Episode 083: Pepita Redhair

July 17, 2023

When an indigenous woman goes missing at the height of the pandemic, her family is left to investigate her disappearance on their own. What happened to Pepita Redhair?

Episode Media
Pepita Madalyn Redhair (Investigation Discovery)
Pepita and Nick (KOB4)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a missing persons case from New Mexico, an investigation that is nothing short of infuriating. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

Pepita Madalyn Redhair grew up in Crownpoint, New Mexico, a small town on the Navajo Nation. From a young age, Pepita lived for adventure. She was an avid skateboarder and loved the adrenaline rush it gave her. At home, she loved to cook and was always trying to make everyone laugh. Her older sister Shelda described Pepita as “the light of the family” – she was always happy and loved to interact with people.

But Pepita also had big dreams, determined to see the world on her own terms. After high school, she left home as soon as she could, heading to the big city of Albuquerque. Pepita was fiercely independent and wanted to make a life for herself outside of the reservation. But no matter how far she went, she still loved her family dearly and kept in contact with them every day.

In 2016, Pepita met Nickolas Kaye and immediately fell head over heels in love. Within six months, Pepita had moved into the home Nick shared with his parents, and the two were talking about marriage. They wanted to buy their own house and raise a family. According to those who knew her, Pepita seemed truly happy with Nick.

But behind closed doors, Pepita and Nick’s relationship wasn’t as idyllic as it seemed. After a few years of living together, Nick had begun drinking heavily and had gotten violent with Pepita on several occasions. After one incident in February of 2020, Pepita had been hospitalized, but it doesn’t seem as though Nick ever faced any charges for domestic assault.

When Pepita confided in her family about the abuse, her mom and sister begged her to move back home. But Pepita didn’t want to leave Albuquerque – she had a job she liked and was enrolled at the University of New Mexico. She wanted to become an engineer someday, and she felt that moving back to the reservation would be a step backwards.

Her family wasn’t thrilled with her decision, but they understood her need to make her own way. Crownpoint was only two hours away from Albuquerque, and Pepita came home to visit regularly. They would just have to keep supporting her and hope that she and Nick could work it out.

On March 24, 2020, Pepita was on her way back to Albuquerque after a long weekend in Crownpoint. The Covid-19 pandemic was in its early days, and the governor of New Mexico had just issued a stay-at-home order. Pepita’s mother Anita and sister Shelda made the drive with her; they wanted to spend as much time together as possible before even more restrictions were handed down.

Again, Anita and Shelda begged Pepita to stay in Crownpoint, to leave Nick while she could, but Pepita insisted on returning to Albuquerque. As they dropped her off at Nick’s house, Pepita said, “Mom, I love you. Take care of yourself.”

Those would be the last words they ever shared.

The next day, Anita noticed that she hadn’t heard from her daughter since she dropped her off. Pepita always checked in at least once a day, and she always sent a good night text. Anita thought that maybe she was busy unpacking or studying, but still, she sent Pepita a text asking her to check in, to let her know that everything was okay.

But hours passed with no response, and Anita was getting worried. The hours turned into days, and Pepita was still not answering any calls or texts. Anita later told KOAT News, “Right away, my intuition was telling me that something was wrong.”

On March 27th, Anita called Nick and asked him to get Pepita to call her. But Nick said Pepita had left – he had no idea where she was.

Immediately, alarm bells went off in Anita’s mind. If Pepita had left Nick, she would have called her family. There was no way she would just disappear without letting anyone know. Anita told the Navajo Times, “She always called me every day, saying, ‘Mom, what are you doing? What are you up to? Do you need anything?’ It’s not her that she would just disappear.”

On March 28th, Anita contacted the Albuquerque Bernalillo Police Department to file a missing persons report. But according to Anita, they wouldn’t help her. “The cops kind of just brushed it off. They said she’s an adult. She’s free to travel. She’s free to be missing, I was told. I was pretty upset.”

Albuquerque PD allegedly told Anita that she should contact the Crownpoint Navajo Police Department since that’s where Pepita was from, but when she did, the Crownpoint police told her that it was out of their jurisdiction. If Pepita had disappeared from Albuquerque, the Albuquerque police would have to investigate.

Anita went back to Albuquerque and insisted that the police file the report and open an investigation, which they did. However, the pandemic lockdown was now in full-swing, and police were not conducting in-person interviews on any open cases. The restrictions really limited what they were able to do, and Pepita’s case wasn’t a priority. As we’ve heard so many times before, she was an adult who was allowed to go missing. Police would take the report, but they weren’t going to expend a lot of resources on searching for her.

Obviously, this was not good enough for Pepita’s family. Anita continued to call and text Pepita’s cell phone, hoping to get through. On March 30th, she got a response, but not from Pepita. An unknown person texted back and said that they had recently purchased the phone from someone. But the person didn’t remember who the seller was. It was a dead end.

This was the final straw. Anita was done sitting around and waiting for police to start investigating – she would search for her daughter herself.

Anita, Shelda, and several other family members drove to Albuquerque and began papering the city with homemade fliers. They talked to anyone who would listen, showed them Pepita’s picture, and begged them to call the number on the flier if they saw her. They also made it a point to check the local bus stops. Pepita rode the city bus everywhere, so it made sense that people would recognize her. In fact, lots of people in the area knew Pepita, but none of them had seen her in days.

Unfortunately, the family would only face more roadblocks in their search for Pepita. The Albuquerque PD didn’t have any updates for them; all they would say is that they had no leads to go on. Shelda contacted local news stations, asking them to show Pepita’s missing poster on their broadcasts, but none of them would. And Nick wasn’t being helpful at all. Shelda even drove to his house and stood at the fence, shouting her sister’s name and begging Nick to come out and talk to her. But all she got was barking dogs and a locked gate.

