MISSOULA - It's been five years to the day since Jermain Charlo was last seen alive.
A lot has changed in those five years, but one thing has stayed the same — her family's desire for justice and the lead detective's search for the truth. We not only spoke to Jermain's aunt about who her niece is but that detective in the place he's spent hours looking for her. And as we learned, Jermain's story is still one we need to tell.
Her face on a billboard has stared north on Highway 93 near the Missoula Wye for five years.
It is the face of a 23-year-old Indigenous woman who disappeared five years ago, on June 16, 2018. Her name is Jermain Charlo, and she was last seen at a downtown Missoula bar on the night of June 15. Sometime after midnight on June 16, she vanished.
That billboard faces Evaro Hill, an area that is covered in thick forest and brush. It is where investigators have searched for years, believing Jermain’s remains might be hidden somewhere.
And it’s a place Jermain’s aunt, Valenda Underwood hates.
“It's hard driving through there to go to Missoula. It’s hard. because my mind just races," Jermain’s aunt Valenda Underwood says.
Lead detective Guy Baker with the Missoula Police Department was assigned to the case just over a week after Jermain disappeared and explained why the Evaro Hill area is a point of interest in the search.
“The investigation had identified numerous areas in a variety of ways that led us to search those areas. We’ve done many searches in relation to this investigation, but the Evaro Hill area has been the location of numerous searches.”
Jermain was last seen on surveillance footage outside the Badlander bar in Missoula on the night of June 15.
Court documents related to a search warrant indicate she had been with her former boyfriend and the father of her two children, Michael DeFrance that night. Those same court documents also indicated he was also the last person to see her. He claimed he dropped her off in a nearby Missoula neighborhood later that night.
In the months since her disappearance, there were warrants issued to search for evidence, including one for Michael DeFrance’s residence in the Evaro area, and to obtain cell phone and other digital records.
Those warrants indicated her phone was detected to be in the Evaro Hill area in the early hours of June 16 from around 2 a.m. until 10 a.m. That phone has never been found. It is important to note that although police have said numerous suspects have been identified, MPD has not identified them publically during the investigation.
Jermain, a prolific social media poster stopped all online activity the night she vanished.
"I can say with confidence that in the early morning hours of June 16, 2018, Jermain Charlo’s pattern of life was deviated and it changed that night and she has not had contact with her family, no activity on social media and that concerns me. The fact that it’s been five years, yes, I believe she is no longer with us. But there’s been situations across the country where women have been held captive for years and people thought something had happened. As far as Jermain goes, I’m hopeful but being thoughtful and realistic I think she’s no longer with us." - Missoula Police Department Detective Guy Baker
Jermain was reported missing by her mother that Sunday. Wednesday, her aunt, Valenda Underwood met with the Missoula Police Department. A detective was assigned the case who checked hospitals, the jail, Jermain’s social media accounts and called her cell phone. That next Tuesday, Baker was assigned the case.
At this point, the investigation has identified three theories about what happened to Jermain. Either she was trafficked, she vanished due to drug-related activity, or someone she knew was involved in her disappearance.
“All of those are still open and considered. There is evidence that leads to some more than others, but we have not eliminated those as an investigative theory.” Baker says.
MTN News spent time with Baker around part of the vast search area on Evaro Hill where there are animal bones everywhere, and the trees are thick, making searching for evidence even more difficult.
“We have been up here and in other locations a lot where I’ve sought assistance from UM Forensic Anthropology Department," Baker says. "They come and look at bones to determine if they are human, but they haven’t been."
"This is truly like a needle in a haystack especially when you look at one canyon and one mountain it can seem daunting when you look at one aerial view to see what you’re dealing with," Baker continues. "I mean we’re dealing with possibly hundreds of square miles. So, we’ve made it through five winters and five hunting seasons. I would have thought we would have found her by now we're still hopeful we will find her sooner than later.”
Thousands of hours have been dedicated to finding Jermain. Those searches have included drones and dogs and other forensic technology. Volunteers and law enforcement searches are continuing.
For Baker, it’s a matter of time, "Many a night I’ve laid in bed trying to fall asleep watching the fan going round and around wondering where Jermain is, It's frustrating."
National exposure to the case has helped generate leads including the podcast “Stolen” by journalist Connie Walker that generated out-of-state interest in the case.
“The exposure from that podcast and Court TV, Dateline: The Missing, the 700 Club, and there have been other broadcasts. Jermain's been featured on including Live PD. Those had resulted in tips that came in from around the country and followed up but ultimately found it wasn’t her from bodies to sightings in other states. They did lead to tips and that’s why it’s important to keep her relevance not just on the local level but on the national and state level. “I think it’s important that an investigator is the voice of the victim in missing person’s cases or homicide cases where that victim no longer has a voice. So, I have made a concerted effort to keep Jermain relevant and with my realm of influence, locally, and nationally trying to keep her out there so she is not just another face on a billboard or another name that’s forgotten.” - Missoula Police Department Detective Guy Baker
We asked Valenda if she believes Jermain is deceased. With some reluctance, she said, “I do, and it sucks.”
“Five years. It’s a needle in a haystack, especially in Evaro. It's very, very hard to find things. I mean, we’ve had I don’t know how many searches, I don’t know how many volunteers we’ve had coming and helping us look and every time it’s ...like, you always hope to find her but at the same time you don’t," Valenda says.
Valenda told us Jermain was goofy with a random, funny personality. She loved fishing and being outside. If she wasn’t dressed up, you’d find her in camo near a river somewhere. She loved drawing and knitting and posting on social media.
But her first love was being a mother to her two young sons. And that may be the hardest part.
“She was very family oriented. She came from a broken family and that’s one thing that was important to her to have her boys have a stable family which is heartbreaking knowing been gone for five years without their mom — Christmas, birthdays. I can’t even imagine what they’re going through without having their mom in there, and the confusion," Valenda says.
Valenda is grateful for those who’ve volunteered to search over the years in that vast wooded area where Jermain might be and she also hopes someone might remember seeing Jermain the night of June 15, 2018, at the Badlander bar in Missoula. That is where security footage shows Jermain that night.
“There were a lot of people at the Badlander that night and my hope is that somebody saw something that night and maybe they’re not from here but one day this will reach that person and something will click and maybe it’s nothing and maybe it’s something," Valenda says. "But if they report it, [it] helps us get her back or at least know what happened to her.”
Baker is dedicated to keeping Jermain’s story in public. It’s his own cell phone number up on that billboard and says he will travel anywhere to talk to a potential witness — because somebody knows what happened to her.
“Jermain was someone, she was a mother a sister and a daughter and a granddaughter, and whatever happened to her she did not deserve," Baker told MTN News "And her family is seeking and deserves justice and we’re trying hard to bring closure to them."
"With Jermain, somebody out there knows and that is one thing I’m constantly hopeful that somebody will come forward and provide that piece of information that will lead to breaking this case and result in an arrest and a charge. Always looking for the public’s input and that’s why my cell phone is on that billboard, so they call me directly," Baker continues. "I feel like we don’t have all the puzzle pieces on the table yet to put the puzzle together. We just need a little bit more. ”
"No matter how dark it is light will always come. I am determined. I don’t care if I have to look for her until the day I die, I will never stop looking for her," Valenda concluded.
Anyone with information related to Jermain Charlo's case is asked to call 406-396-3217 immediately.