Arlee family seeks answers in deadly Highway 93 crash (2023)

Arlee family seeks answers in deadly Highway 93 crash (1)

ARLEE— Kevin Howard sat in a black leather lounge chair inside his home in Arlee, and he didn't look comfortable.

The recliner was deep with thick cushions, but Howard sat up straight, and his foot tapped against the floor. He looked out the window on a sunny, cool afternoon, as the sun illuminated the Mission Mountains, just outside his house.

“He should be out working,” said his partner, Carissa Heavy Runner, as if reading his mind. “It’s actually weird to see him sitting in here.”

Howard nodded. They both knew they should be doing something else, anything else. But instead, they were here— trying to figure out what happened to their daughter, Mika.

What happened to Mika Westwolf?

Arlee family seeks answers in deadly Highway 93 crash (2)

Mika J. Westwolf, 22, was walking home along U.S. Highway 93 on the Flathead Reservation in the early morning hours of March 31.

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Highways are often the only continuous roads through reservations in Montana. And in rural places, where public transit is nonexistent and hitchhiking can be seen as dangerous, it’s not uncommon for people to walk along the shoulder of busy highways.

Howard had even taught Westwolf how to do so safely. He told her to always walk on the shoulder, far from cars and to walk toward traffic— that way she could move out of the way if something were to happen.

On the morning of March 31, something did happen. Westwolf was walking toward traffic when a Cadillac Escalade traveling north on the highway struck and killed her. Westwolf was declared dead at the scene, according to a Montana Highway Patrol fatal report.

Tribal police were the first to arrive on scene, and a Highway Patrol trooper who arrived later filed a fatal crash report, listing an unnamed driver as a 28-year-old woman from Butte, who had two children in the car, a 2-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl. None of the occupants in the car were injured. Alcohol, drugs and speed were not listed as suspected factors in the crash. Because Westwolf was killed on a highway, Montana Highway Patrol is the lead investigative agency in her case.

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Lake County Attorney James Lapotka confirmed that on the same day as Westwolf's death, a suspect was arrested shortly after the crash on suspicion of a DUI in Lake County. The suspect, a woman, was booked into the Lake County jail but was released because the county attorney's office decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence to file a DUI charge without toxicology evidence currently being processed by the state crime lab.

He added that the crime lab is taking about eight weeks to process toxicology results.

Lapotka confirmed that a woman named Sunny K. White is 28 years old, and her Cadillac Escalade is being investigated by Montana Highway Patrol as the suspect car involved in hitting a pedestrian on March 31 near Arlee. Lapotka did not confirm whether White was the arrested DUI suspect, but Howard and Heavy Runner believe the incidents could be connected.

White is not currently in custody and is not currently facing criminal charges in connection to Westwolf’s death.

A death certificate for Westwolf was filed on April 11. It shows the cause of death was multiple blunt force injuries, and the manner of death was an accident. Lapotka said manners of death on certificates are often immaterial in prosecution decisions.

According to a Missing Endangered Person Advisory issued from Butte Silver Bow law enforcement on April 7, seven days after Westwolf’s death, White broke into a residence in Butte and took her two children— 4-year-old Aryan and 2-year-old Nation, the Montana Standard reported. The children's ages and genders and White’s age and gender match the information listed in Westwolf's fatal crash report.

As people in the tribal community sought answers to what happened to Westwolf, members reached out to theMontana Human Rights Network. The organizationsaid, in an online statement, White’s children’s names “clearly indicate her support for white nationalist ideals.”

"In further research, MHRN came across information that lent credibility to claims that Sunny White ascribes to extremist, White nationalist ideology," the human rights network wrote online.

Citing their own research and community reports, the organization also called on Montana Highway Patrol to fully investigate the incident, which they characterized as a murder,"including White’s possible motivations, and for prosecutors to pursue hate crimes charges if they apply.”

Howard and Heavy Runner said their conversations with law enforcement have been sporadic and have largely led to more confusion, rather than clarity. They’ve sought legal advice and have worked to collect video surveillance footage of the night Westwolf was killed— something they say should be the job of law enforcement.

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Howard said he urged officers to collect surveillance footage from nearby businesses before it was erased,saying if they missed the opportunity, “it would be a tragedy.”

“I’m real disappointed in the criminal justice system,” he said, adding that officers have been “rude and condescending.”

Heavy Runner agreed, saying she felt like law enforcement “didn’t care and just wanted an open-and-shut case.”

