MACY, Neb. — Framed inspirational quotes decorated Galen and Tillie Aldrich’s home on a bitter cold day in January 2020. Photos of their youngest daughter, Ashlea, once hung in their places on the light-beige walls.
After the 29-year-old mother’s lifeless body was found lying muddy and naked in a cornfield on the Omaha Indian Reservation two weeks earlier, her photos were packed away and her clothes were bundled up in a gray star quilt. In keeping with tribal tradition, Galen then took the quilt to the old Cook homestead north of Macy, said a prayer and hung it in a tree.
“It’s like our mourning process,” he explained. “We keep her for four days and then we send her off to heaven. If we cry too much or keep some of her photographs and clothes, that might stop her from going. Her spirit will just wander around here.”
The Aldriches claim Ashlea lost her life because of domestic violence. But no charges have been filed in federal court against anyone in connection with her death. Since 2013, the Aldriches say they have called tribal police dozens of times after Ashlea’s longtime boyfriend assaulted her.
Native American women experience disproportionately high rates of violence, with more than 55 percent reporting that intimate partners have committed physical violence against them, according to a 2016 National Institute of Justice-funded study.
“The court system and our law enforcement never protected my daughter. I’m going to make sure nobody ever forgets what happened to her,” Galen said.
Last month, The Journal obtained a copy of Ashlea’s death certificate from Nebraska’s Office of Vital Records. The document, filed on Jan. 17, 2020, lists the immediate cause of death as “hypothermia complicating acute alcohol toxicity” and the manner of death is listed as an “accident.” Ashlea was “found deceased after she wandered off.” The time of death is unknown, according to the document.
The FBI has not made public information about how Ashlea died. When The Journal asked about Ashlea’s cause of death, Amy Adams, a spokeswoman for the FBI’s Omaha office responded, “The FBI can neither confirm nor deny an investigation.”
After the Douglas County Coroner in Omaha performed an autopsy, Ashlea’s parents said they viewed her body at Munderloh-Smith Funeral Home in Pender. Before the viewing, Galen said he met with an FBI agent who told him there was no evidence that his daughter had been strangled or sexually assaulted and there was no bruising on her body.
“She had a black eye, her nose was swollen and there were little welts all over her,” Galen told The Journal in January 2020.
After the viewing, Galen said he called an FBI agent and told him about the injuries he observed on his daughter’s body. He said the agent attributed the marks to the way Ashlea’s body was lying on the ground. Galen said he disagreed with that assessment and told the agent so.
During the interview, Tillie said Ashlea was found with no clothing, socks or shoes, less than a quarter mile from where she lived with her boyfriend. Tillie said Ashlea’s sister, Alyssa, who discovered Ashlea lying in the field, observed mud all over Ashlea’s back, which stretched down to her calves. However, Tillie said an FBI agent later told her Ashlea had no soil or abrasions on her feet.
“It was hard to even wrap my head around anything,” she said at the time.
After receiving Ashlea’s death certificate last month, The Journal contacted Tillie. She said she feels “betrayed and neglected by the FBI.”
“The agent who originally investigated was negligent and clearly wanted a quick, closed case. There are too many unanswered questions,” she said.
On Jan. 7, 2021, the first anniversary of when Ashlea’s body was found, dozens gathered at the Walthill Fire Hall and a bridge near the site to pray, sing and remember her.
“Even we couldn’t protect her,” Tillie said at the fire hall. “The law enforcement can’t protect her. None of our laws can protect her. That’s what we’re fighting for. We’re fighting for justice, so that we’ll never have another Ashlea. I can’t bear any of my tribal members to go through what I went through this last year.”
Over the past year, candlelight vigils have been held in Ashlea’s memory on the reservation and in Lincoln, Nebraska. In a display of solidarity, a group of Walthill High School cheerleaders even stood with red handprints painted across their mouths during a basketball game. Red handprints have come to symbolize missing and murdered Indigenous women and relatives.
Judi gaiashkibos, executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs (NCIA), stated in a report published May 21 that the reservation saw a “wave of suicides among teenagers” in the aftermath of Ashlea’s death.
“This was a clear sign of the desperation that can rise up during times of tragedy in a profound and dangerous way in communities that feel isolated and hopeless,” she wrote in the report, which was the result of an NCIA and Nebraska State Patrol study on the prevalence of missing Native American women and children in the state.
Gwen Porter, a member of the Omaha Tribal Council, acknowledged that the tribe has faced one crisis after another, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, with methamphetamine, suicide and domestic violence.
“It hasn’t broken us, but we’ve been dealing with it. Having people and other communities to reach out and support us during our time of need is what has gotten us through,” she said.
