird

I'm not going to explain that to you. You know it better than I do. I'm just saying--

Suna Guy

You know what?

Lissa Yellow Bird

I'm just saying, what's it going to cost me, Suna? Because that's what you're all about, right?

Suna Guy

Huh? What?

Lissa Yellow Bird

Right? That you want to get high? I'll give you five grand to get your fucking high on. Maybe you'll take yourself out with that, but oh, well. I want my niece's body. How about that?

Suna Guy

You know what?

Lissa Yellow Bird

I'm being fucking real with you.

Suna Guy

You're asking somebody to--

Lissa Yellow Bird

I'm being way fucking real with you. And you know what? I tell you, I'm a fucking mess to be reckoned with when I'm fucking mad. And now I'm getting fucking mad.

Suna Guy

I don't even know what anybody's even talking about.

Lissa Yellow Bird

So what's up, Suna? Let's get honest here. If you need to come up with a defense, whatever, but I want to know where her body's at, plain and simple.

Suna Guy

Well, you know what? I made the initiative to call you and tell you what only I know.

Lissa Yellow Bird

You know what?

Suna Guy

And that's all I know.

Lissa Yellow Bird

You think I haven't dealt with your kind of people before? I have. I'll come get her personally, myself, if I have to, but I want to know. If you have any fucking faith in anything in your life, just fucking tell me where her body's at.

Suna Guy

What do you want me to say to you? What do you want me to say to you? What do you want me to--

Lissa Yellow Bird

The truth. How about let's try for the truth.

Suna Guy

I've been telling you the truth.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Suna, you know what? When you want to get honest, you want to get fucking real, and you want to try and save your own ass, call me back. But until then, I'm fucking done, OK?

Suna Guy

OK then. That's fine.

Lissa Yellow Bird

All right, cool.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Suna still hasn't told her anything. But this time, Lissa doesn't try to keep him on the phone. She hangs up on him, the guy whose number she doesn't have, the guy she suspects murdered her niece. Lissa's anger here, that's not a tactic. She's enraged. What's crazy to me is that Suna stays on the phone and takes it, and then unprompted decides to call her back, just 10 hours later.

Suna Guy

I don't even know who Carla is, I said.

Lissa Yellow Bird

But you do know who Carla is.

Suna Guy

No, I don't. I don't know who Carla is. I didn't even speak with Carla.

Lissa Yellow Bird

She's got all this dope on her, and you didn't even know who she was. Please.

Suna Guy

I didn't even know what kind of dope or how much dope she had on--

Lissa Yellow Bird

Suna, you're insulting my intelligence.

Suna Guy

Do you know what? I will get my name cleared. I'm going to speak with the cops, with an attorney. Anything further that goes on with my name, I could press slander and harassment onto it.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Do it. I hope that's not a threat, because I'm ready.

Suna Guy

It's not a threat. I'm just telling you--

Lissa Yellow Bird

OK. Well, then watch your mouth.

Suna Guy

I'll be sharing with you what's being shared with me, you know what I mean?

Lissa Yellow Bird

I'm being real with you. I got enough shit on you right now, OK?

Suna Guy

On me?

Lissa Yellow Bird

I got enough shit on you right now, and that's all I'm going to say, OK?

Suna Guy

I know you were mad earlier, and I'm not trying to piss you off.

Lissa Yellow Bird

It's going to take me a minute to get my fucking ducks in a row. You go ahead and try and bring slander, because I've had bigger fish try to bring me down, people with multi-millions of dollars.

Suna Guy

I understand.

Lissa Yellow Bird

And you know what? Good fucking luck.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Carla and Lissa had some things in common. There are obvious things. They both had addictions. They were both mothers. They really loved their kids. But because of their addictions, they'd had their kids taken away from them for stretches of time. They knew how awful that felt.

Lissa Yellow Bird

It was a lot for her. I'm sure I wasn't the favorite auntie, because I was worried. I'd say-- if she was doing wrong, I could tell just by the way our first eye contact was. And she'd be like, jeez, auntie, you know? Not every time I'm here is bad.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa says Carla was a really cute kid-- kind of shy, giddy. But as Carla got older, Lissa would get on her case. Carla was known to take your stuff, little things. Like if you left your earrings out, you might later see your relative wearing them. And they'd be like, look at the cute earrings Carla gave me. The last time Lissa saw Carla, they were at their grandma's house. Lissa walked in on Carla raiding the fridge.

