By Christianna Silva
According to her uncle, Aubrey Dameron was “just a big ball of life.”
“She absolutely loved music,” Christian Fencer, who was just six months older than his niece, told MTV News. “Her big dream was to someday become a singer. She would sit at the computer for hours listening to YouTube videos, and perform for the family while we were trying to watch TV.”
But what made Aubrey so special was that she was optimistic in the face of injustice, Fencer and Pam Smith, her aunt, explain. Aubrey, a transgender woman who is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, developed that quality at an early age.
“Growing up, we were both ridiculed,” Fencer said. “There were occasions where we were walking home and we would either be chased home or people would come by yelling homophobic slurs at us.” Aubrey’s transition in high school, he notes, “was something new for the community. People just acted like it was some sort of plague. There were occasions where she was kicked out of church. I kind of knew right off the bat, this isn't something normal.”
Around 3:00 a.m. on March 9, 2019, Aubrey walked away from her mother’s house in rural Grove, Oklahoma. The 25-year-old didn’t come back.
According to Captain Gayle Wells with the Delaware County Sheriff's Department, who received a search warrant for Aubrey’s Facebook page, she had sent numerous Facebook messages asking someone to pick her up from her mom’s house, but no one responded. Her GPS reportedly last “pinged” at 3:42 a.m. on March 9, about 100 yards from her mother’s house. Two days later, on March 11, her mother reported her missing.
The first search party was organized two weeks later, on March 23. It isn’t necessarily atypical for law enforcement to take that long to search for a missing person; once law enforcement receives a report that someone is missing, they evaluate whether the case even involves a missing person and then they decide how they will allocate resources on a case-by-case basis, Dr. Michelle Jeanis, a criminology professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, told ABC News.
On that first search, Smith said, friends, family, “complete strangers” and the Oklahoma City Metro Search and Rescue Team checked through the heavily-wooded area behind Aubrey’s house and into the ponds in the surrounding area. The search and rescue team discovered a sock with possible blood on it. The Delaware County Sheriff’s Office sent it to the OSBI, and weeks later, they’re still waiting for results.
“Because of her high-risk lifestyle, there [are] lots of possibilities about what happened or where she is,” Wells said, pointing to her gender identity and a history of substance use. “So, I mean, with [the] worst-case scenario in mind, they've searched lots of places.” He also claimed that law enforcement found text exchanges between Aubrey and “various men” that night; while Wells did not expand on what that meant, the family said she was just trying to get someone to pick her up from her mother’s house.
Like many law enforcement terms, the definition for an “at-risk” case varies from division to division. Some of the reasons law enforcement classify a case as “at-risk” is if the missing person is a victim of a crime or foul play, in need of medical attention, has no pattern of running away, is mentally impaired, among a variety of other reasons, according to ABC News.
When MTV News asked how the sheriff treats an “at-risk” case differently from an average case, he said: “I think I said she was a high-risk individual because of her lifestyle.” It is not clear what would differentiate a case from being “high-risk” over “at-risk.”
According to Fencer, the office’s classification of Aubrey based on her identity and personal choices felt like they didn’t think his niece was worth looking for. He also fears that, as an Indigenous, transgender woman, Aubrey is more likely to be a victim of violence. This fear has some basis in truth: Transgender women are almost twice as likely to experience physical violence, sexual violence, and hate violence in public places than their cisgendered peers, according to Amnesty International. And according to Indian Country Today, Native American women are 10 times more likely to be murdered than non-Native women.
There’s one bill in Congress that could fight the prevalence of violence against indigenous women: Savanna’s Act, which was introduced by North Dakota Democratic Senator Heidi Heitkamp and aims to clarify the jurisdictional boundaries between tribal, federal, and state agencies. It passed unanimously in the Senate, but one Republican congressman, Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, who serves as the House Judiciary Committee chair, is stalling the bill in the House of Representatives for unknown reasons, according to The Cut. But the bill isn’t abstract: Blocking it is affecting women across the country, including Aubrey.
For his part, Wells says, “Once there is a period of time that passes, we try to give [a high-risk person's case] more emphasis because of the lifestyle risk she lives — the risk of something happening to her.” He added that the sheriff’s office is currently continuing “to run leads and we have some additional planned searches in coordination with OSBI.”
Smith said one of those leads was about two weeks ago when someone logged into Aubrey’s MeetMe app and the IP address pinged back to an office in Irving, Texas. A March 20 story from Indianz reported that there has been a potential sighting of her at a nearby casino owned by the Quapaw Nation. Neither of those leads led to finding Aubrey, but Smith said it made her more optimistic about finding her niece.
“[I’m] relieved they didn’t find anything leading to foul play,” Smith said. “It gives me hope she is out there alive somewhere.”