Then, on April 19th, Nick did something unexpected – he filed his own missing persons report with the Albuquerque PD.

According to the report, Nick told police that he had last seen Pepita on March 26th, two days after she returned to Albuquerque. He said they had gone out for a drink that evening, but at some point during the night they had gotten into an argument and Pepita had walked out. She texted him the next morning saying she was with someone named Laramy. Nick told the police that he suspected the text had been written by someone else; it didn’t sound like Pepita and used “different verbiage” than her usual messages. After that, Nick didn’t hear from Pepita again.

Some of the details surrounding Pepita’s last known movements are murky. Nick’s statement to police made it sound like he and Pepita had just met Laramy the night they were out drinking, but other reports suggest he wasn’t a stranger to them. In fact, when Anita posted on her Facebook that they were looking for Laramy to ask him about Pepita, he actually reached out. Laramy told Anita that he knew Pepita pretty well, and the last time he’d seen her was on March 10th when she brought him a cupcake for his birthday. He said that Nick had been angry, jealous that she had made a treat for another man, and the couple had argued about it before leaving Laramy’s house.

So, the question remains – which version is true? Did Pepita and Nick last meet up with Laramy on the 10th or the 26th? Was Pepita last seen at Nick’s house in the South Valley or Laramy’s house in northeast Albuquerque? Some sources, like Crime Stoppers, state that Laramy was homeless, which adds another layer of confusion to the story. I’ve seen multiple missing posters with two different last seen locations for Pepita. The conflicting information surely can’t be helpful to whatever investigation is being done.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that investigators ever questioned Laramy regarding Pepita’s case, and he has since passed away. All they have to go on is Nick’s statement, and he was never thoroughly questioned either. No searches were done at the house, no witnesses tracked down. The case just went cold.

Of course, Pepita’s family was not going to give up. They continued to search Albuquerque as much as they could during the lockdown, and they tracked down every potential sighting. They even explored the theory that Pepita had been a victim of human trafficking, a huge problem in the area. But nothing panned out; it was just one dead end after another.

In September of 2021, eighteen months after Pepita disappeared, the Albuquerque Police Department issued a statement about her case. “The case had gone cold, however we are currently working some new leads and a detective is assigned to the case. There are no indications of foul play at this time. We do know of a domestic history with the boyfriend and are checking into it.”

For the family, this felt a bit like too little, too late. Anita told KOAT News that the police had not shown a bit of concern for Pepita in the past year and a half. “They said that my daughter was a drunk. They assumed that she was gone and that she was not important.”

Anita wanted to do even more to raise awareness about Pepita’s case and the cases of other women like her. She and Shelda began organizing rallies in Albuquerque and on the Navajo Nation. They joined together with advocates from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women organization, marching in the streets holding signs with their loved ones’ names and faces.

After one such rally in October of 2021, the Albuquerque Police Department finally reached out to Pepita’s family. Shelda told the Navajo Times, “The prior investigator went to cold case and they kind of put it to the side… When we did the rally and the news went out, that’s when they finally contacted us. They told us they wanted to hear our side of the story.”

But even with this new line of communication, investigators didn’t have much information to give. According to Anita, “There’s no trace, there’s no lead yet… They won’t give me the whole information. They say it’s confidential because the case is active.”

But the family’s awareness campaign seemed to be working. In 2022, Investigation Discovery featured Pepita’s story on an episode of their show Disappeared. Her story was finally being broadcast on a national platform.

In an interview with the Albuquerque Journal, one of the show’s producers said, “Missing persons cases are always difficult to cover, and you can feel and see the anguish in Pepita’s loved ones, most notably, her mother. It’s a heartbreaking endeavor, but we have a responsibility to cover missing persons from all walks of life on ‘Disappeared,’ and we know that Pepita’s story highlights just one of the many missing Indigenous people in this underserved, underrepresented community.”

After Pepita’s episode aired, there was a new push for action in her case. A New Mexico nonprofit organization – 4Corners K-9 Search and Rescue – brought teams out to conduct ground searches in the Albuquerque desert. Crime Stoppers announced they were offering a $2,000 reward for information leading to her recovery, and the family has set up a GoFundMe to raise additional reward money. They truly believe that someone out there knows something.

According to the New Mexico Indian Affairs Department, New Mexico has the highest number of cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States, and Albuquerque is one of the top ten U.S. cities where Indigenous women go missing. Jurisdictional conflicts can slow down investigations, and many cases like Pepita’s just fall through the cracks. In 2019, New Mexico Governor Michelle Grisham established an emergency task force to look into this epidemic, and in May of 2021, she formalized the task force through an executive order. The goal is to create partnerships across jurisdictions to streamline the investigation process and provide communities with resources.

Pepita’s family still holds out hope that she will be found. At a rally in April of 2023, Anita told KOAT News, “I have hopes that I will see her, she would just come back in and come home, walk in and say, ‘Mom, I am home.’ We are hoping for that… I’m not walking alone today. There’s a lot of supporters, and I’m here with my granddaughter as well. And my daughter. I know. I feel her spirit. She’s here.”

Pepita Madalyn Redhair was last seen by her family on March 24, 2020, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She was last seen by her boyfriend on March 27th. Pepita was 27 years old at the time of her disappearance. She is 5’1” tall with brown hair and brown eyes. She has a scar on her left eyebrow and two beauty marks on her chin. She has multiple tattoos, including a koi fish on her left arm and a butterfly on her shoulder. If you have any information about Pepita’s disappearance or her current whereabouts, please contact Albuquerque Metro Crime Stoppers at 505-843-7867.