BROWNING — A normal night out with friends turned into a family’s worst nightmare after a seemingly simple celebration led to the death of their beloved Willy Wayne Andre Pepion in May 2020.
At the young age of 22 years old, Willy enjoyed playing basketball and cooking for his family and friends. “That was like a lot of his life playing basketball and the whole community knew who he was. They watched him, they grew up with him like from his playing ball as a little guy to as an adult,” said sister, Laura Pepion.
Known for his genuine personality and his laugh, people were drawn to him. “Everyone just wanted to be around him,” said Laura.
To celebrate the arrival of a friend, Willy went out for drinks with a few friends. Willy’s sister commented that he had fallen asleep in the car and woken up somewhere else. Confused, he questioned where he was at, but this only resulted in a fight with a few other people.
“The cops come but they don’t arrest the people hurting my brother, they arrest him, and that still puzzles me,” said Laura. In a statement Willy’s girlfriend gave to police, Willy had repeatedly been kicked in the stomach and hit over the head with a shovel.
After officers arrived, they took Willy to the hospital; he was released back into police custody after being medically cleared only a few hours later.
“He gets back to the jail and they’re just treating him like he’s another drunk native. They don’t care about him. They just wanna clock in, clock out,” Laura said.
As time continued to pass without any word, Willy’s mother Wilma Fleury decided to reach out to the jail for an update on Willy. Her continuous badgering left her without many answers, until she eventually discovered her son had passed away while in custody.
Willy was allegedly left in his cell overnight, where he passed away surrounded by strangers. As years have since passed, Willy’s family is still trying to get answers to questions they have been asking all along.
“You never really think something like this is going to happen,” said Laura Pepion. Although the community’s star basketball player may be gone, his memory is still carried on as his family honors his memory and tries to find justice.
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The Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) crisis is one that has troubled reservations all over the country for decades. Awareness for MMIP has increased over the last few years, but cases still go unreported or are misclassified due to lack of information or late reporting.
That’s where the BIA comes in. The Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services investigates missing and murdered cases in search of justice for those affected by violence.
As indigenous communities continue to struggle with high rates of assault, abduction, and murder, with Native Americans being four times as likely to go missing in the state of Montana, the need for investigative resources is as important as ever.
Statistics show that around 4,200 missing and murdered cases have gone unsolved nationwide, with over half of those being cases of Murder and Nonnegligent Homicide Offenses.
These cases often remain unsolved due to a lack of investigative resources available, making it difficult to confirm new information from witnesses, re-examine new or retained evidence, or review fresh activities of suspects.
The Not Invisible Act of 2020 was created to address this crisis. The Act brings together law enforcement, tribal authorities, and federal partners to study previous and current cases and consider solutions to the MMIP crisis.
Specifically, the Act appoints the BIA to coordinate prevention efforts and programs related to missing and murdered Native Americans. It also creates a new position within the Department of Interior dealing specifically with murder, trafficking, and missing Native Americans. In May 2021, the MMIP website was expanded to include Montana in hopes that crimes would be reported in a timely manner and the information added to the database would help create a solution to the MMIP crisis nationwide. Governor Greg Gianforte also recently established May 5 as MMIP Awareness Day in Montana to encourage collective action to end the MMIP crisis.