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‘Swept Under the Rug’: 4 Years After Indigenous Mom Was Killed, Her Family’s Still Fighting for Answers

Rosenda Strong went missing in 2018. Her body was found in 2019 but the case is still no solve. Photo taken between 2014 and 2018. Credit: Cissy Strong Reyes

Rosenda Strong went missing in 2018. Her body was found in 2019 but the case is still no solve. Photo taken between 2014 and 2018. Credit: Cissy Strong Reyes

Rosenda Strong.
Photo: Cissy Strong Reyes

Rosenda Strong was known for her distinctive laugh and bubbly personality. She loved spending time with her friends. So, when the 31-year-old mother of four didn’t come home on Sept. 30, 2018, after going with an acquaintance to a nearby casino on the Yakama Indian Reservation in Toppenish, Wash., her family became worried.

Her sister, Cissy Strong Reyes, who at times cared for Rosenda’s children, reached out to Rosenda’s friends before turning to the tribal police for help.

“The officer was like, ‘Rosenda Strong? Oh, she’s just probably partying. She’ll pop up sometime,'” recalls Cissy in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. “But I was having a big anxiety attack. This was out of the ordinary.”

Then, on July 4, 2019, Cissy’s worst fears came true. Two homeless men found Rosenda’s remains inside an abandoned freezer at a dumpsite on the reservation. The FBI joined the tribal police to investigate and found bullet casings beside Rosenda’s body.

Now, four years later, no arrests have been made — making Rosenda’s killing one of 4,200 unsolved cases of a murdered or missing Indigenous person.

Photos of Rosenda Strong surround a cross at her funeral at Valley Hills Funeral Home Friday, Sept. 24, 2021 in Wapato, Wash. Credit: Evan Abell / Yakima Herald-Republic

Photos of Rosenda Strong surround a cross at her funeral at Valley Hills Funeral Home Friday, Sept. 24, 2021 in Wapato, Wash. Credit: Evan Abell / Yakima Herald-Republic

Rosenda Strong’s funeral.
Evan Abell/Yakima Herald-Repub

For more on the unsolved murder of Rosenda Strong, subscribe now to PEOPLE, or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands Friday.

“The FBI has not forgotten about Ms. Strong, but unfortunately, we have no current update to provide,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement. “We do believe there are people that know about what happened to her and would encourage anyone with information to contact the FBI.”

For Rosenda’s family, that lack of progress underscores the widespread problem of murdered and missing Indigenous people whose cases remain unsolved.

“People vanish but it is swept under the rug,” says Cissy.

Rosenda Sophia Strong’s family pose for a portrait on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019 near Legends Casino off of Fort Road in Toppenish, Wash. Strong was last seen leaving the casino. Credit: Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic

Rosenda Sophia Strong’s family pose for a portrait on Thursday, Jan. 31, 2019 near Legends Casino off of Fort Road in Toppenish, Wash. Strong was last seen leaving the casino. Credit: Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic

Rosenda Strong’s family at Legends Casino.
Amanda Ray/Yakima Herald-Repub

“Our hopes are that they’ll find whoever did this,” says Rosenda’s cousin Roxanne White, founder of the Facebook page Missing, Murdered Indigenous Women, People & Families. “But the FBI [and police] know that we’re not just going to wait for them. We’re going to fight for Rosenda.”

What authorities do know is that Rosenda drove with an acquaintance to the Legends Casino. There, she was seen by her aunt playing the slot machines.

“It was just a ‘Hi Auntie,’ and a hug and, ‘I love you,'” says Cissy. “She seemed herself, bubbly Rosenda.”

She was later seen exiting the casino around midnight with a man, seemingly voluntarily.

Rosenda Strong

Rosenda Strong

EMILY GOODELL/KAPP KVEW

Plenty of theories have circulated. “One person said, ‘Your sister took off with some Mexican cartel guy,'” says Cissy. “Another said she had gone to drug treatment.”

Another, more disturbing rumor turned out to be devastatingly true. “People were saying, ‘Look for a freezer,'” she says. “Me and [Rosenda’s oldest daughter] would cruise around the back roads and canals and look for a freezer.”

Cissy has since become a voice for Rosenda, participating in marches and vigils to spread the word about the plight of Rosenda as well as other Indigenous women.

“I miss her every day,” she says about her younger sister. “And I guess that’s how I communicate with her, is fighting for her justice and not giving up.”

If you have information about Rosenda Strong, contact Yakama Nation Tribal Police at 509-865-2933 or the FBI at tips.fbi.gov.