Lissa Yellow Bird

And all of a sudden, I see this big, gaudy, fake diamond ring. I didn't even see her head, because she had it so far in there trying to get some munchies out. It was like this two-karat-- I don't even think it was a cubic zirconia. And I was like, oh, my god.

She heard my voice, and her head popped up. And she was like, oh, here she comes to pick on me again. She's like, what, what? And I went over there, and I literally grabbed that fake gem. And I said, let me see this once.

And she took it off, and she was like, oh, my god. I thought you were going to start in on me again. [LAUGHS] She was in better condition that day. I said, I am going to start in on you because of this stupid ring.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa told her, damn, Carla, if you're going to steal, at least steal something nice. Still, when Carla needed help, she often called Lissa. And Lissa tried to help her as best she could because of Carla's dad, Chucky. He's a big part of why it's taken Lissa so long to talk about Carla and why it still hurts so much.

Let me just tell you what happened. A few years before Carla went missing, Chucky moved in with his mom, Lissa's grandma. Lissa would visit him a lot, spend hours in his bedroom. They'd flip through books together and talk about them. Chucky didn't have as many graduate degrees as others in his family, but everyone said he was the smartest Yellow Bird.

It made Lissa feel good to keep up with him. She liked proving to herself and to Chucky that she hadn't totally fried her brain with drugs. They spent lots of time debating this massive book he kept by his bed, The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 25. It spells out how the US government is supposed to fulfill its obligations to tribes in exchange for taking their land, how it's supposed to always act in their best interest, for their well-being, obligations the government has ignored in all kinds of ways both Lissa and Chucky witnessed themselves.

Chucky was four years old during a major event in their tribe. The US government built a dam, flooded out most of the reservation, forced everyone, including the Yellow Birds, to relocate. They were farmers, self-sufficient, but the land the government moved them to was unfarmable. There was huge unemployment. A lot of people left the reservation for cities. Chucky and most of his generation were sent away to boarding schools where a lot of them were abused.

In his room, Chucky also had stacks of articles about an emerging science called epigenetics that's shown how traumatic stress can change the way a person's genes behave and how those changes can affect your kids' genes, make it likelier that they develop illnesses, like depression or PTSD. Chucky put into words a pattern Lissa had observed her whole life, that she and the people she would later help had been delivered into a system where they had no chance, a system that kept taking from them, until they died. And their bodies are dragged behind bushes or left to drift at the bottoms of rivers and lakes. And few people bother to look for them, to fish them out.

Chucky himself wasn't doing so well. He was an alcoholic. He was in his early 60s, and he had cirrhosis.

One night when Chucky was drinking, he got violent, and his mom kicked him out of the house. Lissa called him and told him to come to Fargo where she was living. She didn't think he'd come. But then he called her one night from a Fargo hotel. He wouldn't tell her which one.

Lissa Yellow Bird

He was like, I've been drinking. And I know you're in sobriety, I know you're doing well, so I don't want to bring that to your house. And I was like, well, that don't make no sense, because I told you if you want to die by the bottle that's fine with me, but I just want to be near you. I don't want you out on the streets somewhere freezing to death, or any weird stuff going on. So if you could just get your butt over here, that would be great. And he's like, no, I got a room. I'll be good for tonight. And tomorrow, I'll come over.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Later that night, Chucky called Lissa again. He said he was going to kill himself. Lissa stayed on the phone with him all night, for seven hours. She kept him on one line. On the other line-- she took her son's phone-- dialed the police. She called every hotel in the city looking for him. Before Lissa could find him, Chucky hung himself. That was the night he asked Lissa to watch out for Carla.

In the three days Lissa was getting all these calls from Suna, she was also trying over and over to reach the one investigator who has the authority to look into crimes on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, an investigator with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Lissa left a ton of messages for him, even asked a tribal councilman to call on her behalf. And finally, after days of this, the investigator returned her calls.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Hello?

Investigator

Hello. Is this Lisa?

Lissa Yellow Bird

Lissa, yep.

