By GILLIAN FLACCUS
Tribal and local authorities and volunteers from a Minnesota-based missing persons foundation will search the Yurok Reservation in remote Northern California over three days for Emmilee Risling, a 33-year-old Native woman who went missing last October.
The search, which will involve more than 30 people, several boats and 10 cadaver dogs, was prompted by an Associated Press article published in February about Risling’s disappearance. It begins Friday morning and ends Sunday night.
The mother of two, who has ancestry from three area tribes, fell through the cracks both in life and in death. Her case was one of five instances since 2020 where Indigenous women went missing or were killed between San Francisco and Oregon and helped prompt the Yurok Tribe to declare a state of emergency around missing and murdered Indigenous women.
The Jon Francis Foundation will provide volunteers and helped assemble 20 other searchers and 10 cadaver-sniffing dogs, said Yurok Tribal Police Chief Greg O’Rourke. The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and Yurok police will also provide a combination of several sheriff’s deputies, search and rescue personnel, two boats and four boating officers, he said.
The search will cover a massive area — about half the reservation — and also parts of the Klamath River and its banks.
“I am grateful that the foundation has been able to use its contacts to bring in the additional resources so we can answer the family’s questions and bring closure to the family,” O’Rourke said in a phone interview.
The vast expanse of terrain and river that needed to be searched made it impossible for the tribe and local authorities to complete the job on their own, he said. The AP previously reported on jurisdictional issues with the case: Risling was a member of the nearby Hoopa Valley Tribe but went missing on the Yurok Reservation. The Yurok Police Department is in charge of the investigation, but the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office will decide when to declare the case cold.
“The tribe tried to organize their own volunteers but it was not a full law enforcement search and rescue,” O’Rourke said.
The search is under tribal authority but the sheriff’s office will provide three deputies, all-terrain vehicles and volunteers from their search and rescue posse, said Samantha Karges, agency spokeswoman.
David Francis, who founded the nonprofit in 2007 after his son went missing on a hike in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho, said he was first contacted by a Yurok tribal member living in San Francisco after the AP article was published. He then read the story and reached out to the tribal police chief and Risling’s parents after learning about the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, he said.
Francis’ group has conducted 28 missing persons searches after local authorities have stopped looking and have found bodies in 10 of those cases, he said. His own son was found after more than a year of family-funded searches; it was determined Jon Francis fell more than 120 feet while hiking in the mountains.
“I went into investigative mode and said, ‘Can we help this family?’ Because that’s what we do,” Francis said. “In these cases, we don’t know what happened, we can’t find them and we can’t lay them to rest and it’s very painful.”
Risling was an accomplished traditional dancer and graduated from the University of Oregon with a double major. She planned to attend law school, but got caught up in an abusive relationship and struggled with mental health and drug addiction after returning to the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s reservation.
Her parents and tribal law enforcement say she repeatedly fell through the cracks in a vast, remote area with almost no mental health services and limited law enforcement and addiction treatment services.
She sometimes wandered naked on the Hoopa Valley and Yurok reservations. Just before her disappearance, she had been released from jail on an arson charge and hadn’t shown up for her court date.
She was last seen in October soon after walking across a bridge in a remote sliver of the Yurok Reservation.
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