WASHINGTON - It all started October 25, 1999. The day Carolyn DeFord's world changed forever.
"My coworker said go home we got your shift covered. Didn't you hear? You're mom is missing." said Carolyn.
Growing up, Carolyn and her mom Leona Sharon Kinsey, who were from the Puyallup and Nisqually tribe, spent most of their days hanging out in the great outdoors; looking for bluebirds and collecting heart-shaped rocks. Carolyn was born on Nisqually land but enrolled in the sister Puyallup tribe.
"My mom was fierce and independent and didn't rely on anyone. She'd usually say things like, 'I'll just do it myself." said Carolyn.
Which is why her mother's disappearance was unbelievable to her.
"I just couldn't believe it and honestly didn't think much of it." said Carolyn.
It wasn't until later that reality started to set in.
"I went to her house and it was almost like she went to the store and I was waiting for her to come back. There was bread on the counter, a pot of coffee, and she had just bought bananas that were going brown." says Carolyn.
She sat on her mom's bed, a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
"I looked down near the bed and saw her purse and keys and all her things were in her purse too like her glasses. She would not have left without it. And then that's when I started to lose hope that she wasn't coming back." says Carolyn.
For the last 22 years, Carolyn has never stopped searching for her mom and has remained a constant, outspoken activist amongst missing and murdered indigenous women causes as a speaker, organizer, and worker for the Puyallup Tribe. This began around the time her mom went missing, when she felt like the police could have done more.
"I had this naïve belief that when I made the police report that all that could be done would be done. That all of a sudden posters would be everywhere and search and rescue would be everywhere and they would search every mountain looking for her." said Carolyn. "It’s just a really naïve belief because we made our first posters. We did our first questions. My mom’s friends and my friend’s did our first investigation. You think law enforcement would do that. And that’s not always the case."
She hadn't seen her mom's case file until last year, because she didn't know she could access it.
As she spoke about this, Carolyn got out her notebook and box of newspaper clipping, posters, photos, and notes with her own investigations, leads, and all the information she collected over the past two decades.
Over the years, some promising new leads and people have come about in the investigation on what happened to Leona. But no one has been charged.
Both Carolyn and Leona had their ups and downs with each other.
"As I got older I was angry with her because of her battle with drug addiction. But now I know that she did the best she could, especially with all that happened to her." says Carolyn.
Leona had been a survivor of severe sexual assault and other attacks. More than about 84% of indigenous women in the U.S. have reported suffering sexual, physical, and psychological abuse from others.
But Carolyn doesn't want Leona to be yet another number in a crisis against women; she just wants her mom.
"If I could talk to my mom I'd tell her I still need her." said Carolyn.
Even so, Carolyn as a deeply spiritual woman, accredits that to her mother.
"She was definitely very spiritual and always making herbal healing things as well as other creations," said Carolyn as she held up her mom's handmade medicinal dreamcatcher.
And that spirituality is what keeps her connected to her mom.
"She speaks to me all the time. Her favorite thing was blue birds and one time I stepped outside and it was a blue feather and I looked up at the sky and said 'I hear you.'" said Carolyn.
She says her mom has visited her even in her dreams.
"I had a dream that I was on the phone with my mom and she said I love you sweetie I got to go. And I begged her, 'Mom don't go, please.' and she said "I got to go I'm so sorry.' And then I woke up and looked at my phone and their was a disconnect signal." says Carolyn.
Leona Kinsey is still listed as a missing person with the Le Grande police department, who has jurisdiction over the case. She went missing in Le Grande over 20 years ago after saying she was meeting a man in front of an Albertsons. Her car was found in the parking lot, but not Leona.
"People will tell me, 'I hope you find her.' And then I get angry because I think 'Well, then that means she left me for 22 years, and she would not do that willingly." says Carolyn. "She wouldn't leave me or her grandchildren. Nothing but death could keep her away. Nothing but death could keep me from my kids."
Whether in death or life, Carolyn knows her mother is still very much connected to her.
"Sometimes I'm okay and sometimes I have days where it was just like yesterday. Sometimes I wish I could know where she is so I could go and be with her." says Carolyn. "One time she told me that our bodies are just shells and that when she dies, the part of her that loves me-her soul, will always remain with me."
One thing is for certain, Carolyn will never forget her mother.
If you have any information or leads on Leona Sharon Kinsey, you can report it to the Le Grande Police Department, and Finding Leonna Kinsey on Facebook. There is also a $7,500 reward from the Puyallup tribe for any information on Leona Kinsey, which was commemorated in 2019, the 20 year anniversary of her disappearance.