Investigator

Yeah. This is the officer from Fort Totton.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Hello.

Investigator

Hello.

Lissa Yellow Bird

I'm calling about Carla Yellow Bird.

Investigator

Yep.

Lissa Yellow Bird

I'd like to get an update on what's going on.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

He tells Lissa, we know about Suna. We're looking for him, but we can't find him anywhere.

Lissa Yellow Bird

OK. Well, he was driving around all weekend, because I have pictures of him.

Investigator

Oh, OK.

Lissa Yellow Bird

You know Suna's called me like three or four times, right?

Investigator

Uh-huh. From what number?

Lissa Yellow Bird

He blocks it.

Investigator

Oh, hmm. Yep.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Because I already pretty much know who the culprit is.

Investigator

Hmm.

Lissa Yellow Bird

And did you know--

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa gives him all the information she has-- who she's talked to, who knows what, where to find them. She seems way ahead of the investigator. This is typical. I've seen Lissa work on dozens of cases. The investigator tells Lissa, don't worry. We got it covered. Then a few hours later--

[PHONE RINGING]

Suna Guy

Hello, Lissa?

Lissa Yellow Bird

Who's this?

Sierra Crane Murdoch

It's Suna. I have no idea why he keeps calling.

Suna Guy

You know, I'm just trying to help you.

Lissa Yellow Bird

You're not trying to help me.

Suna Guy

I don't even know. I'm not even-- I don't even know that.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Suna, quit fucking around, man. If you just come clean, you tell me where my niece's body is at, I will work with you. Because you know what? I know you're a dumb fucker. I know that. And you're probably a career criminal, and that's too bad.

Suna Guy

No, because my parents, they raised me right.

Lissa Yellow Bird

And you know what? I can have pity on you. I can have pity on you, but I want my niece's body.

Suna Guy

Hey, I know that you want to hear something that I don't even know.

Lissa Yellow Bird

It's just hard to hold my tongue, because I know there's more to it, because I've been doing my research.

Suna Guy

Yeah.

Lissa Yellow Bird

It sounds to me like you have a behavior pattern of sexual aggravated assaults.

Suna Guy

No.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Actually, yes. Suna raped his child's babysitter and spent 10 years in prison for it. He was 21 at the time. She was 14. One of Lissa's many jobs over the years was as a counselor to sex offenders in a prison.

Lissa Yellow Bird

I know your kind of people. And you know what? You lie to yourself, till you convince yourself that it's actually true. But you know what I think? I think you haven't ever gone this far before.

But good god, you sure have motive. Because you know what? After spending, what? A 10-year stint? Is that what you did in the big house?

Suna Guy

Yep.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Nobody wants to do that shit again, not at your age. And you never really learned anything from that, because they don't give you the proper treatment. They stick you like a little rat in a cage, and they let you sit. And they let you sit, and they let you rot. And your mind goes mushy.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

This is the fourth time Suna has called Lissa in three days. It's the middle of the night. She hasn't slept. She's chain smoking cigarettes, downing cup after cup of coffee. Suna starts telling Lissa he's worried. There are some guys he doesn't recognize driving by his house, stalking him. He says they have Texas license plates.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Well, give me the license plate number. I'll look it up for you.

Suna Guy

Do you understand what I'm saying? These guys want to try to shoot at me. I can't come and go looking for these guys and just to get a license plate, even though that'd be good information, you know what I mean?

Lissa Yellow Bird

[LAUGHS]

Suna Guy

I'm not going to go sneaking up to some people that want to shoot at me, especially--

Lissa Yellow Bird

[LAUGHING] I got you. I got you. Jeez. I get you. I got your concern. That was dumb.

Suna Guy

I mean, I don't know.

Lissa Yellow Bird

[LAUGHING]

Suna Guy

I got them calling--

Lissa Yellow Bird

I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

Suna Guy

I called for town PD to even tell them about this, and they ain't even concerned about it, you know what I mean?

Lissa Yellow Bird

[LAUGHS] I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't-- [LAUGHING] I didn't realize what I just said.

Suna Guy

Yeah?

Lissa Yellow Bird

[LAUGHING] [COUGHS]

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa laughs like this for a really long time.

Suna Guy

But you know what I mean though?

