Episode 085: Aubrey Dameron

July 31, 2023

When a young trans woman leaves home in the middle of the night and doesn’t return, suspicions fly through a small town and a family fights for the truth. Where is Aubrey?

Episode Media
Aubrey Dameron (NewsOn6)
Missing poster (Cherokee Phoenix)
Map of Aubrey’s last known location on March 9, 2019 (Google Maps)
Map of Aubrey’s last known locations on March 9, 2019 (Google Maps)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a case of a missing person who seemingly vanished into thin air. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

In the spring of 2019, 25-year-old Aubrey Dameron was living on the outskirts of Grove, Oklahoma, a small town on the Cherokee Nation. Aubrey had grown up in Grove, graduating from Grove High School in 2012 and earning her diploma from Grove Beauty College in 2015.

But her growing up years hadn’t been easy. Assigned male at birth, Aubrey never quite felt like her true self. In her early teens, she came out as gay to her uncle, Christian. Aubrey and Christian were only six months apart and had been raised more like siblings, an unshakeable bond. Christian was also gay, and the pair leaned on each other for support as they navigated the world of high school bullies and a community that didn’t really understand them.

Aubrey continued on her journey of self-discovery through high school and eventually told her family that she was transgender. This was a major step for Aubrey; she finally felt like she was exactly who she was meant to be. Christian later told Dateline, “I’ve always thought that she was happy prior to her transition. She was a happy little boy growing up. But whenever I saw her after she’d come out as transgender, she was just this beautiful, amazing young woman.”

According to Christian, Aubrey referred to herself as a Two-Spirit, a term used by many Native American communities to describe someone whose body houses both masculine and feminine spirits. But even though Two-Spirits are traditionally held in high regard, many communities still struggle to accept those who identify as transgender or Two-Spirit. Aubrey’s family was no exception.

Christian told Dateline, “It was something that was new to everyone within our community, but it was really new to our family. They didn’t really know how to take it. I know that they could have taken it a lot better, but they did what they knew how to do and just continued to push forward from there and found acceptance. It took a while. It wasn’t overnight. It’s something that they worked toward.”

But Aubrey somehow managed to keep a positive outlook and was unfailingly kind to those around her. Her aunt Pam told Oxygen, “When people ridiculed her, she never wanted revenge. She’d pray for them. That’s who she was.”

However, although she was upbeat, things still weren’t simple in Aubrey’s life. In early 2018, Aubrey moved away from her hometown, settling in New Mexico with her boyfriend Jay. She began the process of transitioning medically, including having gender-affirming surgeries. According to her family, Aubrey was also struggling with alcohol abuse, and her relationship with Jay was rapidly deteriorating. Finally, in August of 2018, Aubrey decided to move back home to Oklahoma.

But life in Grove wasn’t easy either. Aubrey moved back in with her mother, stepfather, and brother, but it wasn’t exactly what she was hoping for. In February of 2019, she got into a physical altercation with her stepfather Mike, which resulted in him filing charges against her for assault and battery. The charges were quickly dropped, but it was clear that Aubrey’s current situation was not healthy or safe.

Ninety miles away in Tulsa, Christian his sister Pam were worried about Aubrey. They had noticed that she was slowly pulling away; she wasn’t her usual, bubbly self when they talked to her. She posted less and less on social media, and her communication had been tapering off. Aubrey usually called or texted every day, but it was now days or even weeks between conversations. They wanted to respect Aubrey’s need for space, but they could tell that something was up.

On March 16, 2019, Pam got a strange message on Facebook – a friend asked if Aubrey was missing. Pam was surprised; as far as she knew, Aubrey was fine. But then the friend sent her a screenshot of a Facebook post with a picture of Aubrey and a number to call if anybody had seen her.

Pam immediately called the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office to find out what was going on. Her heart sank when they confirmed her fears: Aubrey had been reported missing. Pam later told Dateline that she couldn’t get any real answers from the sheriff’s office. “I started asking questions and the dispatcher asked me how I was related to Aubrey. I said, ‘I’m her auntie.’ I was like, you know, ‘Her mom and I are sisters.’ And she said, ‘Well, you’ll have to call your sister and she can give you the details.’”

So Pam did exactly that. But when she finally reached her sister Jennifer – Aubrey’s mother – she was shocked to learn that Aubrey had been missing for an entire week.

According to Jennifer, she had last seen Aubrey in the early morning hours of Saturday, March 9th. Jennifer had woken up around 3:30 to use the bathroom and had seen Aubrey leaving the house. She was dressed all in black – a black mini skirt, black leather jacket, black panty hose and heels. Aubrey told her mom that she was going to meet someone, but she didn’t say who. She said goodbye and walked out the door.

