Episode 107: Olivia Lone Bear

March 4, 2024

When a mother of five vanishes after a night out with friends, her family must fight the system to get the answers they deserve. What happened to Olivia Lone Bear?

Episode Media
Olivia Lone Bear (Facebook)
2011 Chevy Silverado driven by Olivia on the day she disappeared
Location where Olivia’s truck was pulled from Sanish Bay on July 31, 2018
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a mysterious case from North Dakota, one that could be solved with the right information. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

In the fall of 2017, 32-year-old Olivia Lone Bear was living in New Town, North Dakota, a small town on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Olivia had grown up in North Dakota with a close-knit family of brothers and sisters and cousins, but she had a wandering spirit and had a hard time staying in one place. She moved around in high school, spending some time in Montana and Washington State. When she got pregnant her senior year, Olivia decided to finish school through independent study and earned her high diploma.

Her daughter Haley was born in 2003, and two years later, her son Caleb followed. Tragically, Caleb passed away at 8 months old, and Olivia struggled with his loss. Over the next few years, Olivia and Haley moved back and forth between Washington and North Dakota before finally settling back into life in New Town in 2009. In the years that followed, Olivia had four more children – Jaycee, Layla, Dane, and Brody – and they were her whole world. Her Facebook page was peppered with photographs of Olivia and the kids going to the lake, playing golf, and watching movies at home.

Olivia worked hard to support her young family, finding jobs at local casinos and golf courses. She worked as a bartender for a while, but a former co-worker told High Country News that Olivia had gotten fired after a fight. The wife of Olivia’s ex-boyfriend had come into the bar one night and beat Olivia up, slamming her head on a pool table. The bar manager hadn’t wanted that sort of drama, and Olivia was dismissed. According to the High Plains Reader, Olivia had some issues with employment, but she was determined to keep trying and give her children the best life she could.

Olivia and her kids lived with Olivia’s father Texx. Olivia’s mother had passed away in 2007, so when Olivia moved back to New Town, she took over the role of caretaker for her father. It was a good arrangement – Olivia and Texx adored each other, and the children loved their grandfather. Having her father there for the kids also gave Olivia some flexibility with her free time. She had a large circle of friends and was known to be the life of the party. Her family described her as “out-going, smart, crazy, and loving… always up for an adventure.” But no matter where she went or who she was with, Olivia always checked in, made sure her dad and the kids were okay until she came home.

So when Olivia didn’t come home, they knew something was wrong.

On Tuesday, October 24, 2017, Olivia sent a text to her friend Jim. She was at home doing laundry, and he was going to swing by and drop off some groceries. But when Jim arrived at the house, no one was there. Olivia had borrowed his truck earlier that day, something she did often, so Jim didn’t think too much of the fact that she had left the house. He would just catch up with her later.

Haley, who was 14 at the time, told Dateline that she remembered hearing her mom say that she was going out and would be back later that night. But Olivia didn’t come home that night, and she didn’t text or call anyone in the family. Concerned, they began calling around to Olivia’s cousins and friends, hoping that someone knew where she was. Maybe she had just decided to sleep at a friend’s house after a night of partying.

However, that didn’t seem to be the case. The family figured out that on Tuesday night, Olivia had driven Jim’s truck to meet up with friends at Ranchman’s 23, a popular bar a few miles east of town. The friends said that Olivia had been in a great mood, the life of the party as usual. When everyone parted ways at the end of the night, Olivia had been planning to head home to bed.

At first, the family assumed that Olivia hadn’t made it home, but when they looked around the house, they found Olivia’s cell phone and wallet – including her license and debit card. They also found the clothes her friends said she had been wearing at the bar, jeans and a camel-colored jacket. It was clear that Olivia had come home after leaving the bar, but why would she go back out without her phone and wallet?

Olivia’s family tried to assume the best – surely she had just gotten caught up with something and would be home soon. But when Thursday came and there was still no sign of Olivia, and their calls continued to go unanswered, they knew they needed help. Texx contacted the Three Affiliated Tribes Police Department, but when he tried to file a missing persons report, he was told that he had to wait until Friday. Olivia had already been gone for over 24 hours, why did he have to wait even longer to report it?

According to Olivia’s brother Matthew, even though the tribal police took the report on Friday, they didn’t act on it until the following Monday. Matthew told High Country News that there was no urgency behind the investigation, that Olivia’s case wasn’t a priority. When the police finally issued a be-on-the-lookout for Olivia and the pickup truck, she had been missing for six days. This rough start would trigger a difficult, contentious relationship between the tribal police and Olivia’s family.

From the beginning, the family was told that OIivia had most likely just walked away from her life. She was a mom of five, she obviously needed a break. She was probably out partying somewhere. But the family dismissed these allegations outright – Olivia loved her kids more than anything in the world, she would never leave them behind.

Frustrated by the lack of urgency from the tribal police, Olivia’s family decided to take matters into their own hands. They set up their own command center and began to organize volunteer searches; relatives from all over the region came to help. They also started collecting tips from local residents, passing any new information onto investigators. But Matthew told High Country News that it seemed like police always had an excuse for not following up.

