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Family of 2021 Montana drowning victim frustrated by legal roadblocks

Deanna Limberhand sign
Posted at 4:50 PM, Mar 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-29 18:50:54-04

COLUMBUS — It’s been eight months since the body of 39-year-old Deanna Limberhand was found in the Stillwater River north of Absarokee.

The initial coroner’s report ruled it a drowning, but the Stillwater County Sheriff’s continue to call it an active investigation.

They did not provide any details on leads — if any — they’ve received when asked Monday. That’s why Limberhand’s family and friends organized a rally in front of the Stillwater County Courthouse.

"Today is Deanna’s 40th birthday," said Rynalea Whiteman Peña, Limberhand's aunt. "We shouldn’t even be in Columbus. We should be planning a meal like we always do with family."

About 25 of Limberhand’s friends and family gathered in the courthouse shade to celebrate the Lame Deer woman's memory, but there was another reason.

"We’re also here to get answers," Peña said.

Stillwater river Limberhand
Deanna Limberhand was found drowned in the Stillwater River on July 20, 2021 near Jeffrey's Landing Fishing Access, about 1.5 miles north of Absarokee.

Limberhand was found in the river around 10:30 a.m. on the morning of July 20, 2021. Family tells us that at her funeral a week later, the mortuary originally suggested a closed casket because of the severity of Limberhand’s injuries, suggesting she suffered severe trauma.

Deanna’s mother Darleene has been trying to get the full autopsy report for weeks, "I was just told that if they’re still investigating, they said they probably won’t give us the autopsy."

"I’ve seen families wait a long time for an autopsy report and have to really advocate for it. I’ve never seen law enforcement tell them, ‘Well it’s confidential investigatory information,'" said Annita Lucchesi. "That should be available to next of kin.”

Lucchesi is the executive director of the Sovereign Bodies Institute, a Native American women’s advocacy group based in Billings. She helps families with whatever they need — in this case, trying to secure the autopsy report for Darlene, but Lucchesi ran into a number of roadblocks.

“Everyone’s passing the buck, even in the last 30 minutes here at the courthouse," Lucchesi said, "and that’s how it’s been ever since Deanna was taken from us.”

Deanna Limberhand
Friends and family gathered in front of the Stillwater County courthouse Monday with specially designed 'Justice for Deanna Limberhand' masks as the investigation into her drowning continues with few answers.

Lucchesi sat in a 10-square-foot area of the sheriff’s department, only to be told to call the county attorney, and then to go up to the district court clerk on level three. When she got there, she was told the family would have to file a legal petition and pay a $120 fee. She’s not a lawyer and the family doesn’t have one, so she was told to call a legal services advocacy group in Billings.

“I’ve never seen a family have to file for a court order to receive that," Lucchesi said.

But she does see plenty of familiarities with the case.

"It’s community members that have to step up time and time again to advocate for cases, to investigate cases," Lucchesi said, "and it’s unfortunate that law enforcement agencies don’t do that and leave families and communities out of the circle of communication and just kind of leave us here wondering.”