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Wisconsin family’s calls ‘answered’ for harsher charges in killing of Ho-Chunk woman

Sarah Volpenhein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The man accused of killing a 22-year-old Ho-Chunk woman originally from Wisconsin now faces a heightened charge of murder.

Jonathan D. Rooney, of Winnebago, Nebraska, was charged Friday with one count of second-degree murder and one count of tampering with documents or proceedings in a superseding indictment filed in U.S. District Court in Nebraska.

He is accused of killing his fiancée, Kozee Decorah, originally of Wittenberg, Wisconsin, whose body was found May 16 burning in an outhouse in a remote area of a Nebraska reservation.

Rooney was originally charged with voluntary manslaughter, a lesser charge that Decorah’s family members said didn’t go far enough. For months, Decorah’s family called for stiffer charges against Rooney, holding demonstrations, meeting with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Omaha and starting a Change.org petition that garnered more than 14,000 signatures.

“Our prayers have been answered,” Stacey Schreiber Schinko, a relative of Decorah’s, said in a Facebook message. “The punishment should fit the crime.”

Rooney has pleaded not guilty to the previous charges in the case and is being held pending trial, according to court documents. An arraignment on the new charges had not been set as of Monday. If convicted of the murder charge, he could face up to life in prison.

Schinko said Decorah had planned to return to Wisconsin soon 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. Decorah was trying to regain custody of her three children before returning home, Schinko said.

Decorah grew up in Wittenberg and graduated from Wittenberg-Birnamwood High School, Schinko said.

The new indictment does not give any more details about the heightened charge.

A complaint unsealed in June described how the night Decorah died, May 16, she and Rooney’s SUV had gotten stuck on a muddy road in a remote area of the Winnebago Indian Reservation in Nebraska.

Conservation officers and firefighters who responded to the scene eventually noticed a fire in the area, about four hours after the SUV had been reported stuck, according to court records. They found the fire burning in an outhouse, where they also found Decorah’s remains.

About the same time, the officers found Rooney, along with their infant son, sleeping unclothed inside a nearby cabin, the complaint says. There was blood inside the cabin, and authorities 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 authorities he and Decorah had gotten into an argument, according to the complaint. Rooney’s attorney has filed a motion to try to keep some of Rooney’s statements to authorities from being admitted at trial, saying they were obtained illegally.

The indictment also accuses Rooney of trying to conceal or destroy evidence, including a cellphone and his clothes.

The complaint says Decorah’s body was too badly burned to see if she had suffered any trauma before the fire. Investigators had to perform a forensic dental analysis to identify her remains, according to the complaint.

In pushing for stiffer charges against Rooney, Decorah’s family and friends have also brought attention to other Indigenous women who have been killed or gone missing. A 2008 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Justice found that Native women experience higher homicide rates than white women.

This year, the Wisconsin Department of Justice created a task force to combat violence against Indigenous women and girls and examine the factors contributing to the higher rates of violence.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Josh Kaul revealed the task force members, who include tribal legislators and leaders, tribal law enforcement officials, advocates, family members of missing or murdered Indigenous people and Wisconsin officials.

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.

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