Lissa Yellow Bird

[LAUGHS] Oh, shit. Oh, I'm sorry.

Suna Guy

Because if I got the license plate number, I would give the PD their license plate number over here too, you know what I mean?

Lissa Yellow Bird

I do. I do. I was out of line. I'm sorry. [LAUGHS] God. [LAUGHING]

Suna Guy

Huh.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Suna seems totally thrown by this. He tries to laugh too, except it's clear he doesn't understand what's funny. But in Lissa's mind, this was hilarious. The guy she thought murdered her niece, he was calling her for help because he didn't want to get murdered. And then she basically tells him, go get murdered.

Suna Guy

But you know what, though? I'm sorry, but I understand. I mean, I'm not taking offense or nothing, but I'm glad that you're able to make a laugh out of it, you know what I mean? It's glad to see that you still can laugh, even though-- having a sense of humor, even though this is a serious matter, you know what I mean?

Lissa Yellow Bird

Yeah, I know that.

Suna Guy

And all that.

Lissa Yellow Bird

I was out of line. I'm sorry. [LAUGHING] Go get the plate number. Oh, shit. Oh, I must be getting tired. I'm sorry.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Later, Lissa told me she was exhausted. She hadn't slept in days, and she was getting desperate. It had been three days since she posted Suna's name on Facebook. She just lost it. When Suna called the next afternoon, he sounded different.

Ira Glass

Sierra Crane Murdoch. Coming up, Suna's new tactic. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two: Act Two

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "A Mess To Be Reckoned With." Sierra Crane Murdoch is telling the story of Lissa Yellow Bird, as Lissa investigates the disappearance of her niece in 2016. And we pick up where we left off in Lissa's investigation. Here's Sierra.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

On day four, Suna calls Lissa again, and something's changed.

Suna Guy

Good afternoon.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Hey.

Suna Guy

Can you be at Spirit Lake tomorrow morning or tomorrow afternoon?

Lissa Yellow Bird

Huh?

Suna Guy

Can you come to Spirit Lake tomorrow afternoon?

Lissa Yellow Bird

Why?

Suna Guy

I'm gonna come forward with everything clear with you.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Oh, yeah?

Suna Guy

Yep. You're too good of a lady, and I'm not going to lie to you, not going to continue. And I'm not going to hold a lie from you.

Lissa Yellow Bird

So do you know something?

Suna Guy

I already talked to a Detective Jose. I told her to come over here tomorrow afternoon. I told her I was going to contact you and ask you to be up here also.

Lissa Yellow Bird

OK.

Suna Guy

Because I wanted to talk to all you guys at the same time, as well as my family and all that.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Are you involved?

Suna Guy

No, I wasn't.

Lissa Yellow Bird

But you know where she's at?

Suna Guy

I was there. I was there, but I didn't know that was going to happen. It should never happened. And I know where the body's at. I know who the individual that did it.

Lissa Yellow Bird

You better tell them everything you know, otherwise you're going to get the blame. You know that.

Suna Guy

That's why I want you there. And I wanted to approach you with these cops around and letting them know that you're the main one I want to talk to. And after I talk with you guys and give you guys my statement about everything, then we're going to go. I'm going to take you guys to the body.

You know what? I'm sorry. And you know what? I cried my head off earlier. And you know what? I just remember and think about your laughing and your sense of humor last night.

Lissa Yellow Bird

[LAUGHS]

Suna Guy

That's what's make--

Lissa Yellow Bird

When I was acting deliriously tired?

Suna Guy

Yeah.

Lissa Yellow Bird

[LAUGHS] Yeah.

Suna Guy

And that's the reason why I-- I mean, I'm doing this.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Suna, you know this is like another chance for you to turn it all around, right?

Suna Guy

I do. But all I'm asking for is protection once I step forward, as well as my family.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

If this sounds at all manipulative to you, it did to me too, like he's flattering her, saying Lissa finally convinced him to do the right thing. And then he asks, so what can you do for me after I've done this thing for you? But Lissa goes along with it.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Well, the only thing I can guarantee you is that my family will not retaliate against your family.

Suna Guy

Mm-hm.

Lissa Yellow Bird

I don't hold any ill will to your parents. I don't even hold any ill will to you. I know you've lied to me already. I knew you're getting high. And I know people don't make the best decisions when they're high. This is your time to turn it all around, you know what I mean?

