Kateri Hinman Petto, an missing and murdered Indigenous women activist, stands beside Colette Yellow Robe, a Cheyenne activist, on June 16, 2020, during a rally for justice in Omaha, Nebraska, for Kozee Decorah, who was found murdered May 16 on the Winnebago Reservation.
Photo by Kevin Abourezk
OMAHA, Nebraska --
Shortly after 2 p.m. Monday, the news came.
The nearly 30 people standing outside the federal courthouse in Omaha gathered around Tanya Hindsley as she lifted her megaphone.
“We made a big impact today you guys,” the Ho-Chunk woman said. “Justice for Kozee! He’s going to stay in jail!”
Hindsley words came near the end of a nearly four-hour rally for justice for her sister, Kozee Decorah, a 22-year-old Ho-Chunk woman whose burned body was found May 16 on the Winnebago Reservation in northeast Nebraska.
Her boyfriend and the father of her children, Jonathan Rooney, a 25-year-old Winnebago man, was arrested and charged with manslaughter for his alleged involvement in her death. On Monday, Rooney was scheduled to appear in federal court but waived his appearance, meaning he won’t be released on bail immediately.
According to a federal criminal complaint filed May 29 against Rooney, Decorah called Winnebago tribal police just before 8 p.m. May 16 saying she, Rooney and their infant son had gotten stuck on a muddy road in a remote area of the reservation.
Two tribal conservation officers were sent to find Decorah but couldn’t find her. They found a vehicle, a GMC Yukon, before driving to Walthill to see if Decorah had made it home.
Later that night, two Winnebago conservation officers noticed a fire inside an outhouse next to a cabin. Inside the cabin, they found Rooney lying naked under a blanket on a mattress on the floor with his infant son next to him.
A tribal conservation officer and a tribal firefighter then found bones, including a human skull, in the fire burning in the outhouse next to the cabin. Rooney was found with a smear of blood or bruising on his arm and scratches on his left shoulder, as well as an injury to his right cheek.
FBI special agent Samuel Roberts and a tribal officer went to the cabin and outhouse on May 17 and found a skull and ribs in the embers of the fire. They also found droplets of blood on the floor and door of the cabin, as well as blood on a piece of wood on top of a gas grill.
“The blood on the wood appeared to be a handprint,” Roberts wrote in the criminal complaint against Rooney.
Roberts then interviewed Rooney, who admitted that he and Decorah had argued that night after she had asked him if he was using drugs. He said Decorah hit him, and he pushed her out of the cabin and shut the door. He then lay down on the mattress.
He told Roberts that he thought he had been drugged and was set up by Decorah to go to prison for murdering her.
Asked if things had gotten out of control that night, Rooney told Roberts that he had been “backed into a corner.” He then asked for an attorney, ending the interview with Roberts.
An FBI evidence response team later found a gas can and chainsaw in the Yukon.
A forensic dental consultant later concluded the bones in the fire were the remains of Decorah.
On Monday, Decorah’s friends and family, as well as activists with the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement, held signs and banners that read: “Justice for Kozee,” “No More Stolen Sisters” and “Speak Sisters! Stand and Rise! It Is Time!” They wore T-shirts emblazoned with Decorah’s image and the words “Rest in heaven.” They handed out cards with information about Decorah to pedestrians and motorists in downtown Omaha.
“No bail, keep him in jail!” they yelled.
They gathered for more than four hours in nearly 100-degree heat to send a message to authorities and to the state of Nebraska that they wanted justice for Kozee and they wanted harsher criminal charges to be filed against Rooney. Decorah’s family has criticized U.S. Attorney Joe Kelly’s decision to only charge Rooney with manslaughter, which carries a maximum punishment of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
“We came here to get justice for our sister, and that’s what we want,” Hindsley said.
MMIW activist Marisa Cummings blamed a racist colonial justice system for failing to seek justice for Native women.
“If Kozee was a white woman killed by a Native man on Indian land, the charges would have been felony murder,” she said. “It’s not fair and it’s not right, but it seems like we’re always on the streets fighting for the lives of our people.”
Omaha activist Renee Sans Souci, whose niece Ashlea Aldrich was found dead on the Omaha Reservation in January, called on Native men to stop abusing Native women.
No one was ever charged in connection with Aldrich’s death, though her family has contended that she was murdered by her boyfriend and left in a field.
“There was no justice there carried out in the way that should have been done,” Sans Souci said. “Our men need to stand up. They need to be healed. Take that responsibility to heal and to help us. Stop the violence. Stop killing us.”
In a meeting on Monday morning, FBI representatives assured Decorah’s family that harsher charges would be filed against Rooney, Hindsley said.
She said she couldn’t understand why Rooney would commit such a heinous act against her sister. She said Rooney had threatened to kill Decorah in the past.
But Hindsley said her family isn’t seeking revenge, only justice.
“I don’t know what happened to him when he was growing up, but I’m pretty sure some pretty awful things had happened to him to make him the way that he was,” she said.
She said the family has struggled to continue seeking justice for Decorah, while also fighting to get her remains and her children returned to her family in Wisconsin.
Speaking through tears Monday, Hindsley described her sister as a fancy dancer who loved to run.
“She loved to feel free,” she said. “She loved life. She missed her dad a lot, but she knew that the Creator was there.”
And she said her sister could be annoying as well.
“She would make people wait for her," she said. "You’d be honking, ‘C’mon Kozee. Let’s go.’ She’d just be in there doing her hair or whatever.”
“She’s making us wait now. She’s still making us wait," she said, fighting back tears.
“And it’s so hard to think that I’m never going to see her again.”
Two people hold a banner during a rally in Omaha, Nebraska, on June 15, 2020, hosted by the family of Kozee Decorah, a 22-year-old HoChunk woman who was found murdered May 16 on the Winnebago Reservation.
Photo by Kevin Abourezk