Two days later, when Aubrey still hadn’t returned home and wasn’t responding to calls or texts, a missing persons report was filed with the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office.

Pam and Christian were upset that they had been left out of the loop in regards to Aubrey’s disappearance, and it didn’t seem like law enforcement was doing any real investigating. On March 18th, Pam called Delaware County again and asked to speak with the sheriff. Pam told the Cherokee Phoenix that the sheriff had only just been briefed on Aubrey’s case – surprising since Aubrey had been reported missing 7 days prior. The next day, Pam called again and asked to be transferred to the detective in charge of Aubrey’s case. Surely that person would have more information about the investigation.

But according to Pam, Captain Gayle Wells told her that he didn’t believe Aubrey was a missing person at all, “because of her lifestyle.” Pam was incensed. She challenged Captain Wells, asking if Aubrey’s case wasn’t important because she was native, because she was transgender. Captain Wells denied the accusation, claiming that the sheriff’s office didn’t have the resources to spend on Aubrey’s case; however, Wells later told Oxygen, “What made this case unique was her lifestyle. Not only was she transgender and very sexually active, but she was also a known drug abuser.”

Whatever the actual reason was, the fact remains that the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office did not begin investigating Aubrey’s case until several weeks after her disappearance, putting the search at an obvious disadvantage.

Naturally, Aubrey’s family was not going to sit around and wait for law enforcement to take action. Pam and Christian began their own investigation, piecing together what little information they had about Aubrey’s last known movements.

According to Pam, Aubrey left behind her purse and her prescription medications when she left her mom’s house on March 9th. Aubrey was dependent on medication for her epilepsy, so it didn’t make sense that she would leave without it, or that she wouldn’t come back for it. There are conflicting reports about whether or not Aubrey left her phone behind as well.

Another red flag for the family was the fact that Aubrey didn’t have a car, and her mom’s house was in a very rural area. If Aubrey had set out on foot, she would have had to walk two miles on back country roads without any street lights just to reach the edge of town. Also, very few businesses would have been open at that time of night.

Several sources indicate that Aubrey had messaged a few friends on Facebook that night, asking for a ride. However, we don’t know who, if anyone, picked her up or where she intended to go.

Based on the location of the house, Aubrey would have had to walk down a long driveway – about the length of two football fields – to reach the main road. She would have passed by two other houses on the right and a mobile home park on the left. Christian told Dateline that they were able to check the doorbell cameras from the two other houses, but neither captured any sign of Aubrey on March 9th, and there was no sign of any vehicles coming up the drive.

According to the Cherokee Phoenix, law enforcement was able to determine that Aubrey’s cell phone last pinged at 3:42am on March 9th near the mobile home park, about 100 yards from the house. Some reports indicate that the phone connected to a Wi-Fi network at one of the homes, but there are also two cell towers within a mile of Jennifer’s house, so it could have pinged off one of those as well.

As I mentioned earlier, there are conflicting reports about whether or not Aubrey took her phone with her when she left the house. If she didn’t take it with her, that would easily explain why it would be pinging so close to the house. If she did take it, she either dropped it somewhere, turned it off before leaving the property, or – worst case scenario – Aubrey and her phone are still somewhere nearby.

On March 23, two weeks after Aubrey disappeared, Christian and Pam organized a search of Jennifer’s property. Christian told Dateline, “We got a group of about three dozen people together and we searched the entire property, as well as the surrounding areas. We also got some specialists out there, some dive teams who went in two of the ponds in the surrounding area — and they didn’t find anything.”

However, the search teams did find one interesting item: a single sock with “possible blood”. Pam told the Cherokee Phoenix that they handed the sock over to the sheriff’s office and it was sent to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation. According to Pam, “The OSBI has been brought in because this is no longer regarded as a ‘normal’ missing persons case.”

Unfortunately, DNA results from the sock were inconclusive, but Aubrey’s family wasn’t giving up. Now that the OSBI was involved, Pam was hopeful that these new resources would lead to more traction in the case. “We are planning other searches… They will include Oklahoma City search and rescue, and we will be working with other search and rescue teams from around the state. They want to continue ground searches in the Grove area where Aubrey lived, and they are planning a water search near the shorelines.”

In the first few months after Aubrey disappeared, there were several promising leads. The first came in early March, right after Aubrey was reported missing. Aubrey’s ex-boyfriend Jay received a call from a former friend of Aubrey’s, a woman named Deanette Rowbotham. Deanette told Jay that Aubrey was being held hostage in the town of Ketchum on the other side of the Neosho River. According to Deanette, Aubrey owed a large sum of money to her captors for an unpaid drug debt, and if Jay would send her the money, she could help free Aubrey. Naturally, Jay reported this phone call to the police, but when they interviewed Deanette, she admitted that she had made the whole story up to get money from Jay. The lead went nowhere, and Deanette was charged with extortion.

