No major revelations after new search for Rita Papakee

MESKWAKI SETTLEMENT — A search began last Saturday and finished Wednesday for missing Meskwaki woman Rita Janelle Papakee, who was last seen on Jan. 16, 2015.

The search was conducted by the Meskwaki Nation Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) Evidence Response Team and Technical Hazardous Response Unit from Washington. D.C. and Los Angeles; and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Missing and Murdered Unit (MMU) and Crime Scene Unit from Montana. Members of the law enforcement agencies make up a task force investigating the Papakee case.

Jeff Bunn, who has served the MNPD since 2019 and was named chief in 2022, said there “wasn’t much to share” about what turned up in the search and that it wasn’t anything he’d consider significant enough to lead the investigation in any different directions.

The territory searched was on the Settlement in the battleground area, according to Bunn, and he felt that “just walking around” wasn’t going to cut it. The chief, who has not been with the MNPD the entire nine plus years since Papakee went missing, could not say with certainty how many of these types of searches have been conducted during that period.

The additional resources — which include cadaver dogs and ground Sonar technology — can help determine if there are any anomalies and are always available to the MNPD if needed. The request in this situation was for specialized equipment.

“In the course of our investigation, we had gathered some information that we thought we needed to take a deeper look into, a dive into, I guess you could say, in this specific area,” he said.

While the BIA has a policy to not comment on specifics relating to ongoing cases, U.S. Department of Interior Communications Advisor John Grandy said the MMU was created by Secretary Deb Haaland in 2021 to help with missing indigenous people cases.

The MMU uses a crime scene mapping station with 3D imagery to regenerate crime scenes. Grandy said the technology can provide images during criminal proceedings to show how the scenes were the day of.

The MMU has also developed a cloud-based tracker to catalog information about missing indigenous people. In 2023, the unit instituted an intake process which standardizes how agents receive and review cases.

Bunn, who previously served the State Center Police Department for 21 years, said he had never dealt with a case “quite this large” in his law enforcement career, but he wanted to assure the public that the MNPD is continuing to pursue all leads in hopes of finding Papakee and providing closure to her family.

“We have a relationship with our community. We have an emotional attachment to this, so if something comes up where it’s looking like it might be pretty good, guys are getting excited and emotional,” Bunn said. “We’re very invested in this case. When I took over, we had a meeting about it, and it is our number one priority.”

He did note, however, that with a relatively small department (15 sworn officers on staff) and plenty of other work to do, the Papakee case is far from the only priority. According to Bunn, tips on the case trickle in periodically (a handful in the last year), but he said most of the new available information is the result of the investigators’ work.

“They’re out pounding the pavement and reinterviewing people and looking at every option they have. They’re going over this case with a fine tooth comb, and that’s basically what the missing and murdered unit does. They’re the cold case solving unit for the BIA,” he said. “So that’s what they specialize in.”

Investigators are double checking to see if any details or clues were previously missed.

“Those things can happen. I’m not bashing them by any means. It’s just (that) sometimes those things happen,” Bunn said.

Anyone with relevant information is encouraged to call, email or Facebook message the MNPD or contact the regional BIA office in Minneapolis or the FBI office in Cedar Rapids.

“We’re working on it. We’re not gonna let it go. I can assure you of that. This is not going to sit unattended,” Bunn said. “As long as I work there, as long as I’m their chief, and our personnel feel the same way, we’re gonna work this until we get a resolution or we have to pass it on to somebody else. We’re gonna pass on as much information as we can and keep it going.”

Papakee, who was 41 when she went missing, was last seen leaving the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel back in January of 2015.

A reward for information leading to Papakee’s whereabouts has been raised to $100,000.


Unfortunately, Papakee is one of many missing indigenous women in the country. The 2020 statistics from the National Crime Information Center stated there were 5,295 missing indigenous women and girls in the country. In 2018, it was reported the murder rate of indigenous women was three times higher than for Caucasian women.

A movement — Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) or Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) — became more prominent in the last decade in the United States and Canada.

Cheryl Horn of Montana is a MMIW advocate. Her niece, Selena Not Afraid, was 19 when she went missing in 2019. Her body was found 21 days later in a location which had previously been searched, Horn said.

She gets calls from across the country from families looking for their mother, daughter, sister; and calls to help prevent missing cases. While Horn was not familiar with the Papakee case, she said it is not uncommon. She had not heard of any missing indigenous people in Iowa yet.

“I do not even know all of the ones in Montana,” Horn said. “We are fighting in our communities for our people. There is no way we can possibly know every single one.”

She hoped that states with lower indigenous populations, such as Iowa, would be different. People in central Iowa can assist the movement, and thus Papakee, by raising awareness of the issue, Horn said.

“Make connections,” she said. “Do not stop looking for her. Make posters asking ‘Why are you not looking for me?'”

Horn said the prevention of more missing indigenous people starts in the community and the home. Keeping youth away from drugs and alcohol is an important step. Providing hope for the kids, and showing them they can have a bright future in college or trade schools is another one.

“Everybody has family and love,” she said. “We need to hold everybody responsible, starting with the kids. Nine out of 10 of the cases I get pertain to drugs or alcohol. This is not OK, and we need answers (as to) why this keeps happening.”

Contact Lana Bradstream at 641-753-6611 ext. 210 or lbradstream@timesrepublican.com.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.38/week.

Subscribe Today