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“One tip can break open the case”: six years later, family of missing Meskwaki woman continue quest for answers

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TAMA COUNTY, Iowa (KWWL)- It has been six years since Meskwaki woman Rita Papakee vanished without a trace.

Papakee was last seen on January 16th, 2015, as she left the Meskwaki Bingo casino, never to be heard from again.

Since then, her family has been left to wonder what could've happened to her.

"It has been a tough six years," Papakee's Aunt Ona Youngbear said. "It is this not knowing that is hard."

Papakee's family said it was not unusual for her to go for several days, even a week, without checking in with her family. However, after several weeks, her family feared the worst and filed a missing persons report in February 2015.

"That is what has been the biggest factor and being able to try and pin down her whereabouts over that big span of time," Meskwaki Nation Police Chief Jacob Molitor said.

Molitor called the case the biggest and most concerning in the department's history.

"We have as long as it take to continue to work on it," he said.

Papakee's family is holding tight to memories clinging to hope. They believe someone in the community knows something and hope they are willing to come forward.

"At this point, we are just looking for the recovery of a body," Rita's Cousin Oliviah Walker said. "Even if we are never able to find out what happened, at least being able to have that sort of closure for the family would be important."

There is currently a $75,000 reward for information in hopes it will entice someone to come forward. Over the years, multiple searches of the 20 square mile settlement have come up empty. Chief Molitor said he is working closely with the FBI on the case. There have been a handful of tips and leads but nothing tangible.

"She was a beautiful woman."

Every year on her birthday, Rita's mom Iris makes a birthday cake for her and the entire family releases balloons.

It is her laugh and sense of humor that Papakee's family remembers most.

"Whenever I had to take her somewhere, just all we did was laugh till I got a real bad stomachache," Roberts said.

"She was a fun person to be around," Youngbear said. "She always made us laugh."

"We'd have barbecues a whole family would get together, and we'd all just like laugh and crack up," Walker said. "Those are really great memories playing games at her house in the winter with her and her siblings and having the kids and the grandkids running around."

Walker said she made sure to take care of her family members and was a great mother to her three kids. Today one is a senior in high school, one is a sophomore in high school, and the other is in seventh grade.

"She now has two grandchildren that she hasn't seen," Roberts said. "Two little boys."

"Caretaking for her children and grandchildren has been really important," Walker said. "To not only lose your parent but to lose them under these types of circumstances. It's really heartbreaking."

Six years later, the grief and pain isn't any easier to handle.

"Once the shock wears off, it's anger and disbelief," Walker said. "The grief never quite goes away."

"I think about her a lot," Youngbear said. "Her daughter looks a lot like her so when I look at that girl I always think about her mom."

Her family believes someone in the community holds the key that could unlock the closure they have been seeking.

"Just one tip can break open the case," Walker said. "If you know something, say something. If it's something you've been sitting on for a while that you need to get off your chest, we're happy to hear it. I don't know that justice will ever happen for our family, but some closure would be really nice."

"The family really needs to be able to heal," Molitor said. "To do that, they need information, and she needs to be found to have that closure."

Papakee was born June 1st, 1973, she is 5′ 4″, with brown eyes, long brown hair and was about 145 pounds at the time of her disappearance. 

If you have any information that could help bring this family closure please call or text the Meskwaki Police Department at (641) 481-0840.

Click here to follow our coverage on Rita Janelle Papakee.

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Daniel Perreault

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