On April 6, Pam had a disturbing conversation with her sister Jennifer. According to Pam, Jennifer told her that Mike – her husband and Aubrey’s stepfather – had confessed to killing Aubrey. Jennifer told Pam that she didn’t feel safe at home with Mike around.

Pam immediately called the sheriff’s office and reported the conversation to Captain Wells. According to an affidavit, Wells and another detective immediately drove to Jennifer’s home to perform a welfare check. On the way there, they pulled over a white Chevy for running a stop sign and were surprised to find Aubrey’s stepfather Mike behind the wheel. Mike was arrested for drunk driving and sent to the local hospital where a blood sample was taken and sent to the OSBI. But it doesn’t seem that anything ever came of it. When investigators followed up with Jennifer, she denied telling Pam she was afraid of Mike, saying that Mike hadn’t confessed to anything. Captain Wells told the Tulsa World that in the end, they had no evidence to corroborate the claims.

Of course, Aubrey’s family still wasn’t giving up. In late May, they received a tip that Aubrey was buried on a hill in Kenwood, a small town 30 miles south of Grove. An extensive search of the area revealed what appeared to be a shallow grave near the old water tower. Next to it lay a black leather jacket, very similar to what Aubrey was last seen wearing.

Pam and Christian were hopeful that this would finally lead to the answers they so desperately needed. But Captain Wells didn’t seem to share their sense of urgency. According to Pam, Wells was annoyed that the family was there at the scene, and he told them that the forensic anthropologist wouldn’t be able to examine the scene for several more days.

Captain Wells told the Tulsa World that they submitted the jacket and a shirt to the OSBI for testing, but Pam told Dateline that the family never got an answer about whether the items belonged to Aubrey. It seemed that once again, the results were inconclusive.

As the months passed, Pam and Christian became increasingly frustrated with the state of the investigation. In their eyes, the sheriff’s office wasn’t taking Aubrey’s case seriously, operating under the assumption that she had just walked away and didn’t need to be found. Captain Wells repeatedly stated that the department was following up on every lead, but the family claims that communication from law enforcement slowed to a trickle. Pam told the Cherokee Phoenix, “We would receive tips and we would pass them along, and just see their disregard for her life.”

In November of 2019, eight months after Aubrey disappeared, the family organized another search on Jennifer’s property. According to KOAM News, search dogs hit on a small pond near the house and a blue tarp in the shed. Christian told Dateline that there were stains on the tarp that could have possibly been blood, so they requested that the sheriff’s office submit it for testing. “It took them… over a month to get it 60 miles down the road to get it tested.”

Pam was frustrated too, telling KOAM News, “It’s hard to have a hundred percent trust in them following up with everything we send them. I wish that they would have taken her case seriously from the moment she was reported missing.”

More time passed, and Christian and Pam continued to push forward, spreading the word about Aubrey’s disappearance and hoping for the best. Christian told Fox 25 News, “I would love to believe that she is still alive. I would love to believe that maybe she went away for a while and she just needed a break but I’ve known her my entire life… It’s not Aubrey.”

Then, in July of 2020, a ruling by the United States Supreme Court changed the case completely. In McGirt v. Oklahoma, the Supreme Court gave federal authorities the power to prosecute crimes on Native lands. Aubrey’s case could now be investigated by tribal police and the FBI.

Shannon Buhl, the Director of the Cherokee Nation Marshal Service, was now leading the investigation with far more resources than the sheriff’s office ever had. Marshal Buhl told Dateline, “We have to follow the leads that Delaware County initially got. The investigator that worked Aubrey’s case initially is no longer at the sheriff’s office. And from everything I’ve heard, he probably didn’t treat this case like I would treat it. He didn’t give the due respect, in my opinion, to Aubrey and that’s… a loss. It’s a loss that now we’re playing catch up on maybe a case that, I hate to say it, maybe could have been solved quickly — but wasn’t. So now we’re having to play catch up… to fit pieces of puzzles, that — maybe those pieces don’t even exist anymore.”

Marshal Buhl also upgraded Aubrey’s case from a missing persons investigation to a homicide. “Making it a possible homicide puts it high up on the scale of importance to a lot of agencies. When we call and talk to people, we’re looking at a possible homicide, not a possible missing person. If you can kind of understand the psyche of that… we can get a lot more information…”

The new team of investigators went over all the evidence previously collected, including the bloody sock, the clothes found by the water tower, and the tarp in Jennifer’s shed. The jacket and shirt were determined to not be a match to Aubrey, and nothing ever came of the sock. And because the tarp wasn’t tested quickly or properly, investigators are facing an uphill climb. “There’s some belief that maybe Aubrey might have been there at the shed. The problem with anything on that property is I have to convince a judge to get me back on that property. We’re not getting consent to go back… And so I got to have enough to have a tribal judge look and go, ‘Yes, here. Get on that property and look.’”