Suna Guy

I do.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Whether it's making bad decisions, whether it's sexual impulses or not, whatever, whatever it is that gets you into these predicaments. How old are you?

Suna Guy

I'm going to be 38 years old next month.

Lissa Yellow Bird

38. You got plenty of time to turn that shit around.

Suna Guy

Mm-hm.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Suna says he's not ready to tell her what happened, but Lissa's worried he'll have a change of heart overnight, back out. Plus, Suna says people are after him. It was possible he'd get killed before he confessed the next day, and then they'd never find Carla's body.

So Lissa keeps pressing him. She throws out a name, Dakota Charbonneau. People have told her Suna often hung around Dakota. He was notorious in Spirit Lake, with a record of violent crime. Lissa thought maybe he's the one who actually murdered Carla.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Who was with you guys? Dakota and who?

Suna Guy

Like I said, I'll give that name--

Lissa Yellow Bird

Charbonneau?

Suna Guy

I'll give the names tomorrow.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Not going to give me a name? Fine, Lissa thinks. She keeps pressing him.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Why did he do it, though? What possessed him to do that?

Suna Guy

These guys just figured that she had dope and she had money. How much dope did she have? I don't know. How much money she had? I don't know. I wasn't sure. I never seen nothing.

I mean, I'm like, what the fuck, man? I mean, it shocked the shit out of me. I mean, they did it behind my back. And when I heard the gunshot, and it just happened to be her.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Well, did she make any noises? Or did she cry, or anything?

Sierra Crane Murdoch

The rest of this phone call is really hard to listen to. For the first time in four days, you hear Lissa's voice crack, but she keeps going, asks question after question. She gets Suna to tell her almost everything. He says one of the other guys shot her, took her drugs. Then he says he got away from the guys as fast as he could. Lissa asks him, did you go back and check on Carla, see if she was alive? Suna says, no.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

When he told you that, how did you feel?

Lissa Yellow Bird

I wanted to know every detail. So I wanted to know, did she suffer? What if she suffered? I made a promise to Chucky that I would look out for her. And so, I guess it was important to me to know how badly I failed at that.

And if she was out there suffering for days, then it would have made it tougher. But I wanted to believe that she went fast and that she didn't know. It's kind of hard to know that. Even that, as ugly as it can be, it would offer a little bit of comfort. I needed to hear that.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa stayed on the phone with Suna for a lot of that night. And it's during this call that she softens toward him, like her anger has totally drained out of her. Later, Lissa would tell me she was afraid Suna was going to hurt himself or do something stupid to get himself hurt. She needed him to make it to the next day.

Suna Guy

Could I ask you a question?

Lissa Yellow Bird

Shoot it.

Suna Guy

What are you going to ask of me? What are you going to ask be done to me?

Lissa Yellow Bird

What am I going ask, like punishment-wise, or what?

Suna Guy

Yeah.

Lissa Yellow Bird

I mean, for you, I think you have somewhat of a conscience left, you know what I mean? I think you should, you know, maybe even get some kind of immunity for turning state's evidence against the other two.

Suna Guy

What's that? Immunity?

Lissa Yellow Bird

Immunity is when they-- [SIGHS] Immunity-- OK, do you know what a proffer agreement is?

Suna Guy

Yeah.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Do you?

Suna Guy

I mean, not really, but--

Lissa Yellow Bird

Well, don't just agree with me, tell me, do you know what a proffer agreement is?

Suna Guy

No, I don't.

Lissa Yellow Bird

A proffer agreement is when you go in--

Sierra Crane Murdoch

She starts explaining his options in a system that she knows, and he doesn't.

Lissa Yellow Bird

P-R-O-F-F-E-R-- you can look that shit up on the internet.

Suna Guy

Mm-hm.

Lissa Yellow Bird

You can ask for a proffer. And if I were you, I would.

Suna Guy

Couldn't you, when we're sitting there talking to them, I mean, mention that also?

Lissa Yellow Bird

I could.

Suna Guy

You know what? The only thing I ask is that-- it's my little boy's birthday Saturday. I'd love to be there. My little boy's going to be three years old.

