Roderica Ribbonleg had big plans to make her family proud and her first milestone was her high school graduation.
Her cousin, Tracey D'Or, says the 15-year-old from a remote northern Alberta First Nation was determined to attend university.
That bright future was stolen when Roderica was killed and her body discarded in a forested area near John D'Or Prairie, Alta., in July.
"She was just a child at heart," D'Or says. "She didn't even get to experience life yet."
Jason Alec Tallcree, 35, also of John D'Or Prairie, was charged with first-degree murder Aug. 19. He made his first court appearance on Monday and his next court date is Oct. 5.
John D'Or Prairie is one of three remote communities that make up the Little Red River Cree Nation, more than 750 kilometres north of Edmonton. John D'Or, Fox Lake and Garden River have about 5,500 members between them.
Many people are asking how a young innocent life could be taken within the boundaries of their own community, D'or says. Most people knew the five-foot-two teen with shoulder-length black hair, brown eyes and a big, bright smile full of braces. D'or says the girl's quick wit and insatiable sense of humour used to make many people laugh.
Roderica was living in Garden River to attend Sister Gloria School, where D'Or works as an educational assistant. D'Or is also sister-in-law to the girl's mother.
"She was a very helpful young lady in our school. She was always helping out in the kitchen, setting up tables for lunch hour."
The teenager would often visit her cousin's classroom during breaks. She would talk about things that made her happy and sad — teenage love, friendships and frustrations.
D'Or says she will always remember the huge smile crossing Roderica's face when she talked about inviting all her friends to her graduation.
"She said she was going to graduate and move out of our reserve to go to a city school … to make something of herself and do something that her family could be proud of," D'Or says. "She had plans."
In her spare time, Roderica was always doing artwork or out walking with her friends.
When the pandemic hit in the spring, her school was forced to shut down, so Roderica moved home to John D'Or Prairie. D'Or says she often wonders what would have been different if her teen cousin had stayed.
Roderica vanished on July 5.
All three communities began to look for her. People started going door to door. Eventually, ground searches began. D'Or says everyone was holding onto hope that the girl would be found safe.
But terrible news came quickly. RCMP received a report of clothing being found in a forested area. Police said remains were found nearby on July 12.
An autopsy confirmed it was Roderica.
Chief Conroy Sewepagaham said in a video posted on his Facebook a few days later that he had encouraged investigators to leave no stone unturned. Garden River and John D'or Prairie went into lockdown for many days to ensure a thorough investigation.
The chief also discouraged animosity between people in the remote communities.
"The last thing we want is vigilante justice," he said. "I understand a lot of people are saddened by the loss of our tiny home fire."
D'Or says she doesn't personally know the man accused in Roderica's death, but she has seen him around. Most people know his history, she says.
In 2014, Tallcree was charged with second-degree murder and interfering with a dead body in the death of his common-law partner Marlena Loonskin.
Court records show the charges were stayed in 2015, two weeks before Tallcree was to have a hearing aimed at determining whether there was enough evidence to hold a trial.
D'Or says she was involved in the search for Loonskin six years ago. The young mother's body was found in a wooded area near her home.
Both tragedies are almost too much to comprehend, D'Or says. She really worries for the young people who will be going back to school knowing their classmate was killed. D'Or says many don't know how to talk about it so they just bottle it up inside.
A video being shared on social media to honour Roderica shows her with friends at school, eating pizza, fishing and driving around. Messages from friends say she will be missed.
D'Or says walking through the school's hallways is not going to be the same without her little cousin's daily classroom visit.
"She was a great spirit," she says.
"She didn't deserve to go this way. She wasn't ready ... It wasn't her time."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 26, 2020
Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press