Begaye pleads guilty in Ashlynne Mike killing
Defendant changed his plea from not guilty to guilty during hearing
FARMINGTON — Tom Begaye Jr. pleaded guilty to the killing last year of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike and the kidnapping of her 9-year-old brother Ian Mike during a hearing this afternoon in Albuquerque federal court.
Begaye, 28, was arrested on May 4, 2016, on allegations that he kidnapped Ashlynne Mike and her brother from near their Lower Fruitland home and drove them to an area about 6 miles south of the Shiprock pinnacle.
At the pinnacle, Begaye is accused of sexually molesting Ashlynne Mike and bludgeoning her to death with a tire iron, according to court documents.
Ian Mike was released and found several hours later wandering along Navajo Route 13 by a motorist.
Begaye was indicted on May 24, 2016, on six counts, including first-degree murder, kidnapping resulting in death, two counts of aggravated sexual abuse resulting in death and kidnapping of a minor.
Begaye pleaded not guilty to the six charges during a June 7, 2016, hearing and changed his plea to guilty today as part of a plea agreement, according to a U.S. Department of Justice press release.
As part of the plea agreement, Begaye agreed to serve life in prison without the possibility of release.
Ashlynne's father Gary Mike spoke to reporters outside the courthouse following the hearing and said "we" all knew that Begaye was guilty but he finally admitted to it today in court, according to a video of Mike speaking provided to The Daily Times
He spoke about how there were days following Ashlynne's death where he couldn't bring himself to get out of bed or talk to anybody.
"It's been a journey that has sort of been like a roller coaster ride," Mike said. "We have finally come to this point."
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye issued a statement in the DOJ press release, stating the tribe mourned when news of Ashlynne Mike's murder was announced and has been in pain ever since.
"Today, as we learn that her murderer has pleaded guilty to the six charges against him, we have taken one step forward in healing," President Begaye said in press release.
President Begaye is not related to Tom Begaye Jr.
During today's hearing, Begaye told the court he tricked the children into getting into his van by offering them a ride home, according to the press release.
Begaye also told the court he sexually assaulted Ashlynne Mike, then killed her by strangling her and hitting her repeatedly on the head and face with a tire iron.
Gov. Susana Martinez issued a statement following the hearing that said her thoughts and prayers are with Ashlynne's family, and she hopes they have found peace. Martinez attended and spoke at a funeral service held for Ashlynne at the Farmington Civic Center.
"Ashlynne was a beautiful girl with her whole life ahead of her, until a brutal killer took her away from us when she was only 11 years old," Martinez said in her statement. "I hope today’s (Tuesday's) guilty plea brings some degree of peace to Ashlynne’s family, but sadly, nothing will ever undo what was done."
Jesse Delmar, director of the Navajo Nation Division of Public Safety, praised the response by law enforcement personnel in investigating the case in a statement in the DOJ press release.
The possibility of Begaye changing his plea was brought up during a June 12 status conference on the case, according to court documents.
The conversation with the court and attorneys started off with a discussion regarding a psychological evaluation of Begaye conducted at a Federal Bureau of Prisons Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth, Texas.
James Loonam, one of Begaye's attorneys, advised the court that the defense offered to resolve the case without a trial by a possible plea agreement but advised it need extra time to respond.
In a June 28 court order, Chief United States District Judge William Johnson ruled Begaye was competent to stand trial based on a report by Dr. Robert Johnson. Johnson had found Begaye was competent to stand trial with "proper medication," according to the order.
Ashlynne's death has prompted efforts to expand the Amber Alert system to tribal lands.
The Navajo Nation Council's Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee on July 6 voted unanimously in favor of support of the AMBER Alert in Indian Country Act of 2017, a bill passed by the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
It would make tribes eligible for grants from the DOJ to help put Amber Alert systems in place.
“The Navajo Nation is taking every step necessary to strengthen our laws and emergency response communication system," President Begaye said in a press release. "We are furthering the implementation of an Amber Alert System to protect our children from horrendous crimes such as this one."
Begaye remains in federal custody, and a sentencing hearing has not been scheduled.
Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.