Lissa Yellow Bird

You can't lie. You can't lie.

Suna Guy

I won't.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Everything that comes out of your mouth needs to be the truth. Because if they find out later that it wasn't, it nullifies the agreement.

Suna Guy

I understand. What I'm saying is that I'd like to spend my little boy's birthday with him, you know what I mean?

Lissa Yellow Bird

If you do everything you say you're going to do, I will fight for you to be there, with my heart and soul.

Suna Guy

I give you my word.

Lissa Yellow Bird

And keeping in mind you've given me your word before.

Suna Guy

This is my word where I'm stepping forward and giving only but honesty, honesty that your family deserves, Carla deserves.

Lissa Yellow Bird

If you do that, I will--

Suna Guy

I don't want my kid growing up without me.

Lissa Yellow Bird

If you'll keep your word, I will keep mine.

Suna Guy

And I will tomorrow.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa left for Spirit Lake the next morning at 7:00. It was a two-hour drive, and she called me. We talked the whole time. She told me she felt like all her searching for missing people had prepared her for this moment.

When she got to the reservation, FBI agents were already there. Suna had brought them to Carla's body. The crime scene was taped off. It was in a wooded area, the ground marked with old tire tracks. Carla lay no more than 50 yards from the road. People had been driving right past her for weeks.

The agents didn't let Lissa get close to Carla. Instead, they brought her pictures to make the identification. Carla was in bad shape. Lissa barely recognized her. And then Lissa saw the ring, the big, gaudy ring she had gotten after Carla for.

Lissa Yellow Bird

The whole thing was just senseless. I remember telling Suna, why didn't you guys just call us? We would have gave you the money just to let her go.

[EMOTIONAL]

She might have been a little shit, but she was important to us, you know? And I remember standing there for a minute, thinking like, what the fuck am I doing way out here by myself?

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa had never minded searching for missing people on her own before, but now, suddenly, she felt very alone. She drove down the road to where Suna was waiting for her with several investigators and his family. His mom thanked Lissa. They huddled together as Suna made his confession.

Lissa was watching Suna, his rapid speech. She thought he seemed traumatized. She also thought he was telling the truth. And when he was done, he came up to Lissa.

Lissa Yellow Bird

He said, I hate to sound so selfish, but I really want to know. Am I going to go to jail today? And I don't know. It seemed like that question kind of made the agents mad.

They kind of came over and started talking to me. And they were like, well, Lissa, what do you want? And I said, well, if he's the one that's helping me bring my niece home, then I would like to see him stay-- stay out.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

That's what the agents did. As Lissa was leaving the reservation, she stopped at Devil's Lake, this vast body of water that blends in with the flatness of the prairie around it. She got out of the car, walked to the edge.

Lissa Yellow Bird

And I just looked out there 'cause it's pretty there. I like that territory. There's a lot of spirituality there too. And I just couldn't feel anything.

I kept thinking. While I was by that water, I thought, just one feeling, just do one feeling. If you could feel one thing, even if it's hate, or anger, or something, Lissa, just come up with one feeling, because I think there's something wrong with you.

[EMOTIONAL] And the only feeling I could feel was gratefulness, gratefulness to Suna that she didn't have to spend another day out there alone. So I put a cigarette down for Carla, and I smoked one, and I left.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Another reason Lissa still hardly tells anyone about this case, a reason why it's still so hard for her has to do with what came afterward. Lissa went to Carla's funeral. Loretta, Carla's mom, thanked Lissa, honored her with a star quilt. But then what happened was a kind of unraveling.

Prosecutors began building their case against Suna and the two other guys responsible for Carla's murder. And Lissa became the main point of contact for Carla's family. She started going to all the legal meetings, helping Carla's mom understand what was going on. And at the same time, Lissa was still talking to Suna, constantly.

Suna Guy

But my phone's ready to go dead here.

Lissa Yellow Bird

OK.

Suna Guy

And if you want to chit-chat throughout the night, I don't mind. I mean, I'm just as well tired too, though, because I stayed up most of the night last night thinking that these guys were going to come through.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Yeah. I haven't been sleeping well either.

