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Finalist for America's Best Detective: Detective Julia Oliveira

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Of the many roles that Detective Julia Oliveira has held during her nearly 25-year career in law enforcement, one that stands out is her work as a Missing or Murdered Indigenous Peoples (MMIP) Investigator with the Yurok Tribe in Northern California. This role has presented unique challenges, particularly because Oliveira is the first person to take it on. Detective Julia Oliveira has had a long career in law enforcement, serving with the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribal Police Department and the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department. Her work as a MMIP Investigator with the Yurok Tribe has been especially challenging due to the large area she covers, the unprecedented nature of the cases, and the cultural considerations involved. Oliveira's investigative skills have been crucial in addressing the nationwide issue of violent crime within the indigenous community.

California has the largest indigenous population of any state, accounting for 1.7% of the total population. However, the rate of indigenous individuals who go missing or are murdered is disproportionately high at over 37%. This can be attributed to generational trauma, geographic isolation, economic vulnerability, and systemic issues affecting communities of color. Many of these cases go unsolved due to a lack of proper investigative attention.

Detective Julia Oliveira's work has been deeply personal, as she frequently interacts with families of the victims. She acknowledges the historic lack of care for crimes within the indigenous community and the emotional toll it has taken on the families. Despite the challenges, Oliveira sees her work as an honor and a way to support these families.

Noting deficiencies in official law enforcement databases, the Yurok Tribe conducted a study in collaboration with the US Marshals in 2020. The study, titled To’ Kee Skuy’ Soo Ney-Wo-Chek (which roughly translates to bringing home the missing), identified 105 forgotten and unsolved cases within their territory alone. This highlighted the urgent need for action to address these cases.

The Yurok Tribe, the largest in California with 5,000 members, faces legal restrictions on communication between tribal and local law enforcement, leading to limited resources for shared investigations and an increasing number of cold cases. As a result, Oliveira's position was created in 2023 to specifically focus on MMIP cases and bridge the gap between tribal and local law enforcement.

Because the rates of indigenous people going missing or being murdered are not widely recognized as a crisis across the country, not just in California, Oliveira's first year as MMIP Investigator has required attention to both local and widespread issues. In addition to advocating for physical resources like access to forensic labs or even a department drone for scanning remote areas, she's also had to push for a focus on cultural understanding in investigative practices.

Oliveira explains that starting from scratch comes with a burden to lay the groundwork, saying, "We had to hit the ground running. As my boss put it, the plane was already flying and we still didn't have the wings put on."

In her first year in the role, Oliveira has managed to reopen a total of 15 cases involving members of not only the Yurok Tribe, but also the Miwok, Pomo, Hoopa, and others. Some of these cases have garnered significant attention, such as the cases of Emmilee Risling and Allan Olvera.

Emmilee Risling, a 33-year-old mother of two, disappeared after being seen walking across a bridge in a remote part of the Yurok Reservation known as “End of Road” in January 2021. She was also a straight-A college graduate with plans for a masters degree and was an accomplished traditional dancer. However, her behavior became erratic before her disappearance, with family members suspecting postpartum psychosis aggravated by drugs as the likely cause. At the time, she was one of 5 indigenous women to go missing from the same isolated “Lost Coast” area in northern California within just 18 months. None of these 5 cases have been solved.

Similarly, Allan Olvera, a member of the Miwok tribe and heavily involved in the Sacramento Native American Caucus, was killed in 2001. Over 20 years later, his family still has no answers. Olvera, aged 51, was first noticed missing when he didn't show up to a community event. While initial investigators thought the killer was likely someone Olvera knew, who was invited inside his home before stealing some of his belongings, no promising leads were found. However, a new autopsy report has shed light on his cause of death and revitalized hope for an arrest.

Due to the majority of cases Oliveira works on having long gone cold, she spends much of her time sifting through a large archive of forgotten evidence, re-interviewing old witnesses, and working with grief-stricken family members. It has also been a challenge for Oliveira to earn the community's trust in law enforcement while collaborating with original investigators on reopened cases across different jurisdictions, without causing further divisions.

As a registered Native American herself with a long history in the Humboldt community, Oliveira attributes the most important requirement in this job to being attentive and caring: "I have spoken to many people with missing loved ones who disappeared under suspicious circumstances. I believe it's essential to be able to communicate with them, and to be able to respect and honor those families. As an investigator, you need to listen to the families to understand and respect their wishes."

Even though Oliveira's role is officially funded by the Yurok Tribe’s law enforcement office, she wants to emphasize that it was made possible through the support and collaborative effort of the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, a different tribe from the San Bernardino County area.

“What we're aiming for is for people to come together and support each other in addressing this crisis,” Oliveira explains. “We can communicate and exchange ideas and information, and that's what I hope will occur with this position. I hope it helps the situation improve.”

Please enjoy our 2024 finalist’s investigation stories below, and

“I think what we’re hoping for is that people will band together and help each other and start working on this crisis,” explains Oliveira. “We can talk to each other and bounce ideas off of each other and share information, and that’s what I hope happens with this position. I hope it just helps it grow.”

Please enjoy our 2024 finalist’s investigation stories below, and VOTE HERE.

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