Multiple layers of supervision and expertise go into fatal crash investigations, Montana Highway Patrol Public Information Officer Jay Nelson said in a phone call with the Missoulian. It’s common for fatal investigations to take several weeks or even months to wrap up.

“Our duty is to do a thorough and complete investigation,” Nelson said. He explained that the Highway Patrol doesn’t control all of the factors in play with fatal crash investigations, and that the state crime lab (where evidence is examined) is inundated with pending toxicology cases.

In Westwolf’s case, Nelson said Highway Patrol is waiting on search warrants and toxicology results. Toxicology in fatal motor vehicle crashes often entails analyzing blood evidence, Nelson explained.

“We understand these family members are grieving, our hearts go out to them, but we have to let our process play out,” he said.

Frustrated with law enforcement, Heavy Runner and Howard have created a website to raise awareness for Westwolf’s case.

At, they wrote, “We will not let this be another story of ‘just another dead Indian’ or that she was somehow to blame for this atrocity. Someone committed this crime, and we will not allow this to become another unsolved Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women case.”

They also started a GoFundMe page to support their efforts and have raised more than $5,000.

Native Americans experience violence at disproportionately high rates. A 2016 National Institute of Justice report found that more than four in five Native men and women have experienced violence in their lifetime. And in Montana, while Native Americans account for 6.7% of the population, they account for, on average, 26% of the state’s active missing persons cases.

Who was Mika Westwolf?

Heavy Runner and Howard describe their daughter as “a philosopher,” “a writer” and “an old soul.”

Westwolf, who was Blackfeet, Navajo, Cree and Klamath, was working to finish her GED and dreamed of one day living off the land. She wanted to raise chickens and grow a garden. She was selected to participate in a cultural exchange program, where she spent three weeks in Nepal, meeting with Indigenous people and hiking mountains that made the ones in Montana look small.

Arlee family seeks answers in deadly Highway 93 crash (4)

Westwolf was also recognized in former Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau’s Graduation Matters campaign. And Juneau personally presented a prize to Westwolf in Great Falls. She played basketball and lacrosse and loved dancing in powwows.

“She loved her culture,” Heavy Runner said. “She was just wise.”

Westwolf also loved to write— it’s how she made sense of the world. She won awards for her creative writing in Aerie magazine at Big Sky High School and wrote poems about nature, beauty, life, death and what it means to be human.

“Heaven on Earth is what we seek, but we forget that there is beauty in the ugly,” she wrote in one of her recent poems. “Oh, how life would be if there was no ugly. No struggle, just everything we need was guaranteed.”

Dangerous highway

Arlee family seeks answers in deadly Highway 93 crash (5)

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On Monday, nearly six weeks after Westwolf was killed, Howard and Heavy Runner drove from their house four and a half miles up the road to the scene of the accident along Highway 93.

Highway 93 stretches from Idaho through western Montana and Missoula to the Canadian border. Around Arlee, it’s not well-lit at night and cars zoom through it at high speeds. Crashes along the highway have claimed the lives of many people, including a67-year-old woman in Hamiltonjust two days after Westwolf died.

As of April 19, there were 239 crashes from 2021 to 2023 from where the highway intersects with I-90 in Missoula to mile marker 30. Arlee is at milepost 17. In 2022 alone, there were four fatal incidents in the 30-mile stretch, according to Nelson.

Cars whipped past Howard and Heavy Runner on Monday, going 70 mph, drowning out their voices. Heavy Runner knelt down to tidy her daughter’s cross, decorated with ribbons and stuffed bunnies. She added a new bundle of flowers.

Howard bent down to pick up a piece of silver trim from a car.

“How do they know this wasn’t from that night?” he said, putting the scrap in his pocket.

As Heavy Runner bowed her head at her daughter’s cross, Howard continued to scan the ground for evidence. Anything could help.

Zoë Buchli is the criminal justice reporter for the Missoulian.

Information on WestWolf's case

If you have any information on Mika WestWolf’s case, please contact Montana Highway Patrol at 406-329-1500. If you are looking for an MMIW advocate, contact Erica Shelby at 406-240-8229.

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Zoë Buchli

Criminal Justice reporter

Zoë Buchli is the criminal justice reporter for the Missoulian.

Nora Mabie

Indigenous Communities reporter

Nora Mabie is the Indigenous Communities reporter for Lee Montana.


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