‘Fully investigated and prosecuted’
When Ashlea’s body was found on the reservation, the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office said federal authorities were in charge of the investigation. Although the FBI had a team onsite, they would not confirm that they were investigating a death or the location.
More than nine months later, when The Journal asked her if the FBI was investigating Ashlea’s death, Adams responded, “The FBI investigates cases in tandem with the Omaha tribal police. The FBI has spoken directly to Ashlea Aldrich’s family with respect to the outcome of our investigation.”
According to a background inquiry filed Feb. 10, 2020, in Omaha Tribal Court, three days after Ashlea’s body was found, her boyfriend was charged with criminal homicide, criminal contempt, and duty to give information and render aid. Tillie said he was held at the tribe’s detention facility in Macy, but then, in April, he was released.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Nebraska has jurisdiction over major crimes committed on the Omaha, Winnebago and Santee Sioux reservations. While Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Norris told The Journal he cannot comment on specific cases and investigations, he said his office is “confident” that the homicides that have occurred on Nebraska reservations were “fully investigated and prosecuted.”
“We are not aware of any homicides that were not investigated or not prosecuted,” he said. “We can’t ethically file charges when the evidence does not support a charge of homicide.”
Porter said she feels “there was due process” concerning Ashlea’s boyfriend, but she said “there’s a lot of unanswered questions.” She said the situation has been difficult for her, since she has close ties to both Ashlea and her boyfriend.
“I grew up with Ashlea. She was a niece. Her auntie is my best friend, so I babysat Ashlea. We’ve had outings together. We went to birthday parties and went to the lake,” she said. “For the (boyfriend), I also babysat him, too. He’s my nephew, distantly. We all know each other. We’re all connected in one way or another.”
Tillie described Ashlea as shy, but always smiling and happy.
“She was just a little scrapper,” Tillie said with a chuckle, as she sat at her kitchen table behind a flickering purple candle on Jan. 21, 2020, just a couple weeks after Ashlea’s death, thinking about Ashlea as a child. “She was just aggressive when it came to her sisters, because she was so tiny. She always fought harder when they wrestled or did anything.”
Tillie said her daughter was also very creative and artistic. Ashlea liked to draw and do hair and makeup. After graduating from Omaha Nation High School in 2009, Ashlea studied cosmetology at La James International College in Fremont, Nebraska. She received her diploma from La James in 2010.
The following year, Tillie was diagnosed with breast cancer and the Aldriches also lost their home to flooding. They moved to a small three-bedroom apartment in the middle of Macy.
“We all struggled through that,” Tillie said. “I think that’s when I started to lose her. When I was busy fighting cancer, she was drifting away and getting into a relationship.”
Ashlea reconnected with her boyfriend, whom she had dated in high school. They had two sons, but their relationship was marred by violence, according to the Aldriches, who approached the Omaha Tribal Council about the matter.
In an email sent June 9, 2017, to council members, Tillie detailed a June 3 incident in which she found Ashlea standing in the shower of the apartment where she lived with her boyfriend fully clothed and covered in blood. Tillie wrote that the couch was also “soaked with blood” and that there were “splatters on the wall and mattress.”
According to the background inquiry, Ashlea’s boyfriend was charged in Omaha Tribal Court with domestic disturbance and two counts of endangering the welfare of a child on June 3, 2017. Those charges were dismissed later that August. The document also lists four domestic abuse charges for four separate incidents that occurred in 2013, 2014 and 2016. It is unknown from the document whether any of those cases involved Ashlea. The charges were either dismissed, reduced or, in one instance, the boyfriend was found not guilty.
“As many times as we’ve turned him in, nothing has ever happened to him,” Tillie said.
Since Ashlea’s death, Porter said roles have changed on the reservation. The tribe has a new attorney general, prosecutor and chief of police. She said the tribe is reviewing its judicial system and providing community training to respond to incidents of domestic violence.
“It has our attention. We’ve been taking action,” she said.
The Aldriches said they made it clear to Ashlea they would be there for her no matter what and she always had a room in their home.
Galen said Ashlea struggled with alcohol use the last two years of her life. He said she was drinking daily and losing a lot of weight.
During the summer of 2019, Tillie noticed that when her daughter would leave her boyfriend and come home, each time, she was staying longer. Ashlea laid on the floor and read books with her sons, who have been in the Aldriches’ care since July 2018, or worked on jigsaw puzzles with them.
“(Ashlea) was always so content with them,” Tillie said, voice quaking, as tears streamed down her cheeks. “That was her happiness. She didn’t even need anything else.”
That September, Tillie took her daughter to New Town, North Dakota, where her sister lives. During the visit, Ashlea conquered her fear of heights. She sent her mother a photo of her standing on a ledge overlooking a lake.