The family believed the truck would be the key to solving the mystery of Olivia’s whereabouts. The blue 2011 Chevy Silverado was equipped with an onboard navigation system, but when the family asked police if they had tried to use it to locate the truck, they couldn’t get a straight answer. They asked police if they could do water searches; New Town was right by the Missouri River, which flowed through Lake Sakakawea. The enormous reservoir would be a very logical place to look for a missing truck. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department even offered to lend them their sonar equipment, but the tribal police turned them down. They told the family that they didn’t have the manpower for a water search, and even if they did, there weren’t any available boats.

The family knew this to be untrue. Matthew took pictures of multiple boats sitting in the police supply yard, in great condition and not being used. When he posted the pictures on Facebook, local residents were outraged. The public backlash was enough to finally get a water search going, but by this time, winter was settling in and the lake was beginning to freeze over. Teams were able to search a fraction of the reservoir, but in the end, they had nothing to show for it.

Slowly, the investigation began to pick up. Police pulled surveillance video from local businesses and were able to spot Olivia and the truck in several locations in New Town on October 24th. She was seen in the drive-thru of a liquor store and at a bank, but police wouldn’t tell the family exactly when or where either of these sightings took place.

Police questioned Olivia’s ex-boyfriend and her friend Jim, the owner of the pickup truck, and they were both presumably cleared. Jim even let the police search his phone and his property, but everything checked out.

By mid-November, Olivia’s case was getting more attention. Tribal Chairman Mark Fox told the Bismarck Tribune that they were actively seeking help from other agencies. “I believe it’s very critical that we get the assistance of others. I mean state, federal agencies, everybody. This is getting to a point where we need that kind of help to find her.”

But it seemed as though the tribal police were still not treating Olivia’s case with a real sense of urgency, and it stemmed from the fact that they didn’t believe a crime had been committed. Lead Detective Sam Lincoln told the Tribune that state and federal agencies couldn’t really help at this point. “We have no proof or probable cause that she was abducted. Until we can prove a crime has been committed, then they would be in full force.”

Naturally, the family was beyond frustrated with this response; they desperately needed as much help as they could get. Texx told the Tribune, “I’m at the end of my rope, really. Whatever anybody can do to help, we sure appreciate it.”

Matthew told Dateline that the fault lay entirely with the Three Affiliated Tribes Police Department. “The problem is we’re getting help from outside people and agencies, but when they get to the part when they have to coordinate with the TATPD, [the TATPD] are turning them away.”

Again, the police response was lackluster. Detective Lincoln told local news station KFYR, “That’s one of the puzzling things right now, is finding the pick-up truck. We’ve had no sightings of it since we began. Without finding the vehicle or Olivia herself, there comes a point in time when I’ll assign a detective to the case and then he’ll be the focal point or the hub for the family and stuff. And then I suppose resources will be diminished.”

In spite of the roadblocks, the family continued to search for Olivia. They decided to expand their search area beyond Fort Berthold to look at nearby towns and cities like Bismarck and Fargo. Matthew told KVRR News that they were specifically looking at spots where a truck could easily be hidden, such as auto body shops and junkyards. They actively recruited volunteer search teams and gathered donations so they could offer a $10,000 reward for information leading to Olivia’s whereabouts.

In January of 2018, over two months after Olivia disappeared, the Bureau of Indian Affairs officially took over the investigation. At first, the family was thrilled. Finally, Olivia’s case was getting the attention and resources it deserved. But as the months passed, the family realized that this wasn’t going to be the cure-all they needed. Matthew told High Country News, “We had a revolving door of BIA agents. I felt that we were kind of put on the backburner because we didn’t even know how long our BIA agents were going to be around.”

As spring turned into summer, search teams turned back to the water, the ice now fully melted. One team in particular, the Sahnish Scouts of North Dakota, came into town with their own sonar equipment. The founder of the group, Lissa Yellowbird-Chase, had been following Olivia’s case since the early days of the investigation and had participated in several searches, but she’d had a falling out with Olivia’s family at some point, presumably over how to best conduct their searches and fundraising. But even after leaving New Town, Lissa couldn’t stop thinking about Olivia and about a particular spot that nagged at her. She told High Country News that she couldn’t let it go. “I don’t know what it was – I was drawn to that place.”

In late July, Lissa and her team spent several days searching the Sanish Bay, an offshoot of the Missouri River that bordered New Town. Using sonar, they scanned the murky waters inch by inch, starting at the shoreline and slowly making their way out into the depths in a grid pattern. Then, a few hundred feet from shore, they spotted something.

Amidst the silt and sand of the lakebed lay a strange, rectangular object. Lissa immediately captured images of the anomaly and sent them to a friend, an experienced sonar operator, who told her to capture more images from different angles and send them to law enforcement.

On July 31, 2018, dive teams from multiple agencies gathered on the north banks of Sanish Bay and dove down to the spot of Lissa’s discovery. There, they uncovered a pickup truck, a blue Chevy Silverado. Inside the cab were the remains of Olivia Lone Bear. She was only a mile from home, and just 100 feet beyond where law enforcement had searched all those months ago.

