Annual walk held for student who vanished on Montana reservation in 2017

·9 min read

Ashley’s Walk is for every Ashley who has disappeared. It’s a walk for every Leo who is being searched for — and every Arden who vanished in the middle of the night.

Their stories are not unique — not in Native American communities where there is an epidemic of missing people. So their friends and family continue to come together for annual walks and vigils with the hope of giving a voice to the voiceless and ultimately finding their loved ones.

Ashley Loring Heavyrunner (Find Ashley Loring/HeavyRunner Facebook page)
Ashley Loring Heavyrunner (Find Ashley Loring/HeavyRunner Facebook page)

This weekend, family and friends and the local community gathered for the annual “Ashley’s Walk” on Saturday, June 12, which honors Ashley Loring Heavyrunner, who went missing in 2017. The two-day event, which is also to bring awareness to other cases of indigenous people and offer a time of healing, included searches for 26-year-old Leo Wagner and 3-year-old Arden Pepion, who disappeared in April 2021.

Ashley Loring Heavyrunner, also known as Ashley Loring, was only 20 years old when she disappeared from the Blackfeet Indian Reservation on June 5, 2017. She’s a member of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana and was enrolled in Blackfeet Community College studying environmental science.

It’s been four years since Ashley was last seen in Browning, a Montana town on the reservation. And there are still no answers on where she might be.

“It’s a nightmare that never ends,” Ashley’s sister Kimberly Loring told Dateline. “And it won’t end until we find Ashley.”

Kimberly said she first knew something was wrong when she returned from a trip to Morocco in June 2017.

The plan had been for Kimberly to help Ashley move into an apartment in nearby Missoula when she returned from her trip. But when Kimberly returned, she was unable to reach her sister. Calls and messages to Ashley’s phone went unanswered.

Ashley and her sister, Kimberly Loring. (Find Ashley Loring/HeavyRunner Facebook page)
Ashley and her sister, Kimberly Loring. (Find Ashley Loring/HeavyRunner Facebook page)

Kimberly reached out to Ashley’s friends on social media, but no one had been in contact with her since June 5. Kimberly discovered that on that night, Ashley had reached out to friends on Facebook messenger asking for a ride into town from her family’s ranch.

Later that same night, a short video was posted of a party that showed Ashley sitting on a couch talking and drinking with people. Kimberly, who was in Morocco that night, told Dateline she remembers messaging her sister, who asked for money, and Kimberly asked her if she was OK. Ashley replied she was.

Kimberly and Ashley’s close-knit family thought maybe she had lost her phone or was visiting a friend, but when their father was hospitalized for liver failure, and there was still no word from Ashley, they became concerned.

Ashley’s mother, Loxie Loring, told Dateline she still remembers the last thing she said to Ashley before her disappearance.

“I went into her room, and I told her 'I love you, Ashley,'” Loxie said. “And those words, I’ll cherish forever.”

Ashley’s family went to Blackfeet Law Enforcement for help, and a search was launched that lasted about three days, Kimberly said. Two months passed before the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) got involved in the case.

Her family began their own search efforts and just two weeks after Ashley was last seen, the family received a tip. Someone had seen a young woman running from a vehicle on U.S. Highway 89 on the reservation the night Ashley disappeared.

Kimberly said they gathered to search the area, which she described as being desolate. During the search, at the northern edge of the reservation, Kimberly and a family friend discovered a tattered sweater and a pair of red-stained boots. The family is certain that the items belong to Ashley, adding that the sweater was identified by an eyewitness who told the family it was the same as the sweater Ashley was wearing night she disappeared.

Kimberly told Dateline that the sweater and boots were handed over to law enforcement for DNA testing, but added they have still not received any results.

“We keep giving them evidence, and things we’ve found, names of people we believe are involved,” Kimberly said. “And we get nothing back. It’s frustrating. It feels like nothing is being done. If we weren’t looking for her, I don’t think anyone else would.”

According to the United States Justice Department, Native American women are ten times more likely to be murdered than non-native women. More than one in three has been raped, or suffered attempted rape, and more than 80 percent will experience violence at some point in their lives.

In 2020, the documentary “Blackfeet Boxing: Not Invisible,” spotlights the Blackfeet Nation Boxing Club which opened its doors to girls, teaching them how to protect themselves and fight for their lives.

The documentary refers to a common saying in Native American communities, “When an Indigenous woman goes missing, she goes missing twice — first her body vanishes and then her story.”

Kimberly is determined to never let her sister’s story be forgotten.

So armed with bear spray and a cell phone, she trekked up mountains calling out her sister’s name, took every phone call from someone with information and followed every tip she received no matter how outlandish it sounded.

