CENTENNIAL, Colo. (KDVR) — A Colorado woman was killed in East Africa while working to clean up corruption in Uganda, but was it an accident or a targeted attack?
It’s a question that plagues mourning mother Holly Oksendahl daily as she desperately searches for answers more than a year after her daughter’s death.
“Anger, absolute flaming anger,” Oksendahl said. “I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”
Danica Reno graduated from Elizabeth High School, earned her degrees at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and went on to travel the world. She often did rewarding, yet sometimes risky, humanitarian work in the Middle East and Africa.
Oksendahl said her daughter’s drive to make a difference was relentless — but it put a target on her back.
‘One of her favorite places in the world was Africa’
At 42 years old, Reno lived a life many won’t experience in a lifetime, which included hugging elephants in Sudan, adopting numerous dogs in Armenia, empowering women in the Middle East and riding camels in Kabul, just to name a few. However, with great reward came some risk.
Sitting in anguish in her Centennial living room, Oksendahl said her daughter would call from Afghanistan and describe bombs going off, but she would continue her mission of helping women in the workforce while raising money for education.
Reno specialized in international affairs and worked for government-related companies to develop and advance underserved countries.
“One of her favorite places in the world was Africa,” Oksendahl said.
In November 2021, Reno was an operations director with Management Systems International and was sent to the capital city of Kampala to launch a federal project to reduce corruption within the Ugandan government, which has a long history of extreme misconduct.
However, in the light of change, a dark reality emerged on June 2, 2022.
“Danica’s dead, Danica’s dead! I’m just going right now to the hospital. I’ve just been told she is dead. The body….”
Then loud cries take over. That was the voicemail that was left on Reno’s partner’s phone the night she was killed.
“I remember handing the phone to my sister, and I literally collapsed on the floor,” Oksendahl said. “I got a letter from the Embassy that said, We’re so sorry to inform you that your daughter has been killed.'”
After crash, a mother pleads for answers
Reno was killed in a hit-and-run crash. Oksendahl said at first, she thought “accidents happen,” but that quickly changed. She said she frantically began emailing the U.S. Embassy to get answers and provided FOX31 with some of the correspondence.
Oksendahl wrote on numerous occasions.
“Do we have any further information or police report on Danica’s case?”
“Checking again, is there a police report?”
“I’ve still heard nothing.”
The grieving mother was met with replies that read, “There is no further information on the police investigation,” and, “There are no updates.”
A few weeks after her daughter’s death, Oksendahl said she hopped on a plane to try and get answers in person, which didn’t bode well. She said she could not obtain an official police report and was met with heavy resistance.
“Stop asking,” Oksendahl remembered. “Stop asking for information on how your daughter died because we’re giving you nothing.”
Feeling helpless with nowhere to turn, Oksendahl reached out to one of her daughter’s coworkers, who claimed there was a witness.
“From what they knew, this was a military vehicle, Ugandan military vehicle. And another vehicle that had been coming down her street, where her house was, right in front of her gate and literally at a high rate of speed, ran over her,” Oksendahl said.
She said the witness banged on Reno’s gate to alert security of what happened.
Anti-corruption project was just made public
According to Oksendahl, the timing of her daughter’s death was no coincidence. Nearly one month before the incident, news of the anti-corruption project was made public in a press release.
As the release reads, “The five-year project aims to strengthen accountability, deepen public participation in and oversight of public institutions and social services, and reduce corruption in public service sectors.”
Also, on the day of Reno’s death, the company she worked for publicly tweeted about the project. Oksendahl said shortly after her daughter’s death, the project was dissolved.
FOX31 reached out to Reno’s employer at the time, Management Systems International, but did not hear back for comment.
Meanwhile, FOX31 pressed a U.S. State Department spokesperson for information and was provided a statement: “The Embassy expresses our sincere condolences. The Government of Uganda initiated a police investigation. U.S. Embassy Kampala has repeatedly lobbied the Government of Uganda at the highest levels for a timely and transparent investigation of the accident. According to police sources, investigation results are still pending.”
A spokesperson said the agency continues to press Ugandan authorities for a final report.
‘Someone has an answer’
Oksendahl said she finds some solace in her daughter’s room, basking in her belongings and caring for her adopted dog, but continues her fight on U.S. soil. Oksendahl said she reached out to Gov. Jared Polis and was told the office doesn’t handle international affairs, directing her to reach out to her district’s congress member.
Oksendahl said she reached out to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse and U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper but received no concrete answers. She believes the government has failed her and her daughter.
“Doors are being slammed in my face,” Oksendahl said. “Someone has an answer to what happened to my daughter.”
FOX31 reached out to Bennet, Neguse and Hickenlooper’s offices, and they all said they are aware of the situation and want to assist in any way possible. Hickenlooper’s office said specifically that it’s working with the U.S. Embassy, but Ugandan authorities have not provided any information.
Oksendahl said her daughter’s remains were sent back to Colorado and a memorial service was held in Centennial. In Reno’s honor, folks from around the world raised over $70,000, and Oksendahl said she donated that money to the Uganda Society for the Protection and Care of Animals, which her daughter helped maintain, because it’s what she would have wanted.
Oksendahl said she won’t give up, and if you’d like to help or have any resources, email firstname.lastname@example.org.