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'These families deserve answers': Arizona committee expands scope to investigate missing Indigenous men, boys

The committee formed to look into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Now it's expanding to look into violence against men, boys and LGBTQ population.

PHOENIX — Arizona's committee on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is expanding its investigative scope to include men, boys, and members of the LGBTQ community. 

The committee was first formed after Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation in 2019 that aimed to study ways to end violence against missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“We found above the I-40 corridor, there was an abnormally large number of men and boys missing," said state Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, D-District 12, "And when we look at our LGBTQ population, they are nowhere in the data, none of our databases are tracking them, and we know that they’re a target of human trafficking. We want to find out what’s happening.”

In previous years, the state’s committee found that murders of both Indigenous women and men are increasing in Arizona.

The study done in partnership with ASU noted though, that while Indigenous peoples are 5.3 percent of Arizona’s population, they make up 4 percent of homicide victims. The research further noted that the rate is “certain to be substantially higher” because of unreported missing people that have actually been murdered and "racial misclassification."

Jermaine, who chairs the state committee, said a lack of communication between jurisdictions is causing cases of missing or murdered Indigenous people to go unsolved. 

“One of the biggest causes we found is jurisdictional hot potato. So when we're looking at missing murdered Indigenous people, you're looking at least six different jurisdictions that could come into play,” Jermaine said. “Everybody is saying, ‘Oh, it's not my problem. It's not my case,’ when we really need those jurisdictions to talk to each other and communicate and properly hand off cases so that they don't go cold. Because these families deserve answers.”

It’s answers that Berdie Bitsui has been looking for in the unsolved cases of two of her sons.

“I love my boys. I miss them very much. And I want to know what happened,” Bitsui said.

In April 2020, Bitsui’s younger son, Drew James, was gunned down outside his apartment near 57th Avenue and Thomas Road.

RELATED: Phoenix Police asking for help solving cold case murder

In June 2020, her older son, Alexander Eskee, Bitsui said, is believed to have left his in-laws after a fight with his wife. Bitsui said she’s been searching for him since then.  

“That was the last known place people have seen him. And other than that he was never seen again, or never even heard from again,” Bitsui said. “I do want to find answers. I pray every day that I find answers.”

Bitsui has hope that the committee’s work might help get answers in both of her sons’ cases.

“Why did this happen? They didn't deserve it.” Bitsui said.

RELATED: Navajo Nation planning to investigate missing tribal members

RELATED: FBI offering $5,000 reward for missing Navajo woman

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