Kaysera Stops Pretty Places would have been 20 years old this August. But instead, the end of summer marked two years since her body was found in Hardin, Montana, less than a mile from the Crow Reservation where she grew up.
Every day since Kaysera’s death, her heartbroken family has worked tirelessly to find answers, and justice from what they believe is her murder. They’ve held rallies, vigils, calls to action, spoken on panels, called on federal leaders to step in - and every day, they say her name. Kaysera.
“This is the third year we’ve held calls to action demanding justice for Kaysera,” Dr. Grace Bulltail, Kaysera’s aunt, told Dateline. “Our family has had to advocate for ourselves each step of the way. And we’re still fighting to hold law enforcement accountable to investigate her murder.”
This August, two years after the 18-year-old’s body was found in Hardin, Big Horn County Attorney Jay Harris released a public report detailing the investigation into her death. But the report received criticism from the family, who told Dateline they’re left with more questions than answers.
To Kaysera’s aunt, the report is more of an investigation of her niece’s character than an active investigation into her death, adding that authorities have never considered that she might have been a victim of murder.
Grace Bulltail grew up in Big Horn County, where she helped her grandparents raise Kaysera, who she considers her daughter. Kaysera, who was part of the Crow tribe, is described by her aunt as a kind, compassionate soul despite the hardships she faced while living on the reservation.
Grace now lives in Wisconsin where she’s an assistant professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She told Dateline life in Big Horn County is like a different world, and with the staggering number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the area, it’s not safe.
“If something happens to you there, if something happens to your loved one, you’re on your own,” she told Dateline. “If the families of these women never spoke out, no one would hear their stories. No one would fight for them. It’s up to us to be their voice.”
When Kaysera vanished on August 24, 2019, in Hardin, Montana, Grace said their family had no idea. When her body was found five days later on August 29, they still didn’t know.
It wasn’t until September 11, 2019, that they were notified by Big Horn County officials that Kaysera’s body had been found by a jogger on a property in the corner of a backyard at the intersection of Mitchell Avenue and Rangeview Drive.
In a report released in August 2021, Big Horn County Attorney Harris references witness statements from four people with firsthand knowledge.
The county attorney wrote that the statements are not “fully consistent,” but generally describe a series of events culminating in an argument outside of a Rangeview Drive residence at about 3 a.m., involving Kaysera and three other people, a 17-year-old girl, a 19-year-old woman and a 23-year-old man.
According to the report, one of Kaysera’s relatives told investigators that Kaysera had been hanging out at the house on Rangeview Drive, and a person who lived there bought her alcohol.
Witness statements detailed in the report claim the argument prompted a nearby homeowner to activate their car alarm in order to disperse them. They fled in different directions. Kaysera was seen running toward the backyard where her body would later be discovered. The location is in close proximity to where the person who bought her the alcohol lived, the report states.
There is no available evidence to show if Kaysera was in contact with anyone after she was seen going into the backyard, according to the report, and the exact circumstances surrounding her disappearance remain under investigation.
An autopsy report outlined in the county attorney’s report revealed “no evidence of injury or natural disease. Toxicology testing of blood detected the presence of ethanol. Although no neck injuries were detected at autopsy, an asphyxia cause of death cannot be excluded. At this time, the cause and manner of death are classified as undetermined. Cause and manner of death may be reclassified in the future if additional information becomes available.”
The report also states that Kaysera had a “0.149 blood ethanol concentration at the time of her discovery on Aug. 29, 2019.”
Grace told Dateline this excerpt is consistent with documentation the family has received, but she pointed out that the inability to rule out asphyxia includes the inability to rule out asphyxia by assault. She added that she has consulted with multiple medical examiners about the case and that they did not find the blood alcohol concentration to be a serious concern.
The report also revealed that there is no evidence that a missing person report was entered into the National Crime Information Center by authorities following Kaysera's disappearance, and Grace told Dateline that there does not appear to be any significant investigation efforts between August 30, 2019 and September 19, 2019.
However, on October 1, 2019, the Big Horn County Attorney called for the establishment of a Missing and Murdered Persons Task Force to address all "suspicious deaths or suspected homicides" under state jurisdiction in the county, according to the report. Substantial investigation efforts were then reestablished by the sheriff’s office during that first week of October.
In 2020, the investigation into Kaysera’s death was referred to the Missoula County Sheriff's Office. However, according to the report, “only a review of evidence and no additional investigative efforts were conducted due to the COVID-19 public health emergency."
The report also states that recently, in July 2021, the County Attorney's Office has accepted assistance for further investigative efforts from the U.S. Department of Interior's BIA Office of Justice Services Missing and Murdered Unit, “on the premise that federal authorities work cooperatively with the county sheriff's office and other state authorities.”
The investigation remains active and open, but the County Attorney stated no further information would be made public at this time.
Kaysera’s aunt told Dateline the report was the first she had heard of the MMU becoming involved in the investigation.
“If this means we’re finally getting some help, then that’s great,” she said. “But we just have to wait and see. This report doesn't change the way we've been treated by Big Horn County. But we're just going to continue doing what we’ve been doing and advocating for ourselves.”
Kaysera’s family, along with several organizations, held “Call to Action” events this summer in Kaysera’s name beginning on August 24, the day Kaysera went missing, through August 29 (the day her body was found), and ending on September 11, the day Kaysera’s family was notified her body had been found.
The family encourages people to send letters to the elected and appointed leaders in both the Montana and United States governments.
Details on how you can help can be found on the Facebook page, Justice for Kaysera and searching the hashtag #JusticeforKaysera. A petition was also started to raise awareness for Kaysera and all Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women.
“This month of events marks the third year we have held calls to action demanding Justice for Kaysera,” Grace said. “We have had to organize and advocate for ourselves in our ongoing fight to hold law enforcement accountable to investigate Kaysera’s murder.”
The family’s attorney, Mary Kathryn Nagle, says that Kaysera’s case is just one of many that are being overlooked.
“No family should ever have to wait this long,” she said. “Her murder isn’t being investigated not because there are no suspects or because there hasn’t been any evidence. Instead, her murder isn’t being investigated because as Americans, we have failed to hold our elected and appointed governmental officials responsible for their abdication of their own duties and responsibilities.”
As the summer’s events raising awareness for Kaysera come to a close, Grace told Dateline she wants people to know that it doesn’t end there and that there’s still so much more to do.
“This keeps happening to our people, over and over,” she said. “Nothing is going to change unless we speak up, unless we keep fighting. It’s draining, emotionally and physically. But we can’t give up. We have to keep saying Kaysera’s name. All their names. They won’t be forgotten.”
Anyone with information is asked to call the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Unit at (406) 258-4810. The public can also submit tips to the family through the family’s attorney at http://www.pipestemlaw.com/kaysera-stops-pretty-places/