Episode 090: Ranelle Bennett

September 4, 2023

When a mother fails to show up for her daughter’s birthday party, her family knows something is very wrong. What happened to Ranelle Bennett?

Episode Media
Ranelle Rose Bennett (The Guardian)
Ranelle Rose Bennett (Facebook)
Area near where Ranelle was last seen between Farmington and Shiprock, New Mexico (Google Maps)
Kendale Johnson (Navajo Nation PD)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a missing persons case from the Navajo Nation, a case that, like many, has not received the attention it deserves. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

On the morning of June 15, 2021, 33-year-old Ranelle Bennett and her mother Rose Yazzie were making party plans. Ranelle’s daughter was turning 10, and they wanted it to be a special occasion.

Rose had raised all of her children, including Ranelle, on the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, and now she was also raising Ranelle’s two children. But even though the children lived with their grandmother, Ranelle was still very involved in their lives. She adored her children, calling and texting them every day, making sure they were loved and cared for. Ranelle had never gone more than a few days without seeing them, and she was so excited to be celebrating her daughter’s birthday with a family gathering that night.

Rose and Ranelle finished up their plans and agreed that Ranelle would come over to Rose’s house later that day to help decorate for the party. But as Rose prepared to leave, Ranelle suddenly gave her mom a huge hug, something she didn’t often do. Rose later recalled that Ranelle was emotional, that the hug seemed almost desperate in a way. She told the Durango Herald, “She hugged me for a long time. I can still remember that hug. And she had kinda tears in her eyes, but I didn’t think anything of it until I started driving off. And then I was wondering why she held me that long.”

The hug lingered in Rose’s mind as the hours passed and Ranelle still hadn’t shown up. Rose tried calling Ranelle’s cell phone, but she didn’t answer, and all of her text messages went unread. Rose told KOAT Action News, “Her daughter kept texting her, ‘Mom, remember it’s my birthday today.’ She kept looking out to the road and she kept wanting to see her mom.”

But Ranelle didn’t come to the party as she had promised, and she never called or texted with an explanation. Rose was worried, but she tried to stay positive. Ranelle had just started dating a new guy – maybe she was simply wrapped up in a new relationship. But Rose kept thinking about that hug Ranelle had given her and her promise that she would be there for her daughter’s birthday. It just wasn’t like her to break a promise, especially where her children were involved.

After a few days of silence, Rose decided to just go check on Ranelle herself. She drove from her home in Farmington to Ranelle’s house in Hogback, about 20 minutes down Route 64. But when she arrived, the lights were off and the door was locked. No one answered when Rose knocked on the door and called out her daughter’s name. Now she knew there was something wrong.

On Monday, June 21st, Rose went to the Navajo Nation Police Department in Shiprock and filed a missing persons report. But when she called to follow up two days later, she was told that it hadn’t actually been entered into the system. Rose told KOAT, “I went to the criminal investigator here in Shiprock and I just talked to him over the phone. [He said] this was new to him and [that] he didn’t know anything about it.”

Frustrated but determined, Rose continued to push for action in her daughter’s case. “I kept calling the police department, and finally they just got tired of me. Sometimes I would just go in and try and wait until an officer came in, and they’ll say he’s out.”

According to Rose, it took the police over two weeks to complete the missing persons report and get it properly entered into their system. It took several more weeks before officers actually began to investigate.

By that point, the newly created Missing and Murdered Unit at the Bureau of Indian Affairs was up and running. It had been formed by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in April of 2021 as a way to combat the staggering number of missing and murdered indigenous persons in the United States.

In mid-July, federal agents showed up at Ranelle’s house in Hogback to search for evidence. Rose told The Guardian that the agents bagged some items and promised to be in touch. So again, she waited.

Then, Rose heard some news that made her stop in her tracks: Ranelle’s boyfriend had been arrested in Shiprock.

According to the Navajo Times, Kendale Johnson, who went by KJ, was wanted by Shiprock police in connection with a local crime spree that included breaking into homes and stealing cars. He was also wanted on federal firearms charges. In July of 2021, KJ and five other suspects were apprehended after a police chase and taken into federal custody.

The revelation that Ranelle had been dating such a dangerous person was surprising to Rose. Ranelle and KJ had only known each other for about a month when Ranelle disappeared, and the family hadn’t even met him yet. They really didn’t know anything about him. Rose thought back to the day she had last seen Ranelle. She told the Navajo Times that KJ had been in the house, but she hadn’t seen him. “She was talking to me, and I said, ‘Is KJ in the back there?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ So KJ was in the back, in the bedroom.”

Rose also recalled a conversation she’d had with a police officer early in the investigation. “He asked who [Ranelle] was with and I said KJ. That’s when he told me, ‘That guy is no good.’ That’s when I began to worry.”

KJ had an extensive criminal record, and police wondered if he might be connected to Ranelle’s disappearance. However, they had also briefly wondered if Ranelle might be connected to KJ’s crimes. But although two of the suspects arrested alongside KJ were women, neither were Ranelle, and there was no proof that she had been aware of his criminal activity.

Navajo Nation Police Chief Phillip Francisco told the Navajo Times that investigators had been looking into Ranelle’s phone records. “I know they have been doing cell phone searches prior to finding Kendale, and it was kind of indicating [Ranelle] was moving around. But they weren’t sure if she had the cell phone or someone else, for a while. There is a lot of follow-up and investigation going on with this case to try to locate her.”

