The story includes graphic material.
Ashlynne Mike and her 9-year-old brother were playing by an irrigation canal Monday when a red van pulled up. They had just been dropped off by a school bus and were making their way back to their Navajo Nation home in Fruitland, N.M. Then came the man who offered them a ride.
The boy was hesitant to get into the vehicle, but Ashlynne, 11, had hurt her foot. Into the van they went, as the man promised to show them a movie during a drive that would become the siblings’ last moments together.
Hours later, Ashlynne’s brother was combing the darkness around neighboring Shiprock for his older sister. He was eventually spotted by a passing motorist and brought to the police, whom he told about how the man had taken Ashlynne behind a hill and come back without her.
A search began in earnest for the Navajo girl, with tribal investigators working together with the FBI. They found her body on Tuesday morning near a scenic road. Her head was bloody, her life ended by what appeared to be blunt force trauma.
These details are outlined in the complaint against Tom Begaye Jr., a 27-year-old member of the Navajo Nation who was charged with kidnapping and murdering Ashlynne on Wednesday. He also faces an additional charge for committing a crime on an Indian reservation.
Authorities found Begaye at a sweat lodge on Tuesday, and Ashlynne’s brother subsequently identified him as the man who took his sister. The 9-year-old boy also said Begaye’s vehicle, a maroon van with no hubcaps, was the one they had ridden in.
Begaye’s alleged crime has shaken the tribal community, as it grapples not only with the death of an innocent, but also the possibility that it was carried out by one of their own. (Begaye was a stranger to the kids at the time of the alleged abduction.)
At Begaye’s court appearance on Wednesday, tribal members in attendance yelled “bastard” and “go to hell,” the Associated Press reported.
“How can a man of that nature who did what he did go into a sweat lodge after?” Sher Brown, who knows both the victim and suspect, told the AP through tears. In Native American tradition, sweat lodges are used for spiritual cleansing.
An affidavit provided by an Albuquerque FBI agent in support of the criminal complaint describes Begaye’s alleged confession to the police, chronicling a brutal sexual assault and killing.
Begaye allegedly told investigators that he had invited Ashlynne into his van with the intention of having sex with her. After he picked up her and her brother, he allegedly drove onto a dirt road, stopping near a hill by the Shiprock Pinnacle, a towering rock formation sacred to the Navajo people.
Ashlynne was crying and begging to be taken home, Begaye told police. Begaye then allegedly led her behind the hill and took off her pants, underpants and shoes before penetrating her with his fingers. As she cried, he allegedly hit her head with an L-shaped tire iron he had hidden in his jacket.
The first time he allegedly hit her, Ashlynne fell to the ground. After he hit her again, Begaye told police, she laid still.
Begay later told police that Ashlynn was still moving when he abandoned her at that spot, the affidavit said.
When he returned to his van, Ashlynne’s brother was still inside. He drove a short distance before telling the boy to get out.
At a candlelight vigil on Tuesday, community members mourned a gentle child who played xylophone in the school band, KRQE reported. While she was quiet in public, Ashlynne loved joking around with her younger brother and playing games with her cousins, her aunt told the TV station.
“As a dad, you would like to see your daughter grow up and see her have a family of her own one day,” Ashlynne’s cousin Shawn Mike told the AP. “Unfortunately, Ashlynne won’t experience any of this.”
The 11-year-old’s death has raised questions among tribe members about whether the police response to her disappearance was adequate. Rick Nez, president of the San Juan chapter of the Navajo Nation, told the AP that authorities were slow to put out an Amber Alert.
“If they would have put out an Amber Alert right away I believe they might have saved her life,” Nez said.
In a release Tuesday, tribal official and public safety director Jesse Delmar said every protocol was followed, according to the Farmington Daily Times. At the same time, Navajo President Russell Begaye (no relation to the suspect) said the tribe needs to implement a more effective system for communicating such emergencies to the public.
“There should be no delay when using technology to report the abduction of our people,” Begaye said.
The Navajo Nation has suffered from disproportionately high violent crime rates in recent years, a problem some say is compounded by the limitations of tribal court, which has caps on the length of sentences.
Begaye’s case will be tried in federal court. If convicted, he faces possible life imprisonment.
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