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Award-winning director aims to shed light on missing Tulalip woman’s cold case with new film

By Kayla J. Dunn, Everett Herald
Published: July 14, 2023, 6:01am
5 Photos
Sabrina Van Tassel poses for a photo at the Hotel Sorrento in Seattle, Washington on Wednesday, June 14, 2023.
Sabrina Van Tassel poses for a photo at the Hotel Sorrento in Seattle, Washington on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. (Annie Barker / The Herald) (Photos by Annie Barker / The Herald) Photo Gallery

TULALIP — Tucked into a corner booth in Seattle’s Hotel Sorrento, award-winning documentarian Sabrina Van Tassel’s jaw fell slack.

She leaned forward across the table, recalling what an FBI agent had told her months ago: “Some people want to go missing.”

“I literally stopped the interview and said, ‘You really want to say that to me on camera?’” Van Tassel said. “‘Then why do we have Missing and Murdered Indigenous People Day? Then why am I here?’”

The French-American director sat back against the wood-paneled walls in the hotel’s Italian café, picking at her English muffin. In about three hours, Van Tassel would head upstairs to pack her bags and fly back to Paris. She recently wrapped-up filming her newest documentary, a deep-dive into the 2020 disappearance of Tulalip’s Mary Ellen Johnson-Davis.

In November 2020, Johnson-Davis was walking along Fire Trail Road when she texted a friend that she was “almost to the church,” but she never reached her destination. Later, her cellphone connected to towers around north Snohomish County.

Now, 2½ years later, Johnson-Davis’ family still hasn’t received any news — a reality all too common for the families of missing and murdered Indigenous people.

Johnson-Davis’ family held a rally in December 2022, aiming to bring attention to the cold case. Her sisters spoke through tears, begging police and the FBI for answers. At that point, Van Tassel was in the early stages of filming alongside her executive producer, Deborah Parker, a nationally recognized activist and Indigenous leader from Tulalip.

Van Tassel and Parker met in 2013 while Parker was working on the federal Violence Against Women Act. Parker invited Van Tassel to Tulalip to hear about Native Americans’ stories from the people themselves.

“When a native girl, a native woman, is missing, there’s silence,” Parker said. “It speaks volumes about the legacy of abuse against Indigenous women. We are in a national crisis, and we need this story to be told.”

In Washington, Native American women are four times more likely to go missing than white women, according to the Seattle Indian Health Board. The state also has the second-highest number of missing Indigenous people in the country.

Last month, the Department of Justice launched the Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Regional Outreach Program, which will bring a new assistant U.S. attorney and a coordinator to the Pacific Northwest region in an effort to better protect Native populations.

Years after their first encounter, Van Tassel called up Parker.

She had received funding for her next documentary and wanted to shed light on the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Van Tassel asked Parker to help her produce the movie.

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“There’s just no way that I could do a film about Indigenous people without being hand-in-hand with an Indigenous woman,” Van Tassel said. “I didn’t want to be just a white person who comes in and takes their story.”

Van Tassel secured the funding for “Missing From Fire Trail Road” after releasing her critically acclaimed documentary “The State of Texas vs. Melissa” about the first Hispanic woman sentenced to death in Texas.

“The State of Texas vs. Melissa” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York and won best documentary at the Raindance Film Festival in London. Opening her laptop, Van Tassel scrolled through dozens of articles in various languages about the documentary. Hulu acquired the streaming rights in the United States.

“I wanted to do that documentary to change (Melissa’s) fate because I had done the investigation, spent three years on her case, read everything about it, and I knew that she was wrongly convicted,” Van Tassel said.

Melissa Lucio had already been on death row for over a decade when her execution date was set for April 27, 2022, about two years after the film’s release.

“Kim Kardashian got the story, and she tweeted twice. And then Oprah, Eva Longoria, Susan Sarandon, the Innocence Project started tweeting. Even Biden,” Van Tassel said.

Then, 48 hours before Lucio was set to die, more than two-thirds of the Texas state Senate and a majority of the House of Representatives pleaded for the parole board and governor to halt Lucio’s execution. The Texas Board of Criminal Appeals agreed to send the case back to the trial court so it could reconsider Lucio’s innocence.

By October, Van Tassel was on the Tulalip reservation. She interviewed Johnson-Davis’ family and tribal leaders from Lummi to Puyallup.

Those conversations revealed systemic obstacles that slow down justice.

“You know, I’ve been to every single state in this country. I’ve been to prisons. I’ve done all kinds of documentaries,” Van Tassel said. “I mean, I’ve seen it, you know? But with Native American people, there are double standards.”

Historically, the slow response to crimes against Native people has often been attributed to a messy web of jurisdictional issues. Crimes committed on Native lands may be subject to investigation by tribal, federal, state or local criminal justice agencies — all at the same time.

Van Tassel said this issue plays into the unresolved cases, but her investigation revealed the problem runs far deeper.

The issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, she said, is buried in centuries of neglected crimes leading back to colonization.

“There are loopholes on the reservations, but let’s just be totally frank, this is happening today because of the genocide that took place,” Van Tassel said. “The trauma that goes on in these families: they could no longer speak the same language, they’d experienced terrible sexual abuse, and that went on.”

And Johnson-Davis’ case fits into that mold.

As a child, Johnson-Davis was taken by Child Protective Services and placed with a white family, where she was sexually abused, Johnson-Davis’ sister Nona Blouin explained. Later in life, Johnson-Davis and Blouin sued the foster care system, both receiving $300,000 settlements.

“After what Mary Ellen went through as a kid, she went back to the tribe, trying to look for who she was, for her identity,” Van Tassel said. “But then I spoke with her family, and I found out that her sisters, her mother, her aunts, her grandmother, every single woman in the family had been raped for a good two, three generations. Imagine the amount of trauma you’re born with.”

“Of course, you are going to fall into the drugs. You are going to find the most violent partners in your path,” Van Tassel continued. “Because basically it’s written on your forehead — you have the stigmas of abuse, and predators know how to recognize that.”

Van Tassel sighed and sat back, finishing her second shot of straight espresso. She checked her watch and did some mental math, calculating how long she had before heading to Sea-Tac.

She will work with Parker to edit the documentary and hopes to have it ready to submit to the Sundance Film Festival in August. If it’s accepted, “Missing From Fire Trail Road” would come out in January 2024.

“I hope that people see the beauty that exists within our community,” Parker said, “but also the struggles that we face, each and every day. I hope this spurs action, that this film compels folks to support and provide safety measures to Indigenous people.”