Suna Guy

I mean, I don't know. I mean, I'm going to try to sleep some or whatever I can tonight and all that, but--

Lissa Yellow Bird

Yeah. I probably will. If I head out tonight, I'll probably call you just for--

Suna Guy

Just to keep being known that I'm still here, you know what I mean?

Lissa Yellow Bird

Yeah.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

At first, Lissa had a pragmatic reason to keep talking to Suna. She needed him to follow through, to testify in Carla's case against the two other guys involved. Lissa worried for Suna's safety. He wanted witness protection, so she started calling around on his behalf.

When the prosecutor found out about this, that Lissa was advocating for Suna, she made Carla's mom, Loretta, the spokesperson for the family and stopped inviting Lissa to meetings, basically iced Lissa out. The court stopped notifying Lissa about hearings in Carla's case. Court officials told her, we only do that for the victim's immediate family.

Suna pled guilty to felony murder, meaning he committed a crime that led to Carla's death, even if he didn't intend to murder her. Prosecutors said that Suna didn't plan to murder Carla. He didn't have the gun. He didn't pull the trigger. What Suna planned to do, prosecutors argued, was to rob Carla of drugs.

The other two men involved in Carla's murder, they pled out after Suna informed on them. They got 50 and 28-year sentences for a list of charges that included use of a firearm, conspiracy to commit robbery, and second-degree murder.

At Suna's sentencing hearing, Lissa sat behind Carla's mother, sister, and a few of Carla's kids. Lissa gave a statement, and she actually spoke on Suna's behalf. She had wanted him to get probation on a lesser charge. Lissa said, I was the person who brought Carla home, and it wouldn't have happened without Suna.

She said, I can tell you, a lot of our people are still laying in fields and behind bushes all over this country, and nobody cares. She told the judge it was so rare for people like Suna to come forward, to tell the truth. She asked him to show compassion to Suna, because she said he showed compassion to us.

The rest of the hearing, Carla's mother and sister wouldn't even look at Lissa. Lissa kept tapping Loretta on the shoulder, but Loretta just stared ahead, ignored her.

Lissa Yellow Bird

Loretta was pissed.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

How did you know Loretta was pissed?

Lissa Yellow Bird

Because they all got on Facebook like right outside that court room and were like, Lissa Yellow Bird is over here taking the side of the murderer against my daughter. And then that kind of went out.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

How did you feel when you saw those posts?

Lissa Yellow Bird

I was just like, well, there's been a few families, and she's one of them, where just 100% ungratefulness. But I delivered. Suna didn't kill Carla. I don't have to explain myself to anybody. They weren't there. They didn't have to negotiate with anybody to get their loved one back.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Loretta wouldn't talk to me for this story. I reached out to her several times. She didn't respond.

Suna was sentenced to 15 years, which is actually a pretty lenient sentence for felony murder, but Lissa was furious. I've never heard her as angry at anyone as she was at the prosecutor in this case, a woman named Jan Morley. Lissa called Jan a slithering snake who was out to get Suna, typical of federal officials who fail tribal communities. So I called Jan, the prosecutor. She's retired now.

Jan Morley

I'm Native American, my background.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Oh, really?

Jan Morley

Yes. Right. Grew up on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, Belcourt, North Dakota. It's 10 miles from the Canadian border.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Wow. I didn't realize that.

Lissa didn't realize it either. I asked her later. She sounded surprised. Lissa had told me that in her conversations with Suna, she had begun to see him as a vulnerable adult maybe with a cognitive disability, but Jan didn't see him this way.

Jan Morley

Suna is not a victim in this case. Suna came forward because Suna wanted to save Suna's skin.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Do you think-- you know, he said he was scared. How do you feel about that?

Jan Morley

I don't believe it. I don't think he was scared. He didn't leave immediately. He stayed there. They went through her stuff. He wanted to be part of the loot.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

So he spent a lot of time right after Carla was killed with them, you're saying?

Jan Morley

Yeah. They cleaned the car. They disposed of their clothing. He wanted the-- the-- because Suna-- this is Suna. Suna's shoes were new. And they wanted Suna to take his coat off and burn his shoes too, because Suna must have had some blood on his shoes, but Suna wouldn't burn his new shoes. [LAUGHS]

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Wow. Was that from text messages? Were you seeing Suna writing text messages, being like, no, I don't want to go burn my shoes?

