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Cherokee man arrested in cold case murder

Ernest Pheasant. CIPD photo Ernest Pheasant. CIPD photo

Nearly a decade after 26-year-old Marie Walkingstick Pheasant’s body was found in a burned-out vehicle in Cherokee’s Big Cove community, her husband Ernest Dwayne Pheasant, 46, has been arrested for her murder. 

The Cherokee Indian Police Department, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Indian Affairs arrested Pheasant on Tuesday, Nov. 21. Court documents accuse Pheasant of placing his hands around his wife’s neck, strangling her to death, on or about Dec. 28, 2013. In an effort to destroy evidence of his crime, Pheasant then burned her body inside of her vehicle between Dec. 28 and the morning of Dec. 29, police allege. That’s where she was found on Dec. 29, the day her obituary lists as her day of death.

Pheasant allegedly went even further to cover up his wrongdoing. In a conversation at the Pizza Inn in Cherokee on Dec. 30, 2013, he allegedly approached another person to establish an alibi to account for the timeframe during which Marie Walkingstick Pheasant was murdered.

If Pheasant is convicted of murder, it won’t be the first time. In a federal case dating back to 1998, Pheasant pled to second-degree murder and was sentenced on June 2, 1999, to nine years and two months in prison followed by five years of supervised release, which began on Feb. 23, 2007. Less than three months later, he was in front of a judge again on a probation violation that ended with a new prison sentence. The Federal Bureau of Prisons shows he was last released from custody on May 30, 2008. In these filings, Pheasant’s middle name is spelled slightly differently — “Duane” instead of “Dwayne” — but a spokesperson from the Cherokee Indian Police Department said it was the same person.

For these alleged actions, Pheasant is charged with first-degree murder, tampering with witnesses, tampering with evidence and domestic violence and dating violence. He is also charged with possession of a firearm by a felon. All six charges are felonies.

“I would like to thank the joint relationship of all agencies involved,” said Chief of Police Carla Neadeau. “This is a step towards closure for the family.”

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At the time of her death, Marie Walkingstick Pheasant was the mother of two young children. She was a “quiet, sweet, loving girl” whose death devastated the family, her aunt Diane Wolfe told The Smoky Mountain News in a 2022 interview. Law enforcement had long suspected that there were people in the community who knew the identity of the guilty party but decided not to come forward. At the time of Ernest Pheasant’s arrest, a $50,000 reward had been issued for information leading to an arrest or conviction.  

news Marie Walkingstick Pheasant reward poster

Marie Walkingstick Pheasant was just 26 years old and the mother of two when she was murdered in 2013.

“Ten years ago, our community was shaken by her tragic death, with her family and friends left with questions unanswered,” Principal Chief Michell Hicks said in a Facebook post  the day of Pheasant’s arrest. “It is our sincerest hope that this development will help give her family closure and bring justice for Marie.” 

Pheasant’s death was a devastating tragedy to her family and community, but it was not an isolated incident. Rather, it was the symptom of a nationwide epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women. According to a 2016 National Institute of Justice Research Report, more than four in five Native American women have experienced violence in their lifetime, over half have experienced sexual violence and the majority have been victims of physical violence at the hands of intimate partners. Native women are 1.7 times more likely than White women to have experienced violence in the past year. In some counties, they face murder rates more than 10 times the national average.  

Marie Walkingstick Pheasant’s story was one of the cases that spurred a trio of Cherokee women to start the We Are Resilient Podcast, highlighting the stories of missing and murdered indigenous women, in 2021. Following Pheasant’s arrest, the hosts put out a statement expressing gratitude to the law enforcement, listeners and community members who kept her case alive and brought her alleged killer to justice. 

“Many of these cases go unsolved and families never get any answers,” the statement reads. “This arrest in Marie’s case proves that bringing awareness to the issues around MMIW and continuing to say our stolen sisters’ names will bring change.”

While Pheasant’s arrest brings hope to those frustrated by the disproportionate violence and lack of justice Native women face, hers is not the only unresolved case leaving a family in need of answers.  

“We must continue to amplify the stories of Indigenous women and girls who are impacted by violence and honor their memory and legacy, and we must continue to stand in solidarity and take action to end the violence against Indigenous women and girls,” Hicks said.

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