With three months of sobriety under her belt, Kozee Decorah had plans to regain custody of her children and head back home to Wisconsin.
She never made it.
The 22-year-old Ho-Chunk woman’s body was found May 17 burning in an outhouse in a remote area of a Nebraska reservation. Court records say her 25-year-old fiancé, Jonathan D. Rooney, was sleeping unclothed in a nearby cabin, blood on the floor and door.
Rooney has been charged with voluntary manslaughter in federal court in Nebraska — a charge that carries up to 15 years in federal prison and one Decorah’s family and friends say doesn’t go far enough.
They are calling on the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Nebraska to charge Rooney with murder and other crimes, including destruction of evidence.
“What he did was so heinous in nature that he doesn’t deserve to ever have another day of freedom,” said Stacey Schreiber Schinko, whose children are related to Decorah. “We want fair treatment. We want the punishment to fit the crime.”
Decorah’s body was so badly burned that investigators had to perform a forensic dental analysis to identify her remains, according to the complaint against Rooney unsealed earlier this month.
Rooney has pleaded not guilty and is being held pending trial, according to court records.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office said it is considering filing other charges against Rooney.
“It’s early in the investigation,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Norris said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “There’s still evidence we’re waiting on, so we charged the crime that we can readily prove, and we’re still waiting for the investigation to progress.”
Norris said investigators are waiting on “expert opinions and expert determinations” that he hopes to receive in the next few weeks.
“We hope as the evidence develops, we’ll be able to adjust the charges,” he said.
A search for justice
Schinko and others plan to continue pushing their “Justice for Kozee” effort.
“What breaks my heart the most is she loved being a mom, and that was taken away from her,” Schinko said. “Now these three beautiful children of hers, they’re not going to have their mom.”
One of her children is a months-old baby boy.
Decorah, who grew up in Wittenberg and graduated from Wittenberg-Birnamwood High School, was active in sports and loved to run and play basketball, Schinko said.
When she was a teenager, she ran in a marathon relay to raise money and awareness for suicide prevention. She drew laughter when she told a crowd that running the last leg of the marathon, a little over six miles, was “pretty easy, I guess.”
“She was one of those people who when you heard her laugh, you couldn’t help but laugh,” Schinko said.
Schinko says she and Decorah’s family believe her killing was planned and don’t believe that it was something done in the heat of passion — which is part of the voluntary manslaughter definition.
They say there is evidence Decorah was a victim of domestic violence.
“There were times where she would post things on Facebook in the middle of the night and they were things that were really upsetting and alarming,” Schinko said.
The night Decorah died, May 16, dispatchers received a call shortly before 8 p.m. from Decorah, saying the SUV she and Rooney were in had gotten stuck on a muddy road in a remote area of the Winnebago Indian Reservation in Nebraska, according to the complaint.
When conservation officers arrived, they found the vehicle, but no one there. The officers went to the house where Decorah and Rooney lived on a different, nearby reservation, but didn’t find them there either, according to the complaint.
When they returned to the SUV, the officers noticed a fire coming from the outhouse, which was where they found Decorah’s remains. They found Rooney, along with their infant son, sleeping unclothed inside a cabin feet away, the complaint says.
Blood was found inside the cabin, and investigators later noticed a smear of blood or bruising on Rooney’s arm and scratches on his left shoulder, the complaint says.
During questioning, Rooney told an FBI agent that he and Decorah found the cabin after getting stuck in the mud and that they got into an argument, according to the complaint.
Trying to help others
Decorah’s friends and family members are pushing to bring attention to her case and that of other Indigenous women.
Family and friends have held demonstrations, written letters to Nebraska’s governor, met with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Omaha and started a Change.org petition calling for stiffer charges against Rooney.
In recent days, Decorah’s family called attention to the case of a missing Menominee woman who was last seen June 16 walking along a highway on the Menominee reservation in Wisconsin. The Menominee Tribal Police have asked for help in finding the missing 22-year-old.
Meanwhile, a fundraiser is planned for Aug. 1 at Riverside Park in Wausau to bring awareness to missing and murdered Indigenous women and to raise money for Decorah’s family, which is trying to gain custody of her three children. The children are in the custody of Rooney’s family in Nebraska, Schinko said.
Schinko said Decorah planned to soon return to Wisconsin to be near her family, and in Facebook posts weeks and months before her death, Decorah said she couldn’t wait to go back to her home state.
Higher homicide rates
A 2008 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice found that Native women experience higher homicide rates than white women.
Last year, a group of Wisconsin lawmakers introduced legislation to create a task force to address the issue and examine the factors that contribute to higher rates of violence against Native American women and girls. The legislation died this year without being put to a vote.
Since then, Indigenous leaders have been working with the Wisconsin Department of Justice to establish a task force to confront the issue, said Kristin Welch, an organizer with the Menominee nonprofit Menikanaehkem who is active in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women campaign.
Other states, including Minnesota, have enacted legislation to focus on missing and murdered Indigenous people, and last year, President Donald Trump issued an executive order creating a national task force on the issue.
It’s important, Schinko said, for families to know that they can play an active role in seeking justice for their loved one, especially when some Indigenous women’s and girls’ murders or disappearances go unsolved for years.
“It’s necessary because we are the most underrepresented population in the United States,” she said. “We have to be active in the investigation to make sure the investigation happens.”
Sarah Volpenhein is a Report for America corps reporter who focuses on news of value to underserved communities for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Please consider supporting journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible gift to this reporting effort at JSOnline.com/RFA.
Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter and Report for America corps reporter Frank Vaisvilas contributed to this story.