In other words, Ranelle’s phone had been turned on and pinging off local towers in the days and weeks after her mother last saw her, but police couldn’t confirm who was actually in possession of the phone. Was it possible that KJ – or someone else – had taken Ranelle’s phone after she disappeared?

Chief Francisco said that KJ told them he’d seen Ranelle in the Shiprock area well after June 15th. But even that was hard to prove. “We really don’t know what happened. We will do more searches from where she was last seen.”

As the weeks and months continued to roll by, Rose began to feel more and more helpless. She told the Navajo Times that she constantly wondered where Ranelle was. “A lot is going through my mind. I cry every day. I try calling her. I pray… I just want her found. Every day I sit here wondering if she is going to walk through the door.”

But Rose was also determined to find her daughter, and Ranelle’s siblings were too. Her brother Jerold even left his home in Colorado and moved back to New Mexico to help with the search. He told KOAT that he was running down every lead he could. “I check on tips, or wherever somebody calls, ‘I think we’ve seen her here. If you check this place,’ and I will leave and I’ll go.”

One lead actually did prove useful. In September, some of Ranelle’s family members were searching the mesa just north of Shiprock when they came across Ranelle’s sweater and a pair of her shoes. They immediately contacted the police, who came and collected the items. The family felt hopeful again – this could be something important, something that could actually lead them to Ranelle. But after the evidence was collected, they never heard anything else about it.

In October, Rose reached out to an agent at the Bureau of Indian Affairs to ask for an update on the case. But the agent said he was waiting to hear from the Navajo Nation police – he couldn’t move forward without them. When Rose called the Navajo Nation police, they told her they were waiting for the Bureau. Rose was completely frustrated, telling The Guardian, “They could have found something by now, instead of just back and forth. They’re probably not even doing anything.”

Unfortunately, Rose wasn’t the only one in that boat. According to Source New Mexico, in June of 2021 – the month Ranelle disappeared – there were 114 new missing persons cases across 19 indigenous tribes in the United States. Hundreds of families missing their loved ones, bumping up against red tape and jurisdictional hurdles.

Chief Francisco told Source New Mexico that they are also frustrated. “What we are frustrated about here on Navajo is once it’s turned over to the FBI and our investigators, there’s not much communication, or much reach out to the media, at least for our cases here. That’s the problem because everyone comes looking at the police department for their answers, but yet it should be coming from the investigative agency… It’s an all-in effort with missing people when it comes to the Navajo Nation Police Department. We do everything we can. After a while when we believe something is suspicious, then our investigators and FBI will get involved. The problem is our investigators and FBI won’t get involved unless they believe there is a homicide.”

And he’s not wrong. A spokesperson from the FBI confirmed Chief Francisco’s statement in an email to Source New Mexico. “The FBI does not typically investigate cases of adults reported as missing on the Navajo Nation and other areas in which we have jurisdiction unless there is a reasonable suspicion of foul play.”

The FBI’s own website only lists 192 missing indigenous people in New Mexico, but the list hasn’t been updated since October of 2022, and we know the true number is far greater. Across the United States, there are thousands of cases of missing and murdered indigenous people that have gone unsolved.

Even when federal agencies do get involved, the burden often falls to victims’ families to do their own searches and investigations. They rally and march, raising awareness for their loved ones and for the greater problem at hand. Ranelle’s family has been very active in advocating for her case.

In April of 2022, the family worked with 4Corners K-9 Search and Rescue, a Navajo-owned nonprofit organization, to conduct a ground search of the mesa. They’ve also contacted local news outlets and politicians to get traction on Ranelle’s case. Darlene Gomez, an attorney who represents indigenous families with missing relatives, has taken on Ranelle’s case pro bono. Ranelle’s loved ones are doing everything they can to bring Ranelle home.

In October of 2022, Ranelle’s family took part in the first Missing in New Mexico Day, an event designed to shine a light on the state’s epidemic of missing indigenous people, bringing together victims’ families and law enforcement in the hopes of moving forward. Rose was able to speak directly to the head of the FBI’s field office in Albuquerque, Special Agent Raul Bujanda. Rose spoke of her love for her daughter and her disappointment in how her case has been handled, the many errors that have been made and the lack of communication.

After hearing from multiple families, Agent Bujanda was visibly moved. He promised to look into these cases himself and have a response for families within the next month. “It brings it home and makes it real. If that was your family that went missing or something happened even worse… and you knew what it is that happened. And it’s gone years, and you didn’t have any closure. I don’t want that for myself, I wouldn’t want that for you. And don’t I want that for them.”

Rose felt encouraged by his response and by the amount of people who had come out for the event. She told the Durango Herald, “It really helps talking to the people, to know that you’re not the only person going through this.”

As it stands today, Ranelle is still missing, and there have been no suspects named in her disappearance. Ranelle’s family continues to search for answers, hoping that one day they will know the truth of what happened. Rose told KOAT, “I’m just hopeful she’s still here with us. I have faith that she’s still out there.”

Ranelle Rose Bennett was last seen on June 15, 2021, at her home in Hogback, New Mexico. She is described as a Native American female with black hair and brown eyes. She has a tattoo of the name “Treasten” on her right forearm and a tattoo of the letter “B” behind her left ear. She was last seen wearing an orange tank top and black sweatpants. If you have any information about the disappearance of Ranelle Bennett or her current whereabouts, please contact the Navajo Nation Police Department in Shiprock at 505-368-1350.