SHIPROCK, N.M. – On the far side of a desert hilltop in the shadow of the Shiprock Pinnacle, a towering monolith sacred to the Navajo Nation, the stranger ignored the cries of an 11-year-old girl.
Hours had passed since the man had talked the girl and her brother into his van while they were playing about a quarter-mile from their home after school.
She begged to be taken home, but he led her away from her 9-year-old brother, to an even more remote spot, where he removed her clothes and sexually assaulted her. Then he hit her twice in the head with a tire iron and left her for dead before driving off and leaving the boy as well, all alone, as night fell.
Details about the final moments of Ashlynne Mike’s life began to emerge Wednesday from court documents and family members, as the suspect, Tom Begaye, a 27-year-old Navajo man from a neighboring community, appeared before a federal magistrate on murder and kidnapping charges.
A criminal complaint outlined the crime based on statements Begaye made to investigators after his arrest.
Begaye was quiet as he faced the victim’s relatives and other tribal members in court. Outside, they yelled “bastard” and “go to hell” as he was led away.
The crime has sent shockwaves through the small tribal communities that line the San Juan River in New Mexico’s northwest corner. The grief that overwhelmed searchers when they found the girl’s body Tuesday, the morning after she disappeared, has shifted to anger and to disbelief that one of their own could commit such a heinous crime.
Begaye wasn’t well-known in the community but at least one woman, Sher Brown, recognized him as one of the men that regularly joined her brother at sweat lodge ceremonies and church meetings on the Navajo Nation.
It was inside a sweat lodge, where Navajo men traditionally participate in spiritual cleansing, that an FBI agent and tribal investigators found Begaye on Tuesday night. His vehicle was parked outside, matching the boy’s description of a maroon van with no hubcaps. The girl’s brother later identified Begaye as the driver of the van.
“How can a man of that nature who did what he did go into a sweat lodge after?” Brown said through tears.
Begaye was told during Wednesday’s court appearance that he could face life in prison if convicted of the murder charge. The judge said a public defender would be appointed to represent him and that he will remain in federal custody.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled Friday in Albuquerque.
There was no immediate indication of a criminal history — an Associated Press review of state and federal records shows only one previous run-in, a drug possession citation less than three weeks ago.
San Juan County sheriff’s deputies had stopped Begaye at a gas station in Farmington hours before he was arrested Tuesday after spotting a maroon van driven by an American Indian man, but they didn’t detain him because the vehicle and Begaye didn’t completely fit the descriptors, sheriff’s Lt. Kyle Lincoln said. Authorities had said the kidnapper had a teardrop tattoo under his left eye and two earrings, but Begaye had neither.
The case raises questions about law enforcement responses in remote areas of the Navajo Nation. The tribe doesn’t have its own Amber Alert system, so it must rely on outside agencies to spread the word about child abductions.
“If they would have put out an Amber Alert right way I believe they might have saved her life,” said Rick Nez, the president of the Navajo’s San Juan Chapter.
According to the criminal complaint, Ashlynne Mike and her 9-year-old brother were playing Monday with their cousin after being dropped off at their bus stop after school, when Begaye offered them a ride.
Not wanting his sister to go alone, her brother jumped in too. Their cousin refused, as did the victim’s older sister, moments earlier.
Ashlynne was bloodied but still moving when Begaye told investigators he left her hours later. Her brother, also abandoned, tried to find her but gave up as darkness fell. He ran for help, toward some distant lights, and was finally scooped up by a passing motorist who brought him to police.
Word spread quickly. A frantic search ensued, but the dozens of community members who combed the area Monday night came up empty handed.
It wasn’t until 2:30 a.m. Tuesday that officials sent out an Amber Alert. Protocols were followed, but Navajo President Russell Begaye — no relation to the suspect — acknowledged Wednesday that the tribe “needs to implement an effective response system in which modern technology is utilized more effectively.”
Hundreds of residents packed the San Juan Chapter House, a tiny community hall south of Shiprock, while hundreds more stood outside the building Tuesday night, sharing their grief with Ashlynne’s family.
“As a dad, you would like to see your daughter grow up and see her have a family of her own one day. And unfortunately, Ashlynne won’t experience any of this,” said Shawn Mike, Ashlynne’s cousin and the father of the boy who stayed behind.
Makeshift memorials have sprung up around the area in honor of Ashlynne, a fifth-grader who was a part of her school band, and supporters on social media were encouraging each other to wear red as part of a campaign to end violence against indigenous women.
Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Arizona. Susan Montoya Bryan contributed to this report from Albuquerque, N.M.