As Olivia’s family grieved her loss and prepared to lay her to rest, they continued to wait for answers. Unfortunately, the answers would not come quickly. Authorities were tight-lipped, saying only that the case was still under investigation. They released very little information to the media, and only slightly more to the family.

Matthew told Dateline that the relief of finding Olivia didn’t erase the pain caused by how the case had been treated by law enforcement. “We still feel anger and frustration at the events that transpired. But our relative is home and we can lay her to rest in our way. That is just as important to us. There is still an ongoing investigation. We hope we get more answers soon.”

It would be weeks before the family received a death certificate for Olivia, and when they did, it listed her cause of death as “undetermined”. They couldn’t get any further explanation from law enforcement. After they brought Olivia home, they were left completely in the dark.

It would be another year before they would finally get some answers.

In November of 2019, the FBI released new information to the public. According to a press release, Olivia’s autopsy did not reveal “definitive traumatic, natural, or toxicological causes for her death” and it was officially ruled undetermined. However, when the blue truck was pulled out of the lake in 2018, Olivia was found in the passenger seat, her seatbelt fastened around her.

In the wake of this revelation, multiple search warrants and court documents related to the case were unsealed. It was discovered that in addition to Olivia being found in the passenger seat, the truck’s windows were broken, and the medical examiner could not determine whether she had drowned. It seemed very likely that Olivia had been with someone else on the night she died, and because of that, authorities could not yet rule out the possibility of foul play.

In July of 2023, more details from the court documents emerged, and I’ll be honest – what they reveal is completely baffling to me. I have read and reread this information multiple times, and there are definitely some gaping holes.

We know that Olivia was last seen at home on Tuesday, October 24, 2017. She borrowed Jim’s truck like she often did, and that night she went to a bar with friends. At some point, she returned home to change clothes, and when she left again, we know she didn’t take her wallet or cell phone because they were later found by her father. However, KFGO reported that Olivia’s friend Jim received several text messages from Olivia on Wednesday the 25th, well over 24 hours since she was last known to be at home. According to an affidavit, shortly after 10pm, Olivia texted Jim, “Welp we had a little bonfire, now we are going mudding. Wish me luck.” At 10:24pm, she texted him, “Good Bye”.

After that, Olivia sent a text to an ex-boyfriend at 10:37pm. The last time her phone was used was to access Facebook – she changed her cover photo at 11:24pm and logged off at 11:38pm. After that, there was no other activity on her phone.

Here’s where it gets murky for me. If Olivia left her phone at home on the night of the 24th or even early in the morning on the 25th, how was she sending messages and checking Facebook an entire day later? I couldn’t find anything to back this up, but the only thing that makes sense to me would be if Olivia had a second cell phone.

So let’s say she did have a second phone. Obviously her friend Jim knew that phone number, and so did the ex-boyfriend she texted, so it’s likely others did as well. When Olivia didn’t come home on the morning of the 25th, why wasn’t everyone calling that phone too? And if they were calling that phone, why wasn’t Olivia answering? Unless some details have been left out of the story or the timeline has gotten mixed up in the retelling, it seems strange that Olivia wouldn’t contact any of her family for over 24 hours. Clearly she hadn’t left town, so why go silent?

If Olivia’s last messages to Jim were truthful, she was with someone on the 25th. They had gone to a bonfire and were planning to go mudding. Off-road driving was popular with locals and the shoreline of the lake would be a great place to do it; however, if Olivia did go mudding that night, investigators couldn’t find anyone who had gone with her, or at least anyone who would admit it.

I know I don’t usually like to speculate on this podcast, but since I’ve already started, I’m going to go down one more rabbit hole, something that has been nagging at me since I started researching this case. What if Olivia and this mystery person did go mudding that night and something went wrong? What if the truck went into the water by accident and Olivia was stuck inside? What if the other person was able to escape but wasn’t able to get Olivia out? What if that person decided to walk away and not tell a single soul?

As of this recording, the FBI has officially taken charge of Olivia’s case. In May of 2022 they obtained a search warrant for Google location history data. The warrant allows them to search for any cell phones or other devices that may have pinged near the shoreline where Olivia’s body was found on the night she disappeared. This could potentially lead investigators to whoever was with Olivia that night.

Drew Wrigley, the U.S. attorney for North Dakota, told the Bismarck Tribune that federal investigators were pursuing every avenue. “It’s a death investigation, and so I think the most obvious charges that you’re thinking of along those lines are homicide and manslaughter, both voluntary and involuntary charges. But as in any investigation, we’re open to wherever the facts lead us.”

He also mentioned that they were still actively interviewing people in the case. “There are and have been subjects of this investigation, and there have been no subjects ruled out… definitively.”

Ultimately, the only way this case will be solved is if someone comes forward with information. Wrigley told the Tribune, “We’re at a potentially critical point in the investigation, and anyone with information out there, maybe they thought that it wasn’t important before or maybe they had been reluctant to come forward until now, and I would say to them that now is the time.”

Olivia’s family is still waiting for answers. If you have any information about the circumstances surrounding Olivia’s death, please contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation at 1-800-225-5324, or submit a tip online at tips.fbi.gov. Let’s find justice for Olivia.