Investigators reviewed previous leads and began digging into every possible theory, starting with those closest to Aubrey. Marshal Buhl told Dateline, “People do bad things to people generally because they love them or they did love them or there’s some type of relationship, you know? So I believe that if we find out that, heaven forbid, Aubrey was murdered, chances are it’s gonna be a very, very close person that spent a lot of time with her. And that person knows where she is right now.”

Investigators first looked into Aubrey’s ex-boyfriend, Jay. Early in the investigation, Jay told Delaware County detectives that Aubrey had left New Mexico to seek treatment for drug and alcohol abuse, but according to Pam, Aubrey was actually escaping a toxic relationship. In the months before her disappearance, Aubrey allegedly told Pam that she was scared of Jay, that he had threatened to kill her if she ever left him. But there is no indication that Jay was anywhere near Grove at the time of Aubrey’s disappearance, and he has never been named a suspect in the investigation.

Investigators also looked into the possibility that Aubrey’s immediate family may have had something to do with her disappearance, a theory that Christian and Pam seem to support. They told The Vanished podcast that Jennifer and Mike are active meth users and are well-known to the Delaware County Sheriff’s Office. Court records show that Jennifer and Mike have a long list of past arrests between them, including charges for drunk driving, possession, assault, and domestic abuse. There have even been rumors floating around that Jennifer owed some sort of drug debt that could have led to Aubrey’s disappearance, but of course, none of those rumors have been confirmed.

Both Christian and Pam have expressed frustration with how Jennifer has handled her daughter’s disappearance from the start. First of all, Jennifer failed to inform them of Aubrey’s disappearance even though she knew how extremely close they were to Aubrey. Second, Jennifer, Mike, and Aubrey’s brother Tommy have shown very little interest in helping with the search for Aubrey and have been very cagey when answering questions. Pam told Dateline that she believes without a doubt that Jennifer knows more than she’s letting on.

In an interview with The Vanished podcast, Christian stated that shortly after Aubrey disappeared, he went to Jennifer’s house to look through Aubrey’s room, hoping to find some clues as to where she may have gone. Instead, he discovered that all of Aubrey’s belongings had been bagged up. Jennifer told him that she had been looking for something and just decided to clean the room, but Christian said it didn’t feel like that at all. “It was weird, like they weren’t expecting her to come home.”

Aside from letting teams search the property, Jennifer and Mike have not cooperated with the investigation and have turned down interviews about Aubrey’s case. It wasn’t until November of 2021 – nearly two years after Aubrey disappeared – that Jennifer spoke with the media. She told a reporter from NewsNation that she believes Aubrey is dead. “I felt my child pass. A year ago. A mother and a child has a bond. And I felt it. I hit the floor.”

Marshal Buhl told Dateline that his team has spoken to Aubrey’s immediate family about the case, but I found part of his statement especially interesting. “I can tell you, we have not interviewed every family member yet. There’s a couple that we’re not interviewing on purpose yet.”

Of course, none of Aubrey’s family members have been named as suspects, and investigators continue to explore every lead that comes their way. Pam and Christian believe that Aubrey being transgender could have had something to do with her disappearance, especially in a community that has not always been accepting of her. We know that indigenous women experience disproportionately high rates of violence, and indigenous transgender women are subject to even higher rates. It is certainly possible that Aubrey was the victim of anti-trans violence, and investigators are actively seeking information that could shed light on any interactions Aubrey may have had prior to her disappearance.

Marshal Buhl told Dateline, “We’re looking for any little thing. You know, just some offhand comment. ‘I’ve seen this car.’ ‘I heard this from a friend at a party.’ I mean, that’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for someone to come forward with what they think is the dumbest, worthless piece of information that they could ever give the police. That’s what we want.”

Aubrey is still missing, and her loved ones are desperate for answers. Christian told Oxygen, “When Aubrey vanished, this world lost a light that not a lot of people carry. We’re fighting for her like she fought to be who she was. This, too, isn’t going to break us.”

Aubrey Dameron was last seen on March 9, 2019 at her home in Grove, Oklahoma. She is 5’9” tall with brown hair and brown eyes. She was last seen wearing a black mini skirt, black panty hose, black heels, and a black jacket. She has two tattoos: a triquetra symbol on her back and the word “Shorty” on her upper left arm.

If you have any information about the disappearance of Aubrey Dameron, please contact the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation at (800) 522-8017 or email tips@osbi.ok.gov.