Pepita Redhair had lunch with her mother, Anita King, on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Anita then dropped Pepita off at her boyfriend’s home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a two-hour drive from Pepita’s family home in Crownpoint, New Mexico. As Pepita got out of the car, she turned back to Anita and said, “Mom, I love you. Take care of yourself. Drive home safely.” The 27-year-old gave her mom a final wave and went inside. Anita had no idea it would be the last time she would see her daughter.

Pepita had been living with her boyfriend, Nicholas Kaye, and his parents for more than three years, but she remained in constant contact with her family and visited them often. Anita noted, “She always called me every day, saying, ‘Mom, what are you doing? What are you up to? Do you need anything?” Pepita would frequently end her day by sending Anita a goodnight text message. It was unheard of for her to be out of contact for an extended amount of time.

When Anita didn’t hear from her daughter that Wednesday, her motherly intuition told her that something was wrong. She sent Pepita a text message asking if everything was okay but didn’t get a response. As hours went by without any word from Pepita, Anita grew increasingly concerned. By Thursday, she was frantic.

Anita finally got a hold of Nick on Friday, and she asked him where her daughter was. Nick claimed that he had no idea; he insisted that he and Pepita had gotten into a fight while at a house party on Thursday night and she had left with another man. Anita was skeptical of his story, as she was certain that Pepita would have called her to let her know if she was staying anywhere other than Nick’s house.

That same day, Anita received a text message from Pepita’s phone, but it wasn’t from her daughter. Instead, it was from a man who said he didn’t know Pepita and had recently purchased the phone from someone else. To Anita, this meant that Pepita’s phone had either been stolen from her or taken from her by someone who harmed her.

Fearful that Nick was responsible for Pepita’s disappearance, Anita called the Albuquerque Police Department and attempted to report her daughter missing. Incredibly, police refused to do anything. “The cops just kind of brushed it off. They said she’s an adult…she’s free to travel, free to go missing…I was pretty upset.” Anita insisted that Pepita was not the type of person to voluntarily stay out of contact with her family; she was certain that something terrible had happened to her. Once again, police brushed her off and assured her that Pepita would come back when she was ready. They told her to give it a week or two and call back if she was still missing.

Anita and Pepita’s sister, Shelda Livingston, were angered and dismayed by the lack of concern on the part of the Albuquerque Police Department, especially since they were aware of the fact that there was a history of domestic violence between Nick and Pepita. Officers had been to Nick’s home after a particularly violent confrontation just six weeks before Pepita vanished; Nick had assaulted Pepita so badly that she was hospitalized. Anita and Shelda were convinced that Nick was directly responsible for Pepita’s disappearance and couldn’t understand why police seemed uninterested in interviewing him about his missing girlfriend.

Terrified that Nick might be holding her younger sister against her will, Shelda drove to the quiet cul-de-sac where he lived and approached the concrete barrier that served as a fence. She yelled for her sister, begging her to come outside. The only response she got was from Nick’s dogs, who barked loudly at the intrusion. At one point Shelda saw one of the curtains inside move as if someone were peering out the window, but no one came out to talk to her. Defeated, she returned home.

Hoping that the Navajo Nation police force in Crownpoint would be more helpful, Anita called them and tried to get them to take a missing person report. They told her that since Pepita had last been seen in Albuquerque, they had no jurisdiction in the case. They referred Anita back to the Albuquerque Police Department.

Anita once again called the Albuquerque police, but they remained unhelpful and she could tell that they didn’t care about Pepita. “They said my daughter was a drunk. They assumed that she was gone [voluntarily] and that she was not important.” She noted that their lackadaisical response was likely a result of systemic racism that existed in the police department. “Us Native Americans are pushed away and our voices are not taken seriously. We are not acknowledged.”

Shelda contacted local news stations, asking them to air a picture of Pepita so the public would know that she was missing. None of the stations were willing to help. “That’s when we realized…we have to do this on our own.”

Frustrated, Anita and Shelda decided to launch their own search for Pepita. They had limited resources, but with the help of other family members, they were able to scrape up enough money to make missing person flyers emblazoned with pictures of Pepita. They then traveled to Albuquerque and hung them up throughout the area where Pepita had last been seen. Pepita didn’t have her own car and usually relied on public transportation to get places, so they made sure to hang up posters at bus stations, hoping that somehow Pepita might see one and know that they were looking for her.

