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First man used in Colorado missing Indigenous person alerts found dead

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Posted at 12:05 PM, Jan 06, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-06 14:05:13-05

Colorado's new Missing Indigenous Person Alerts system went live on Dec. 30 by searching for a 27-year-old man who had gone missing just a day earlier. But one week later, he was found dead.

A Missing Indigenous Person Alert for Wanbli Vigil was issued the same day the system went live. The Lakota man had last been seen in Denver and was the first missing person's case to activate the statewide alert system, which operates under the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

According to CBS Colorado, when activated, the system will send the person's photo, name, description and other relevant details to state law enforcement agencies, who then have to disseminate the information. The public and media can sign up for alerts.

For Vigil, however, it did not prevent his fate. On Jan. 6, Denver police announced that his body had been found. An investigation is underway, the department said, but it does "not appear to be suspicious in nature at this time."

Vigil's aunt, Jennifer Black Elk, told CBS Colorado prior to the discovery of his body that the family had organized a search party to try and find him, checking hospitals, jails and "whatever leads we can think of." The last time he was seen was at his apartment building.

"He was really struggling with some spiritual issues," she told the CBS station. "We're wondering exactly where did he go, how did he disappear, where did he end up or who is he with?"

While it's unclear what his cause of death was, advocates for the search of missing Indigenous peoples say the alert took too long to get out to the public. Even though the alert itself was activated just one day after he went missing, it appears as though the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and Denver Police did not share the missing person alert on their social media pages until Jan. 3.

Monycka Snowbird, the program director for the Haseya Advocate Program, told CBS Colorado she believes the year-end holidays are what caused the delay, saying that if it had been an Amber Alert, the holidays "wouldn't have mattered."

"It shouldn't matter if it's a Lakota man on a holiday or a white child on a holiday," she said, "that response should have been immediate."

CBS News has reached out to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and Denver police for more information about the process they followed in this particular case and what prevented an immediate social media announcement that Vigil was missing.

Native Americans make up a disproportionate amount of missing persons cases in the U.S., with more than 9,500 reported missing cases since 2020, according to data from the National Crime Information Center. The federal government is responsible for handling these crimes, as well as murders and assaults, but generally falls short in committing to do so. In 2018, for example, prosecutors declined to prosecute nearly 40% of all federal Indian Country cases. CBS News has extensively researched this problem, as well as many of the ongoing cases, in its podcast "Missing Justice."

According to the Missing & Murdered Indigenous Relatives Taskforce of Colorado, who helped conduct a search for Vigil, the young man marks the 69th Indigenous person from Colorado to be missing or murdered since 1977. At least two dozen of those cases remain unsolved, according to the group.