The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A key witness was scared to testify in a murder trial. Days later, his tavern burned down and he vanished.

A sign off the highway in Yakima, Wash., declares the city the “Palm Springs of Washington.” (Elaine Thompson/AP)

This story originally misspelled the Yakama Indian Reservation.

Tim Castilleja was so rattled about testifying in a murder trial last week that federal agents had to arrest him to get him into court. On the stand, Castilleja told jurors that he feared reprisals for telling them what he saw at his tavern on the Yakama Indian Reservation two years ago.

But his testimony was important for prosecutors making the case that Jordan Stevens, a member of the Yakama tribe, had shot and killed Alillia “Lala” Minthorn, 25, and then hidden her body in a remote wilderness on the reservation. Stevens was convicted of murder on Thursday.

Two days later, Castilleja’s tavern burned to the ground — and the witness has also vanished, the Yakima Herald-Republic reported.

Now the FBI is working with local authorities to determine what happened to Castilleja’s establishment, the Brownstown Tavern, and to try to find Castilleja.

The fire and disappearance are a twist to a case that federal authorities had heralded as proof of their renewed focus on violent crime on Indian reservations, where advocates have long demanded action on unresolved cases involving missing women and girls. Last year, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs established a new cold-case task force, there were more than 1,500 unsolved cases of missing or murdered Indigenous women nationwide.

“This office is committed to prosecuting aggressively cases involving violent acts committed against Native American women who reside on Reservation lands within this District,” Joseph H. Harrington, the acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, said in a statement after Stevens’s conviction last week.

Before the trial, Minthorn was among dozens of women listed as missing or mysteriously killed on the Yakama Indian Reservation. She was first reported missing on May 9, 2019, and was last seen getting into a car near “the compound,” a homeless encampment in the reservation, according to court documents.

For weeks, her whereabouts were unknown. Then, in mid-May, a woman named Jasmine McCormack called the FBI with a harrowing tale.

McCormack said she had been driving with Stevens and another woman when they picked up Minthorn. They drove to a closed-off area of the reservation, north of a small community called Brownstown. Then Stevens marched Minthorn out of the car and killed her with a rifle.

The motive, the feds later said, was Stevens’s belief that Minthorn had talked to police about an earlier incident when he and McCormack allegedly tried to steal a vehicle and assaulted the driver.

After the killing, McCormack said, she and Stevens and the other woman drove to the Brownstown Tavern, where they hung out and eventually cleaned blood out of the car. When Stevens suddenly became convinced his own blood had gotten onto Minthorn’s clothes, they drove back to the remote spot where they had dumped her and removed her clothes.

After talking to agents, McCormack tried to flee with Stevens, but both were arrested on May 20. Nine days later, federal agents said, McCormack led them to Minthorn’s body.

Castilleja later provided key supporting testimony to federal agents, telling them that he’d seen McCormack, Stevens and the other woman at his tavern on the day of the murder. He’d also seen Stevens brandishing a rifle and a woman frantically cleaning out the car.

When it came time to testify in court, though, Castilleja was a no-show, the Herald-Republic reported. Chief District Judge Stanley Bastian ordered federal agents to arrest him to compel him to talk, and on the stand on June 9, he repeated what he had told federal agents — and warned that he was scared about testifying, the Herald-Republic reported at the time.

On Thursday, the jury found Stevens guilty of first-degree murder. Federal authorities hailed the result as visible progress in combating a wave of crime on the reservation.

“Too often, violence on the reservation results in the tragic and senseless loss of life,” Donald M. Voiret, the FBI’s special agent in charge of the Seattle field office, said in a statement. “The FBI is committed to combatting crime on our state’s reservations.”

Then, around 4:40 a.m. on Saturday, Yakima firefighters raced to the Brownstown Tavern to find the business fully engulfed in flames.

“At that point, it was unsurvivable conditions,” Yakima County Fire Chief Kevin Frazier told the Herald-Republic.

Castilleja, who lived in the tavern, hasn’t been seen since, the Herald-Republic reported. Fire officials told the newspaper they expect to meet Thursday with FBI agents at the tavern, which was reduced to a smoldering pit of broken bricks and rubble.

Stevens, meanwhile, is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court in September.