Anita and Shelda knocked on doors in Nick’s neighborhood, handing out missing posters and asking residents if anyone had seen Pepita recently. Most of the locals knew Pepita — who they described as being a nice, friendly, young woman — but none of them had seen her since she had been reported missing.

Two weeks after Pepita was last seen, her family organized a physical search of Albuquerque’s West Mesa neighborhood. Although part of the area had been developed into subdivisions, searchers concentrated on the vast desert area on the outskirts of the city. Anita and Shelda feared that Nick had killed Pepita and then dumped her body somewhere in the desert. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Hoping to make their search a little easier, the family asked Albuquerque police if it would be possible for them to use cadaver dogs to hunt for Pepita’s remains. Their request was denied. Instead, family members used sticks to open up any garbage bags they found in the desert, unsure if they really wanted to see what was inside. They found nothing that led them any closer to Pepita.

On April 19th, nearly a month after Pepita was last seen, Nick went to the Albuquerque Police Department and reported his girlfriend missing. It’s unclear why he waited so long to do so; Nick has never granted any requests for interviews. In his report, he stated that he last saw Pepita on March 26th; they had an argument at a party in Albuquerque and she left on foot with a male named Laramy.

According to Nick, he got a text message from Pepita’s phone the following day; the message stated that Pepita was with another man and was not coming back. Nick told police he assumed that the man the text message referred to was Laramy; he also stated that the grammar and tone of the text message made him believe that it was written by Pepita.

Oddly, police appear to have taken Nick’s statement at face value; he was never re-interviewed, but investigators declared that he was not a suspect in Pepita’s disappearance. Even odder, they made no attempt to locate Laramy and question him to see if he had indeed been the last person seen with Pepita.

Anita was blunt about her feelings towards the Albuquerque Police Department. “They didn’t do a proper investigation. They didn’t do an interview with the entire family or the boyfriend.” She wasn’t willing to let her daughter’s case slip through the cracks. “Even though I might have to foot search on my own, I’m still going to do it. I need to have my daughter home.”

Hoping to drum up some leads and locate the mysterious Laramy, Pepita’s family members made several posts on Facebook. Their strategy worked, and they were soon contacted by Laramy. He told them that he did indeed know Pepita, but had last seen her on March 10th, two weeks before she went missing. He was certain of the date because it had been his birthday and Pepita had bought him a cupcake to celebrate. He noted that she had been with Nick at the time, and he seemed to get upset when she presented Laramy with the cupcake and sang “Happy Birthday” to him. According to Laramy, Nick was so angry over the incident that he hit Pepita. Uncomfortable with what was going on, Laramy claimed he left the couple at that point. He never heard from Pepita again.

If what Laramy said was true, Nick had lied in his police report when he claimed that Pepita left the party with Laramy on March 26th. If Nick was telling the truth, it would mean that Laramy was lying when he told Anita he hadn’t seen Pepita after March 10th. Unfortunately, investigators never followed up with either man, and Laramy died not long after he contacted Anita. It was almost as if the Albuquerque Police Department didn’t want the case to be solved.

Despite the lack of response from Albuquerque investigators, Anita continued to call them nearly every day. Citing the growing COVID-19 crisis, detectives claimed that they were unable to conduct interviews with any potential witnesses. While there were numerous COVID-related restrictions in place at the time, investigators never even bothered to conduct any phone interviews with Nick, his parents, or any members of Pepita’s family. Anita and Shelda were forced to conduct their own investigation without any help from law enforcement.

Anita and Shelda continued to hang up missing person flyers and solicit leads on Facebook. On May 20th, Shelda was contacted by a woman who claimed that Pepita was seen in Albuquerque’s City Park. The woman hung up before Shelda could get any additional information from her. Shelda immediately drove to Albuquerque and scoured City Park for any sign of her sister, even showing her picture to any person she came across, but found nothing to suggest that Pepita had been there.

When she left the park, she noticed that there were several men with walkie-talkies seemingly keeping watch over the parking lot of a nearby hotel. Shelda drove into the parking lot and noticed a line of vans with darkly tinted windows; it appeared the men were keeping a close eye on these vans. Shelda sensed something was off about the situation and wondered if the vans were being used in human trafficking. It was a sickening possibility.

Near the end of May, Anita was able to retrieve Pepita’s belongings from Nick’s house. Most of the items were placed in Pepita’s old bedroom in her mother’s Crownpoint home, but Shelda put some of her clothing in a plastic bag and took it to a Navajo medicine man, who conducted a Navajo ceremony in an attempt to see what had happened to Pepita. The man told Shelda that her little sister was still alive, but was being held somewhere against her will and unable to return home. It was a heartbreaking thought, but it gave Pepita’s family some hope that she would one day be reunited with them.

