Monica L. Bercier Wickre, known as “Mona” to many, was always singing. And dancing. If there was a stage, Monica was on it. If there was a piano, Monica would be playing it.
“She had the most beautiful voice,” her daughter, Tonya Hertel, told Dateline. “She’d start singing and it would just put anyone who heard it at ease.”
Tonya is one of Monica’s three children. Monica was born and raised in Belcourt, North Dakota on the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa reservation. She married and had two children, Tonya and her brother. The marriage did not last, but Tonya told Dateline she recalls her parents having an amicable relationship.
Monica eventually remarried and had another child, a son. They raised their new family in Aberdeen, South Dakota while Tonya and her brother spent their teenage years with their father in Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe reservation. Even with a three-hour drive between the two homes, Tonya said she visited her mother often.
“We had a special bond with our mom,” Tonya said. “She loved us kids so much. And was so proud of us. No one could ever take her place.”
Tonya was just starting her senior year in the fall of 1992 when she found out she was pregnant.
“I was so scared to tell my mom… because I knew she’d be disappointed in me,” Tonya said. “I finally told her and she was shocked, maybe a little sad for me, but she quickly changed her mind. Suddenly she was so excited to be a grandmother. She started making plans for me and the baby. She was over the moon.”
In February 1993, Tonya and her boyfriend went to Aberdeen to attend her half-brother’s first communion. It was the first time her family would see her pregnant.
“I’m so glad my mom got to see me with the belly, with her granddaughter growing inside me,” Tonya said. “She told me she wanted me to live with her so she could help with the baby and I could go to college. She had all these plans.”
But Monica’s life came to a tragic end before any of these plans could be realized.
Monica was 42 years old and living with her second husband and young son in Aberdeen in April of 1993. On April 7, her husband drove her to a local spot where she planned to have drinks with friends after work. Tonya explained that her mother preferred going out and being social to staying at home, which is what her stepdad preferred to do.
“He was a homebody and she was very social,” Tonya added. “It’s what worked for them.”
Tonya told Dateline that her mother’s last known location that evening was at a bar called The Body Shop, which has since closed down. Because Monica had not driven there, she got a ride from a couple she knew and another man, who she did not know. Tonya said the couple dropped the man off at his vehicle, which was parked at another location, and that Monica decided to go with him.
It was the last time Monica was known to have been seen alive. Chief Deputy Lunzman told Dateline that all three people were questioned by police at the time, but there was nothing to lead them to her whereabouts.
Monica had a large family on the reservation. She was one of 10 siblings. And they were close. When no one had seen her for two weeks, they grew concerned and contacted her husband and then the Aberdeen Police Department.
Chief Deputy for the Brown County Sheriff’s Office, Dave Lunzman, who was an officer with the Aberdeen Police Department at the time, told Dateline he remembers searching for Monica after she was reported missing. He said that Monica’s family filed a missing persons report on April 26, 1993.
Detectives talked with friends and family and neighbors. Searches were conducted throughout the community and in the rural parts of the county, but there was no sign of Monica.
“That whole month was a blur,” Tonya said. “I kept waiting for her to call, but she never did.”
When Tonya’s high school graduation came around in May, she knew that if her mother were still alive, she’d have been there.
“I remember standing in the gym in my cap and gown just hoping she’d show up,” Tonya said. “But when she didn’t walk through those gyms doors, I knew something bad happened to her. My heart was aching and I knew she was gone.”
The ongoing search for Monica came to its tragic end on June 16, 1993. Monica’s clothed, badly decomposed body was found in the James River just outside Aberdeen by a passerby in a canoe, according to Chief Deputy Lunzman.
The body was identified as Monica through dental records, but due to the state of decomposition, a cause of death could not be determined. However, foul play was suspected and investigators treated her case as a homicide.
“This is not something that happens every day out here,” Chief Deputy Lunzman said. “It was a big deal around here for a long time. And it still is. It’s a cold case, but we’ve never stopped working on it.”
Chief Deputy Lunzman told Dateline there were multiple suspects after finding Monica’s body, but an arrest has never been made in her case. He added that there are still suspects, but none of them have been publicly named, and not everyone has been cleared.
Over the years, new detectives were assigned to Monica’s case file, which is stuffed to the brim with interviews, notes and evidence. But Lunzman told Dateline the crucial three weeks between the time Monica was last seen and when she was reported missing could be the reason why it wasn’t solved earlier.
“Every hour, every day, every week makes a difference,” he said. “But now all we can do is keep pushing forward with fresh eyes. We want nothing more than to solve this and give the family closure.”
At the end of the summer in 1993, one day after what would have been Monica’s 43rd birthday, her daughter Tonya gave birth to a baby girl. She named her Monica.
“My daughter was my savior,” Tonya told Dateline. “We all have a journey – it was not the one I had in mind – but it’s the one the Creator planned for me. And my daughter is a small part of my mother that I’m blessed to have.”
Twenty-eight years have passed since Monica’s death, but her family and friends continue their search for answers and their fight for justice.
Monica’s own mother prayed for years for answers about her daughter’s death. She died in November 2020 at the age of 98, her prayers unanswered.
“She was so faithful and prayed every day for answers,” Tonya said. “But I’ll keep the fight going for her. Someday we’ll know. I have hope.”
Tonya is now 45 years old, just a few years older than her mother was when she died. She told Dateline she remains dumbfounded that nearly three decades have passed with no answers and no arrests.
This week, the family collected $10,000 to be offered to anyone who comes forward with information that leads to the arrest and conviction of Monica’s killer.
The family continues to bring awareness about Monica’s case with the Justice4Monica Facebook page with the hope that someone will come forward with information that may help solve it. They are also hoping to put up a billboard in the near future.
Monica’s case is one of many mentioned in Savanna’s Act or #MMIW Act, which reforms law enforcement and justice protocols appropriate to address missing and murdered Native women. An initial version of the bill passed the Senate on December 6, 2018.
The bill, nicknamed after Fargo, North Dakota resident Savanna LaFontaine-Greywind who was murdered in August 2017, just one example of the horrific statistics regarding abuse and homicide of Native American women.
Tonya told Dateline she often wonders why stories of Native women aren’t given the attention they deserve.
“My mom was somebody, too,” Tonya said. “But who can we turn to? Sometimes it just feels like our people don’t matter.”
Tonya told Dateline she hopes by sharing her mother’s story and continuing to fight for justice, it will give others hope to be a voice for the voiceless.
“For so long I felt like I didn’t have a voice,” Tonya said. “But today, I feel like I have a voice. And I feel like a voice has finally been given to my mother.”