“She was just proud of the picture. ‘I did it, Mom. I faced the fear. I feel so much better,'” Tillie recalled.
Before Thanksgiving, Ashlea went to a detox center in Omaha. She stayed four days and then sought a bed at an inpatient treatment facility. But, Galen said she never got into treatment because of the long waiting list. Ashlea returned to the reservation.
Not long after Thanksgiving, Tillie heard Ashlea had been hurt. She said she called the tribal police department and was told Ashlea had been taken to Twelve Clans Unity Hospital’s emergency department in Winnebago. When Tillie saw Ashlea at the hospital, she said Ashlea’s fingers were purple and that one of her fingernails was coming off. She said Ashlea told her her hand was slammed in a vehicle’s door. Ashlea stayed at her parents’ home most of December.
On Christmas Eve, Ashlea’s boyfriend came by to give her a mobile phone. Tillie told her daughter the gift was his way of keeping track of her. Ashlea was excited about the phone, nonetheless. Another present she really liked was a forest green winter coat with brown fur that her father picked out for her.
“She put it on and she fit it just right. She was just happy with it,” Tillie said.
Around 2:30 a.m. on Dec. 26, Tillie said Ashlea came into the living room and put on the coat. As Ashlea was about to go outside to smoke a cigarette, Tillie told her daughter, “Ashlea, don’t leave.” Not long after Ashlea walked out the back door, Tillie saw the headlights of a vehicle. Ashlea was gone.
Tillie quickly got in her black Kia Sportage and headed to Macy, where she found Ashlea and her boyfriend. She said she told Ashlea she was scared for her safety, but Ashlea reassured her she was OK.
Ashlea stood by the front passenger door of Tillie’s vehicle and said through the rolled-down window, “I love you, Mom.” Tillie replied, “I love you, Ash,” and then drove away.
The evening of Monday, Jan. 6, Tillie couldn’t stop thinking and worrying about Ashlea on her way to work in West Point, Nebraska.
Earlier, she received a text from Alyssa, informing her that someone saw Ashlea “beat-up” in the passenger seat of her boyfriend’s SUV on Sunday.
As the setting sun painted the sky a blaze of orange, purple and pink, Tillie, who works as a certified nursing assistant, stopped her car, took some sage out of the glove compartment, burned it and said a prayer for her daughter. She asked God to watch over Ashlea and keep her safe.
The next day, Galen said he was performing tribal home maintenance work, when he spotted the SUV that Ashlea’s boyfriend drove parked in a cornfield in the area of Main Street and Blackbird Creek, just south of Macy. He said he looked inside the vehicle and walked around it.
“I could see her tracks where she got out kind of going around the front of the truck. I could see his tracks, but I really couldn’t tell which way they went,” he said. “Then, I had that feeling – I knew something was wrong.”
Galen went over to a nearby concrete bridge. He walked underneath the bridge, and, when he came back up, he said he saw Ashlea’s boyfriend pull up in a vehicle. He asked, “Where’s my daughter? When’s the last time you’ve seen her?”
Galen said Ashlea’s boyfriend told him he hadn’t seen her since Sunday, when his SUV got stuck in the mud. Ashlea allegedly went to find help, while he stayed in the SUV.
After the encounter with Ashlea’s boyfriend, Galen headed to the tribal police department to speak with then-Omaha Nation Police Captain Ed Tyndall. While he was there, he heard a dispatcher call for officers to respond to a female screaming for help south of town. He immediately took off for the site.
Just minutes earlier, at roughly 3 p.m., Alyssa was looking for her sister when she spotted the SUV Ashlea’s boyfriend drove parked in the field. Tillie said Alyssa looked around the SUV, but then she began walking toward an opening in the trees. That’s when she saw Ashlea’s long black hair blowing in the wind.
Tillie said Alyssa ran to her sister’s naked body, which was lying facedown on the ground more than 100 yards north of the SUV. Alyssa tried to rouse Ashlea, but she was cold and stiff. She took off her coat, placed it over her sister and laid next to her until law enforcement arrived.
When Tillie reached Macy, she saw squad cars, the SUV parked in the field and a white cover lying on the ground. She screamed and ran toward the white cover, until Tyndall stopped her.
“I said, ‘Is that my baby?’ He said, ‘Tillie, you can’t come here. This is a crime scene,'” Tillie recalled Tyndall telling her. “He kept pushing me back and I kept fighting it.”
Tillie said the FBI collected soil from her daughter’s body and the ground she laid on. She said those samples were sent to the FBI’s crime laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, along with Ashlea’s fingernail clippings.
“I voiced my concern to deaf ears,” she said. “If anybody listened then, I believe my daughter would still be here.”