Jan Morley

No. Suna told us about that.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Oh, interesting. Huh.

Jan Morley

He said, my shoes are new. I wasn't going to burn my new shoes.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa was right, actually. Jan had made up her mind about Suna even before Carla's murder. She had prosecuted his rape case 15 years earlier. Jan said it was violent. She remembered this when she began prosecuting Carla's case.

Jan Morley

Suna is very conniving. I wanted Suna to be incarcerated after his plea, but he talked me out of it. And I can't believe he talked me out of it, but he did. It was like, honest to god, Janice, I'll this and-- he always called me by my first name too, called me Janice-- honest to god.

And he is one of the most untruthful people I have ever run across. He lies. He lies right to your face. And he'll continue, until you actually have to take the evidence, put it in his face and say, this is the evidence.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

The evidence in Carla's case is this. In the days before Carla was killed, Suna exchanged hundreds of text messages with Dakota Charbonneau, planning how to rob Carla.

The prosecution argued that the murder was an accident. The other guy with them that night tried to threaten Carla with a gun, and the gun went off. But afterward, Suna and Dakota traded more messages about how to cover it up, Jan said.

I didn't get to see the evidence, but the story Jan told me seemed so different from the one Suna told Lissa. I didn't know if Lissa knew all of this, so I shared it with her.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Does it change anything for you?

Lissa Yellow Bird

Well, no, it doesn't. I mean, it's not like it's any new information being presented here. I'm sure Suna did want his money. I'm sure he did want drugs. Isn't that what he was there for in the beginning? Do I know that Suna's a sexual deviant? I do. Does that make him a murderer?

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Yeah, but he was at least partially responsible for Carla's death, right? Doesn't that matter?

Lissa Yellow Bird

My position is I'm unmoved. I am totally unmoved.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Lissa's now helping Suna's lawyer prepare an appeal. When I talked to Suna, he told me that he now looks to Lissa like a mom. He still calls her Lisa, but they speak almost every week. Meanwhile, Lissa and Carla's mother, Loretta, they don't speak anymore.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

Is there any part of you that understands why they're angry?

Lissa Yellow Bird

This is what I say to people every single time when they ask for my help. What are you willing to do to get your loved one back? What are you willing for me to do to get your loved one back? And you know what the answer always is? Anything. Anything.

And it's always at the end when they get what they want when the conditions come out. Because in the beginning, you said you wanted to do anything. You were willing for me to do anything to get your loved one home. And I did that.

Sierra Crane Murdoch

In this case, the anything Lissa did was to connect with Suna, to get him to trust her. Lissa's sympathy for Suna doesn't surprise me. The thing that drives her to look for people no one else is looking for, it's the same thing that drew her to Suna.

I asked Lissa once, why do you do this work? She said, it makes me happy. It makes me happy to help these people who have no hope left in this world. She couldn't save Chucky, she couldn't save Carla, but maybe she could still save Suna.

Credits

Ira Glass

Sierra Crane Murdoch. Her book about Lissa, which covers that first incredibly eventful case that Lissa did, it talks about Lissa and her family in so much more detail than we ever were able to cover here today in an hour. It is called Yellow Bird-- Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country.

Our program was produced today by Lilly Sullivan. The people who created today's show include Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Aviva DeKornfeld, Noor Gill, Damien Graef, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Lina Misitzis, Stowe Nelson, Katharine Rae Mondo, Ben Phelan, Nadia Reiman, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Nancy Updike. Our managing editors are Diane Wu and Sarah Abdurrahman. Our executive editor is David Kestenbaum.

Special thanks today to Paul Yellow Bird McCormick, Shawna Yellow Bird, Jessie Yellow Bird, April Bowman, Sarah Koenig, Brian Reed, Connie Walker, Pat Hogue, Bianca Giaever, Lauren Markham, Charles Hudson, Allison Cohen, Terray Sylvester, Sarah Deer, Zaneta Thayer, and Jessica Lussenhop.

Our website, where you can stream our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Special thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he is amazed at how much more efficient he is working from home-- no more getting up at the crack of dawn, climbing the radio station's broadcast tower every morning to check the temperature and wind conditions.

Lissa Yellow Bird

You can look that shit up on the internet.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.