Amber Hopkins had been missing for 10 weeks when a man rummaging through an abandoned lot in north Minneapolis spotted some boots. Then a body.
When they heard the news, her family just knew.
The 31-year-old expectant mother was homeless and struggling with heroin addiction. But relatives can’t fathom how she wound up covered in brush, trash and debris. Her body was found Tuesday, after the snow began to melt.
“They left her there like an animal,” said her stepfather, Jimmy Torrence. “She didn’t deserve that.”
Exactly how Hopkins died remains a mystery — autopsy results are pending — but many in the grief-stricken American Indian community she was part of suspect foul play. They point to the nationwide epidemic of missing and murdered native women and say that without answers, peace and healing aren’t possible.
Minneapolis police will not say whether there’s evidence that her death was a homicide, but investigators processed the area as if it were a crime scene. Police confirmed that no one has been arrested but are withholding other information .
Family and friends say Hopkins was trapped in an abusive relationship and fear it may have turned violent. Should toxicology results indicate her death was drug-related, relatives say that at the very least, someone failed to call for help.
Either way, they don’t believe she ended up in her final resting place by accident.
“They could have brought her to a hospital or something,” Hopkins’ younger sister, Kelsey Torrence, cried out as tears rolled down her face during a vigil Wednesday evening. “Who’s that heartless to bury her back here and cover her up?” She gestured to a pile of large pieces of wood, broken glass and soggy cardboard behind a vacant two-story house on the city’s North Side.
Hopkins was last seen alive early on Jan. 14, when she left her sister’s house to pick up her cellphone from her ex-boyfriend. At the time, she was five weeks’ pregnant, and he was the father.
Several days later, her mother filed a missing-persons report when she could not reach Hopkins on her phone. Her daughter’s daily social media posts also had abruptly stopped. It wasn’t like her to be out of touch for more than a few days, her family said.
“We didn’t believe she was gone,” Kelsey Torrence said, “because she always came back.”
‘She was smart and loving’
Hopkins’ story is achingly familiar in the Indian community.
Indigenous women are a population that has suffered some of the nation’s highest rates of sexual violence and domestic abuse. Although such crimes are difficult to track because many go unreported, a recent study by the Urban Indian Health Institute found that New Mexico had the largest number of missing and murdered Indian women, with 78 cases. Minnesota ranked ninth, with 20 cases.
Hopkins, a member of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate tribe, was born in Sisseton, S.D., and raised in Minnesota, finishing high school in Fond du Lac and later moving back to the Twin Cities.
Her fate “makes me scared,” said Hopkins’ aunt, Jaime Brown. “I know my own daughter thinks I’m an overprotective bugaboo, calling her every 45 minutes. … You can’t trust anybody. Nothing is promised out here.”
Hopkins, known affectionately as “Boo Boo,” attended Minneapolis Community and Technical College before becoming a personal care assistant.
The oldest of six siblings, she acted as the family mediator and could change the mood of a room with the flash of her bright smile, her sister said. “She was smart and loving,” Kelsey Torrence said. “She was just around the wrong people.”
Hopkins’ world started to spiral downward a few years ago when she lost custody of her four young children for drug offenses, relatives said. The children now live in Mexico with their father.
Family members offered Hopkins refuge in their homes but refused to house her on-again, off-again boyfriend because they didn’t approve of how he treated her. She chose to stick it out with him on the street, living for several months at the sprawling encampment along Hiawatha Avenue, where drug use and accidental overdoses were commonplace.
Shortly before 150 homeless residents relocated to the new Navigation Center, Hopkins and her boyfriend left for north Minneapolis. They were thought to be squatting inside abandoned homes.
In the hours before her disappearance, Facebook messages between Hopkins and the boyfriend were argumentative and threatening, according to transcripts of the messages provided to the Star Tribune. Relatives believe she planned to leave him so she could try to regain custody of her children.
Authorities have not said whether he, or anyone else, is a person of interest in the case.
During separate vigils last week, community leaders mourned while decrying domestic violence.
“Our purpose in life is to protect our women,” said James Cross, founder of the street outreach group Natives Against Heroin. “Sometimes we have to be reminded of that.”
V.J. Smith, president of MAD DADS, asked that parents step up their game and teach their sons to respect women.
“She deserved to be protected by whatever man she was with — no matter what she did,” Smith said of Hopkins. “So Lord, I pray for justice. I pray that somebody will say something.”
A difficult farewell
On Wednesday, less than 24 hours after Hopkins’ body was carried away from the debris pile, dozens of people flocked to the muddy backyard where she was found.
They clasped hands in the shadow of the boarded-up house, burned sage and sprinkled tobacco on the ground where her body had lain. A drum circle pulsated to a crescendo, then family and friends raised their fists and repeated her name: “Amber Hopkins!”
Funeral services will be held Monday morning following two overnight wakes.
Her family chose to forgo the traditional open casket and have Hopkins’ remains cremated instead. Relatives plan to release some of her ashes in Fond du Lac on the anniversary of her death.
“We didn’t want to wait anymore” for her funeral, her aunt said. “We wanted to set her free.”