In 2018, Kimberly appeared before the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. to speak about her experience and what she believes was the mismanagement of evidence she says she witnessed from law enforcement in her sister’s case.

“From the very beginning, both the Blackfeet Tribal Law Enforcement and the BIA have ignored the dire situation that Ashely is in and have allowed the investigation to be handled in a dysfunctional manner,” she told senate members. “This isn’t just a reality for our family but a reality for many murdered and missing Indigenous women’s families.”

A spokesperson for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Robyn Broyles, told Dateline that "the BIA, the Office of Justice Services, Missing and Murdered Unit did receive some recent tips related to the case that officers followed up with, but those did not result in any new information."

In reference to the evidence submitted for DNA testing, the spokesperson told Dateline that "the FBI Crime lab did confirm they received evidence and conducted an analysis of it, but because the case is active, we are unable to provide any additional information."

In the four years since her disappearance, Ashley’s family and friends have not stopped searching the vast land of the Blackfeet Reservation searching for her. The Blackfeet Indian Reservation, which spans more than 1.5 million acres, is larger than the state of Delaware.

Ashley’s case is now being handled by the FBI. Sandra Yi Barker, a spokesperson for the Salt Lake City FBI, the field office handling the case, told Dateline that the FBI continues to investigate Ashley’s case. She would not comment further on details due to it being an ongoing case.

No one has ever been arrested or charged in relation to Ashley’s disappearance, but her family tells Dateline they believe they know who was involved.

“Unfortunately, unless we find Ashley, I don’t think we’re ever going to find out what happened to her,” Kimberly said. “But she deserves justice. She deserved her whole life, but it was taken from her.”

Known for her contagious smile and zest for life, Ashley was a star athlete in high school and excelled at the Blackfeet Community College where she was studying environmental science.

Her mother Loxie describes Ashley as smart and athletic, someone always willing to help others. And someone who loved horses and the rain.

“She was full of life,” Loxie said. “She was this petite thing, but she had a big voice. She had so many dreams and plans. But all of that was just taken from her.”

Ashley’s disappearance has taken a toll on her family.

Her mother, who has battled depression and addiction, told Dateline she has been partially healed by placing purple balloons around the neighborhood and on the billboard in honor of her favorite color.

“Some days are harder than others,” Loxie told Dateline. “I know my daughter isn’t here today, but I hope that by sharing her story, it’ll help someone else. Someone who doesn’t have a voice.”

Loxie told Dateline she remembers watching the news and Lifetime movies about mothers grieving their missing children and feeling her heart breaking for them, but never thinking it could happen to her.

"I felt so bad for those mothers - for what they were going through," she said. "And then it knocked on my door."

In an effort to bring healing to the community and raise awareness to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) movement, “Ashley’s Walk” was held Saturday, June 12 in Browning. More information is available on the Facebook page - Find Ashley Loring/HeavyRunner.

But Ashley's mother wonders if they are doing enough.

"We hold walks and vigils and continue to raise our voice," Loxie said. "But nothing is being done. We need help. We need someone to care."

She added that she has been in contact with the FBI agent on her daughter's case and hasn't given up hope that they will get answers.

"I know it takes time, but there is evidence that points to who did this," she said. "I just want my baby back. And I want her to have justice. She needs justice."

Loxie, who now lives in Shelby, Montana, was in attendance at the walk for her daughter in Browning this weekend.

Family, friends and the community gather for Ashley's Walk in 2020. (Help Find Ashley Loring/Heavyrunner Facebook page)
Family, friends and the community gather for Ashley's Walk in 2020. (Help Find Ashley Loring/Heavyrunner Facebook page)

The two-event will began with a Town Hall meeting at 10 a.m. (MT) on Saturday, followed by a safety class for search groups and the walk at 12 noon.

Searches for 26-year-old Leo Wagner and 3-year-old Arden Pepion took place at 2 p.m. and again on Sunday. They have been missing since late April, vanishing within just five days of each other.

“We’re not just fighting for Ashley, we’re fighting for all the Ashleys and Leos and Ardens who are missing out there,” Kimberly said. “It’s been a never-ending nightmare, but we turn our trust to God. It’s how we’ll heal.”

Ashley was 20 years old at the time of her disappearance. She is described as being 5’2” tall and weighing about 90 lbs. She has brown hair and brown eyes. She would be 24 years old today.

Anyone with information on Ashley’s whereabouts is asked to call the Salt Lake City FBI at (801) 579-1400 or (800) CALL-FBI or tips.fbi.gov.

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