After five years of investigations, Sequim police have sought additional help from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Cold Case Investigation Unit through state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office to help solve the 2019 homicide of Valerie Claplanhoo, a Makah tribal member, pictured with her son Brandan. (Cindy Lee Claplanhoo)

After five years of investigations, Sequim police have sought additional help from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Cold Case Investigation Unit through state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office to help solve the 2019 homicide of Valerie Claplanhoo, a Makah tribal member, pictured with her son Brandan. (Cindy Lee Claplanhoo)

Sequim police working with state unit on Claplanhoo homicide

Task force focuses on cases involving indigenous people

SEQUIM — Five years after Valerie Claplanhoo was murdered, Sequim police have begun working on her unsolved murder with a statewide team that specializes in cold cases involving indigenous people.

Deputy Police Chief Mike Hill said police personnel met on Feb. 6 with investigators from the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Cold Case Investigation Unit to review the Jan. 2, 2019, homicide of the 57-year-old Makah Tribal member.

Claplanhoo was found dead in her one-room apartment at the Sunbelt Apartments, a short-term transitional housing program on South Fifth Avenue in Sequim, from injuries sustained from a knife or a sharp object.

Last year, legislation was unanimously passed to form the Cold Case Investigations Unit through state Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s Office to help solve cases of missing and murdered indigenous women and people.

Brionna Aho, a spokesperson for Ferguson’s office, said via email “the unit is still coming online (and they) announced the hiring of the chief investigator in November, and he has been in the process of hiring the rest of his team.”

According to state documents, the Legislature budgeted about $1.14 million and 6.8 full-time-equivalent employees to the Cold Case Investigations Unit in 2024.

The cold case unit was formed from a recommendation by the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People Task Force, a 25-member group started in 2021 to coordinate a statewide response to the urgent crisis of indigenous people who go missing, are the victims of homicide or experience other types of gender-based violence in urban and tribal communities.

Hill said the Sequim Police Department continues to be the lead agency in the investigation and the cold case unit has offered its assistance.

He said they began communicating with the unit in 2023, which led to them coming to Sequim on Feb. 6 “to learn more about the case and consult with investigators.”

He added that Sequim police and the unit members plan to meet again after a full review of the materials and continue moving forward to solve the case.

Hill said the cold case unit works with consent of local law enforcement agencies.

“Sequim police detectives are still actively investigating the case and have been working with the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory as well as the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) Laboratory to conduct forensic examinations of evidence,” Hill said.

“Sequim detectives continue to conduct interviews related to the case as well.”

Detective Sgt. Darrell Nelson said in an interview last year that Sequim police work on Claplanhoo’s case with every available opportunity.

Claplanhoo’s homicide is the most recent murder in the City of Sequim since Amber Rae Bulus-Steed, then 26, was murdered in December 2004.

The city has had three attempted murder cases in five years, with a trial for James Donald Luoma slated to begin in late March after he allegedly shot at and attacked his deaf neighbor in April 2022.

‘Stay hopeful’

Another year into the investigation, Valerie’s sister, Cindy Lee Claplanhoo of Neah Bay, said she continues to check in with law enforcement once a month.

“I talk with dispatch, detectives, anyone that will talk to me,” she said in a phone interview.

“It’s been four years, going into the fifth year. I just wish it was resolved, so that everyone can have some peace and closure and resolution.”

Through her conversations with investigators, Cindy Lee said they’ve never mentioned any suspects and she knows police don’t work with hearsay.

“We just stay hopeful,” she said.

“I’m sure the police are doing everything they can.”

Cindy Lee said it is encouraging to have the Cold Case Investigation Unit on board because “maybe the task force can really help. Maybe they have places that will help we aren’t aware of.”

In a previous interview, Cindy Lee said she didn’t learn Valerie was her biological sister until she was in her early 20s. Much of Valerie’s childhood stories are unknown, she said, but she had lived at times in Forks, Port Angeles and Sequim.

Cindy Lee recalled that the sisters were going to celebrate Valerie being alcohol and drug-free for two months on New Years Eve 2018.

She described her sister as patient and fun. She liked to travel, she said, and if her sister were still alive, she’d want to be with her grandchildren.

“We still miss her,” Cindy Lee said. “I have a memorial planned for when we have closure and a court hearing (for the killer).”

She encourages the general public to support ongoing efforts to resolve incidents and to be advocates for people like her sister and Matthew Dean, a Makah tribal member who disappeared in 2020.

“We’re hoping for the best,” Cindy Lee said. “Valerie needs to rest in peace.”

________

Matthew Nash is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of newspapers Peninsula News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at matthew.nash@sequimgazette.com.

Cindy Lee Claplanhoo, the sister of Valerie Claplanhoo, pictured with her father Charles H. Claplanhoo, Jr., said she and family members remain hopeful that Valerie’s homicide can be solved, particularly now that a Cold Case Investigation Unit is helping. “Maybe the task force can really help,” she said. “Maybe they have places that will help we aren’t aware of.” (Cindy Lee Claplanhoo)

Cindy Lee Claplanhoo, the sister of Valerie Claplanhoo, pictured with her father Charles H. Claplanhoo, Jr., said she and family members remain hopeful that Valerie’s homicide can be solved, particularly now that a Cold Case Investigation Unit is helping. “Maybe the task force can really help,” she said. “Maybe they have places that will help we aren’t aware of.” (Cindy Lee Claplanhoo)

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