Police narrow search for Claplanhoo killer with DNA results

Family hopeful for resolution

Det. Sgt. Darrell Nelson can type the case number in by memory, in just a few seconds.

Nelson and other Sequim Police Department detectives continue to investigate the death of Sequim resident Valerie Claplanhoo, four years after her murder.

Claplanhoo, then-57, was found dead from injuries sustained from a knife or a sharp object in her one-room apartment on Jan. 2, 2019, at the Sunbelt Apartments on South Fifth Avenue in the City of Sequim.

“We are actively still investigating,” Nelson said late last year. “She is not forgotten.

“It’s truly a ‘whodunnit’ case. We want to make sure the science is methodical, peer reviewed and good.”

Valerie’s sister Cindy Lee Claplanhoo of Neah Bay said she checks in with Nelson at least once a month.

“I wish it could be resolved,” she said. “I wish there was justice for her. Just answers.”

Valerie Claplanhoo was a Makah Tribal member and has two sisters and three children.

Cindy Lee said she didn’t know of Valerie, her biological sister, until she was in her early 20s.

“It was such a surprise to find her and bring her home,” Cindy Lee said.

Some of Valerie’s childhood stories are unknown, Cindy Lee said, but she had many homes and was welcome in Forks, Port Angeles and Sequim.

A few days prior to Valerie’s death on Dec. 31, 2018, Cindy Lee said they planned to celebrate their birthdays and Valerie’s two months of being sober and drug-free.

“(Addiction) was a strong battle for her,” Cindy Lee said.

Since the murder, Cindy Lee said, she’s set aside money each year for her sister’s memorial.

“I hope this year we can have a memorial and say ‘case is closed. Justice has been served,’” she said.


Sequim Police have submitted ample evidence to both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Washington State Patrol’s crime labs, local law enforcement officials say.

“They’re getting things back faster than I thought they would,” Nelson said.

This month, Sequim Deputy Police Chief Mike Hill said the case continues to move forward with a narrower focus as less than 50 items are left to be analyzed with a “small, manageable pool of persons of interest” remaining.

Hill said detectives have a few interviews planned out of the area but they’ve been able to track those individuals.

“We are keeping all options open should any new information be revealed or received,” he said. “With that, we have done some additional search warrants and continued to have assistance from the FBI.

“We have received results from those warrants which led to continuing the investigation and gathering additional information based on what was discovered.”

Most of the detectives’ attention will be turned to DNA results under a “narrower lens,” Hill said.

“It’s not ‘what ifs’ but getting specific results,” he said. “We’re evaluating what’s been identified and what’s been linked to a person and where that DNA comes from and if it has anything to do with her death.”

The fact that a similar tragedy occurred in the same building less than a year later is not being overlooked, he said.

Larissa Dietz, a then 50-year-old Sequim woman, was sentenced in Sept. 2021 to more than 17 years in prison for second-degree attempted murder and first-degree assault after repeatedly stabbing Ricky Lee McGowan, a 58–year-old wheelchair-bound man, in the neck on Oct. 8, 2019, in his apartment at the Sunbelt Apartments.

Late last year, Dietz’s attorney filed an appeal of her conviction.

Hill said the similar nature of the cases is “definitely not being ignored.”

“There’s enough similarities that we will continue to look at it,” he said.


Claplanhoo’s 2019 murder was the first in the City of Sequim in more than 14 years since Amber Rae Bulus-Steed, then 26, was murdered by her boyfriend Nathan E. Hipsher, then 25, in the Greathouse Motel. She was later found deceased in Port Angeles, Clallam County Sheriff’s Office reported.

Hipsher pleaded guilty to murder in Aug. 2005 and died in prison two years later from cancer, according to the Peninsula Daily News.

The City of Sequim has had three attempted murder cases in four years, with one of those allegedly linked to a murder in unincorporated Sequim.

Cindy Lee Claplanhoo said since she first interacted with Sequim Police, she appreciates how respectful law enforcement has been to her and family about Valerie.

“They’ve all tried their best to find out what exactly happened that night,” she said. “They’ve shown nothing but respect.”

After four years, Cindy Lee continues to hope for a resolution and cling to good memories of her sister – including their joint travels.

“I didn’t learn to drive until I was in my 30s … and that was before there was any fancy technology,” she said. “We’d print out a map. She’d sit in the passenger side, read me directions and we’d follow them as best as we could.

“We’d still end up getting lost.”

But those fun travels brought them to new places like the Sea Lion Caves in Oregon, or the Grand Coulee Dam.

“She was really patient and would try to be helpful,” Cindy Lee said.

If Valerie were still alive, she’d still be having fun, her sister said.

“We would be on the road,” Cindy Lee said. “She would be loving her grand babies. She’d be having a good time.”

Nelson said they “know the beginning and middle of Valerie’s story, but don’t know the end.”

“Our goal is to find out the end and find out what happened,” he said.

“We work on (her case) every available opportunity. We want to find out what happened to Valerie.

“I can’t stress enough, it’s an active open case.”

Cindy Lee encourages people to check out and support efforts to find and/or solve cases for missing and murdered indigenous persons by looking into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women USA at facebook.com/mmiwusa; and the U.S.’s Indian Affairs’ Missing and Murdered Indigenous People information at bia.gov/service/mmu.