Victim's mother believes justice was served in defendant's sentencing

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ALBUQUERQUE — The man who killed 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike and kidnapped her 9-year-old brother Ian Mike last year has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.

A courtroom full of friends and family wearing yellow to honor Ashlynne were present when District Judge William Johnson rendered Tom Begaye Jr.'s sentence this afternoon at the Pete V. Domenici United States Courthouse.

Begaye, 29, of Waterflow, pleaded guilty as part of a plea agreement on Aug. 1 to six charges, including murder, aggravated sexual abuse and kidnapping, stemming from the kidnapping, sexual abuse and murder of Ashlynne.

MORE: Suspect in Navajo girl’s 2016 murder to change plea

Ashlynne and Ian were kidnapped from near their home in Lower Fruitland on May 2, 2016.

Ian was found several hours later walking alongside a highway near the Shiprock pinnacle, and Ashlynne was found dead on May 3, 2016, in an area north of the pinnacle.

Begaye admitted to the crimes as part of his plea agreement, according to a copy of the agreement.

Ashlynne's parents Pamela Foster and Gary Mike spoke outside the doors of the courthouse following the hearing. Foster read a prepared statement, thanking many people, including the first responders who investigated the case and members of the community who helped search for Ashlynne.

"They have made sure that justice has been served," Foster said while thanking the prosecutors on the case.

She also thanked the members of Congress and Navajo lawmakers who are working to help establish Amber Alert systems on tribal land. 

Following Foster's statement, balloons were released in honor of Ashlynne.

During the hearing, both Gary Mike and Foster spoke to the court.

Foster talked about the trauma family members endured as they searched for the children and ultimately discovered Ashlynne had been murdered.

Members of the audience could be heard sniffling as Ashlynne's parents spoke. Many wore yellow T-shirts from the first Ashlynne Mike Memorial Run with an image of the 11-year-old printed on the back.

Employees for the Central Consolidated School District were urged to wear yellow today on a professional development day in honor of Ashlynne, according to a post on the district's Facebook page. The girl was a student at Ojo Amarillo Elementary School in Fruitland.

Also in the courtroom were members of Guardians of the Children, a motorcycle club that helped escort Gary Mike and Foster around and outside the courthouse. The nonprofit organization provides education on bullying and child abuse, and provides support for families involved in child abuse cases.

 

Farmington resident Kenneth Kellywood rode to the hearing with his wife Priscilla with the club. They rode from Farmington to the courthouse along with 15 to 18 other motorcycle riders. Kellywood said one person drove from Flagstaff, Ariz., to join the ride.

James Loonam, Begaye's federal public defender, told the court his client did not want to speak during the hearing, but he gave a brief statement on Begaye's behalf. Loonam said Begaye realized the extent of his crimes as he received mental health treatment while incarcerated and that he deserves the sentence of life in prison with no release.

Begaye hopes Ashlynne's family and the community find peace now, Loonam said.

Following the hearing, Gary Mike questioned how Begaye could murder and sexually assault his daughter.

"How can any sane person do what he did to my child?" he said.

He added he was grateful that Begaye had admitted to the crimes so everyone can have closure.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye and Jesse Delmar, executive director of the Navajo Nation Division of Public Safety, attended the hearing. Tom Begaye is not related to President Begaye.

President Begaye said he attended the hearing because he wanted to see justice served, stating no child should die the way Ashlynne did.

He said he was a little surprised Tom Begaye was given a sentence of life in prison instead of the death penalty.

The state of New Mexico does not have capital punishment. But the circumstances of Ashlynne's murder caused it to fall under the 1885 federal Major Crimes Act, which provides for the use of the death penalty in some instances. Essentially, tribes are allowed to "opt in" for use of the death penalty in regard to some crimes committed by one member of a tribe against another. The Navajo Nation traditionally has not exercised that option.

Tribal Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates previously told The Associated Press that Navajo leaders had decided to maintain the tribe's stance against using the death penalty, as the tribe has objected in the past to sentencing defendants to death for cultural reasons.

President Begaye said he believed Johnson would have given Tom Begaye the death penalty if it had been an option. He said as Navajo Nation president, his position was the death penalty should have been an option.

Tom Begaye's plea agreement paperwork stated the prosecution and defense both recommended the sentence of life in prison without the possibility of release.

Joshua Kellogg covers crime, courts and social issues for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627

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