On June 10th, Shelda received a call from a woman who thought they had seen Pepita outside of a supermarket. As she had with the last tip, Shelda immediately dropped everything she was doing and raced to the location of the reported sighting. She saw a woman who looked so much like Pepita that she chased after her, yelling for her to stop. When she got closer, her heart sank. Although the woman looked exactly like Pepita, she was taller and didn’t have any tattoos. Shelda apologized and told the woman that she looked like her missing sister, and the woman said she had been stopped several times by people who thought she was Pepita. It seemed likely that Pepita had never been in this area; the tipster had likely seen her lookalike.

Months went by with little progress in the investigation. Anita and Shelda did everything they could to make sure that people were aware that Pepita was still missing, but they continued to be frustrated by the apathy of the Albuquerque Police Department. By March 2021, Pepita had been missing for a year and law enforcement still hadn’t conducted even a cursory investigation into her disappearance.

Anita’s frustration with the investigation reached a head in early September 2021, when the case of Gabby Petito made headlines across the nation. Gabby — a 22-year-old white woman from Florida — went missing while on a cross-country trip with her boyfriend and was last seen in Wyoming. When her parents, who lived in New York, reported her missing after not hearing from her for several days, law enforcement immediately launched an extensive investigation into her disappearance. While Anita had nothing but sympathy for Gabby’s family — she knew what it felt like to be missing a daughter — she was angered by the fact that Pepita’s case hadn’t even been deemed worthy of making the local news, let alone receive national coverage. It was inherently unfair.

Anita was briefly distracted from her hunt for Pepita when, on September 28, 2021, her husband — Pepita’s father — died. “He didn’t get closure…that was kind of the saddest thing. I promised him that we are going to find our daughter.” Anita vowed to intensify her efforts to locate Pepita.

On October 3, 2021, the family organized a rally in Albuquerque’s Tiguex Park. Although Anita had initially planned the rally as a way of bringing attention to Pepita’s disappearance, the event soon took on a life of its own when the Missing and Mur*dered Indigenous Women organization got involved. The families of dozens of missing Native American women showed up to take part in the rally; each family told a similar story about how law enforcement had brushed them off when they tried to get help.

Bernalillo County District Attorney Raul Torrez spoke at the event, telling the crowd, “We owe it to one another to do everything we can to make sure that these women come home.” In addition, he agreed to have his office take over Pepita’s case.

The District Attorney’s Office immediately set about doing the basic tasks that law enforcement should have done in the days following Pepita’s disappearance. Warrants were filed for phone records and other electronic media, and a DNA profile for Pepita was entered into a national database so it could be compared against any unidentified dead bodies that had been found since she went missing.

D.A. Torrez was realistic about Pepita’s case. “A year and a half is a very long gap for us in terms of the timeline that we usually like to engage in. We remain optimistic but at this point, I don’t have any answers about what happened to her.”

Anita was grateful for the help but noted that it was unclear if any progress had been made on the case as investigators wouldn’t release any information. “They say it’s confidential because the case is still active.” It was frustrating for the family to be kept in the dark after spending 18 months investigating the case on their own, but they tried to remain hopeful that they would soon have answers.

In October 2022, authorities announced that they were offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to Pepita’s whereabouts. Her family believes that someone out there has the information needed to bring Pepita home and hopes that the offer of a reward will bring in some new leads.

Anita has spoken at several events regarding missing Native American women and prays that law enforcement will start listening to the families of the missing. “I hope they hear our cry. We want to be taken seriously.”

Pepita Redhair was 27 years old when she went missing from Albuquerque, New Mexico in March 2020. A happy young woman with an infectious laugh, she loved skateboarding, drawing, and cooking; she hoped to one day become an engineer or a teacher. She was taking classes at a local community college and worked part-time at Hot Topic in Albuquerque, and she remained in constant contact with her mother and sister. The circumstances surrounding her disappearance are unclear, but her family is certain she was a victim of foul play. Pepita has brown eyes and brown hair, and at the time of her disappearance, she was 5 feet 1 inch tall and weighed 140 pounds. She has a tattoo of a dinosaur on her right forearm, a koi fish on her left forearm, a moon on her left leg, and a butterfly on her shoulder. If you have any information about Pepita, please contact the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office at 505–222–1101.

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