A burden of truth: Tulalip police reopen investigation into woman's death
It looked like suicide, but when the Tulalip Tribal Police started hearing rumors, they dug deeper.
Dave Lott and Marlin Fryberg Jr. have stood here more times in the past year than either can remember.
Even so, the boys and girls are shy at first when the Tulalip Tribal Police officers bend down to say hello and step inside the small house.
The children's hesitation is soon punctured by bursts of their giggles and squeals. The littlest ones hug the men's legs and are hoisted into the air.
The children call them uncle.
Lott wraps his arm around their grandmother's shoulders, and the unspoken is acknowledged with a sigh, a slight nod.
Fryberg plops down on the couch beside the oldest boy and threatens to eat the boy's Popsicle. The boy grins and blushes.
These are the times when the two men aren't police officers. The loss that brought Lott and Fryberg into these children's lives seems, for now, forgotten.
They're just men who have a place with this family, busily peeling wrappers off ice cream bars and handing the treats to children who stretch their sticky hands out for more hugs.
A collage in the corner of the room shows photographs of the children's young mother, almost a girl herself, with deep brown eyes and a fierce smile. She was the one who made space in this home for these men.
Something Owen, 10, says also reminds the officers what brought them there.
"I remember when I was littler and mom would hold on to my hands and I'd walk up her legs. That was fun.
"Do you remember, Grandma? I remember."
Questions and grief
It was knotted over a branch in a tall cedar growing in a thicket less than a mile from the small house now filled with Sophia's children.
Her boyfriend, the father of her three youngest children, told police Sophia took her own life.
The investigation closed after the county medical examiner also said Sophia hanged herself.
It didn't make sense to her mother, Tamara Hayes.
Losing Sophia stole her breath.
Guilt gnawed at her. So many questions lodged in her mind.
How did she not realize how much her daughter was hurting? What could have hurt her so deeply that she ended her life? How could she leave the children? Sophia lived for her kids; they were her joy. What could have been so terrible?
Hayes brought her grief and her questions to tribal police.
Eventually, they had questions, too.
Lott and Fryberg reopened the investigation into Sophia's death four months after she was found. Her death would be the first homicide case led by Tulalip Tribal Police.
They wanted to bring Sophia's mother the answers. A month later the officers knew what happened.
A horrible lie was replaced by a horrible truth.
Sophia was murdered.
Her mother is a Tulalip, her father a Lummi.
Their little girl with chocolate brown eyes and a mane of ebony hair always was strong-willed. She didn't back down when other children in school teased her about her darker complexion.
"She was proud of who she was."
And Sophia protected those she loved.
Before her own children were born, Sophia watched over her younger sister, Cierra Williams. In the middle of the night, Sophia rubbed her sister's legs when growing pains left her in tears. Sophia got up early and sang to her: "School this morning. It's school. Time to get up." She couldn't let her sister leave for school without a hug and kiss.
"I called her sissy, but she was a second mom to me," Williams said. Once, Sophia cleaned people's houses and picked blackberries to earn gas money to drive Williams to the airport for a school trip. She listened to her sister's dreams and worries, without judging.
"She was my rock I leaned on in hard times. Any time I cried, she cried," said Williams, 20. "She always made sure I knew she loved me."
Sophia didn't want her sister to repeat her own mistakes - she wanted her to have more in life, to enjoy growing up.
Sophia became a mother early, just two weeks before her 15th birthday.
The teenager went to the hospital eight times, convinced each time her first child was on his way into her arms.
When Owen finally arrived, her cries of joy echoed down the hospital hall: "Oh, my baby! Oh, my baby!'"
Later, she made a traditional cradle board to carry her son close to her. Its deep purple straps - her favorite color - matched the jingle dress she'd meticulously sewn for tribal dances.
A few years later, on a winter afternoon, Sophia met Wesley Jefferson at the Tulalip longhouse.
Young and handsome, Jefferson was someone Sophia felt she could take care of, someone who needed her and understood life wasn't easy.
Sophia fell in love enough to dream of a wedding.
Her family noticed how Jefferson smiled when Sophia wore a Santa hat at Christmas, and how he seemed to thrive around her boisterous relatives. The arguments between them came later.
The two had Martine, Wesley Jr. and Irene.
"I like to think they're like my sister," Williams said. Martine, 4, is petite, like her mother. Wesley, 3, has his mother's smile. And Irene, 2, loves everyone, especially babies.
Sophia mothered every child she met. Her sister, cousins, neighbors - they all were hers to protect.
She baby-sat and told them stories from the old days, made candy for them and loaded them up in her van, driving groups of children to movies or trick-or-treating at Halloween.
She worried over every little scratch and bump, and there was hell to pay if she came into a room and there was a kid crying. She folded them into her arms, then scowled at whoever made them cry.
All the children called her Auntie Sophia.
No giving up
Fellow officer Marlin Fryberg Jr., Tulalip tribal member and councilman, told him what he was hearing. It didn't make sense to some people that Sophia would kill herself.
She was a fighter. It wasn't like her to give up.
The reservation is too small a place, too tight a community. Fryberg, a volunteer officer, had known Sophia all her life.
The morning Sophia was found, Fryberg stood with her relatives as they gathered at the edge of the tree line.
Sophia wore a gray-hooded sweatshirt and black sweatpants. Her knees hovered inches from the ground, the toes of her tennis shoes gently touching the earth behind her.
Officers cut the rope, cradling her to the ground. The paramedics couldn't bring her back.
"You get to know a person's character and what they stand for," Fryberg said. "(Suicide) was totally opposite of what that young lady stood for."
A journey in peril
She picked out a dark purple skirt and blazer. It was a change of roles. Sophia was always the one to pick out her mother's clothes and makeup.
Sophia's uncles' strong hands worked cedar planks into a casket. As custom, the day before the funeral, they brought Sophia home, where all her loved ones gathered to send her off.
Later, they burned Sophia's favorite foods - a heaping plate of teriyaki and rice and a big bag of candy - for her journey to the other side.
Both the Catholic and Indian sides of Hayes' upbringing told her that suicide leads to a bad place. According to her Indian beliefs, Sophia was stuck in limbo, unable to reach the ancestors who went before her.
At the funeral home, Hayes sat begging God, praying that her daughter would not be trapped, unable to leave this world.
At the burial, Hayes knelt at her daughter's grave in the cemetery that overlooks Tulalip Bay. She asked Mother Earth to accept her daughter back into her womb.
She recalls Jefferson standing over the grave, smoking a cigarette.
The day of the funeral, Jefferson asked Hayes for a copy of the autopsy report. That afternoon he returned to Lummi, leaving his children behind.
"He wasn't acting like a grieving spouse. There was just something that didn't seem right," Hayes said. Still, "I reminded myself people grieve in different ways."
Hayes kept working over and over what she saw, what she'd been told, and what she knew. She wrote things down as she thought about them, now and then bringing her notes to the police station.
Sophia saved money to make her annual Christmas candy for the neighbor kids. She was on her way to a good job, just finishing classes to become a road construction flagger.
And how could Sophia hang herself anyway?
"She could never tie a good knot, my daughter. She tried to tie up the dog, but he always got loose and followed her to school."
Monday, Part 2:Police close in on the answers.
Our new comment system is not supported in IE 7. Please upgrade your browser here.