Police say Ashlynne Mike bludgeoned, left to die
Tom Begaye has been charged with murder and two counts of kidnapping in connection to the abduction and death of Ashlynne Mike
LOWER FRUITLAND — Residents of this small rural community on Wednesday tried to come to grips with the brutal murder of an 11-year-old Navajo girl after her body was discovered near the Shiprock pinnacle the day before.
Tom Begaye Jr., 27, of Waterflow, appeared in federal court Wednesday morning to face charges that he kidnapped and murdered Ashlynne Mike. The U.S. Department of Justice released a criminal complaint alleging that Begaye admitted in a statement to police he sexually molested Ashlynne on Monday before bludgeoning her with a tire iron and leaving her, still moving, to die in the desert.
Several rutted roads tangle together in Lower Fruitland where Ashlynne was abducted. Mothers waited Wednesday afternoon at a bus stop next to a small rusted bridge decorated with purple-and-pink balloons and flowers, placed to honor Ashlynne.
A mother, who declined to provide her name, said Ashlynne would play on the bridge after school, waiting for her siblings.
"We are still shocked," she said about the murder. "Something like that doesn't happen here. That happens in a big city, but not here."
A larger memorial to the life of the 11-year-old Ojo Amarillo Elementary School student greeted motorists near mile marker 13 on Navajo Route 36.
Smeenie Eriacho, 37, and Nicole Wilson, 22, tearfully tied a small yellow sign on a fence using a red ribbon.
"We love you Ashlynne and Mike Family," the sign read. "R.I.P. Angel."
The women said they did not know Ashlynne personally, but her death saddened them.
"She was just a sweet little baby," Eriacho said. "It broke our hearts."
Begaye is accused of abducting Ashlynne and her brother, Ian, while they were playing Monday afternoon.
Federal prosecutors identify Ian Mike as "John Doe" and Ashlynne Mike as "Jane Doe 1" in the criminal complaint released Wednesday morning.
Prosecutors state that the brother and sister were playing in an irrigation canal when they were approached by a man in a red van, who offered them a ride.
The boy later told police neither of the siblings knew the man, but they accepted a ride because Ashlynne had hurt her foot while playing. The man drove the siblings toward the Shiprock pinnacle and steered the vehicle down a remote dirt road south of Navajo Route 13.
The boy told police the man then took Ashlynne and walked toward a hill armed with "a curved piece of metal," the complaint states. The man returned a short while later, ordered Ian out of the vehicle and fled, the complaint states.
Police said Tuesday Ian was found by a motorist Monday night walking on Navajo Route 13 near the Shiprock pinnacle.
The boy told police he last saw his sister in an area near the pinnacle and an Amber Alert was issued for Ashlynne at about 2:30 a.m Tuesday. Her body was found by family members at 11 a.m. that day near a dirt road six miles south of the pinnacle.
Detective Lt. Kyle Lincoln of the San Juan County Sheriff's Office said Wednesday that sheriff's deputies stopped Begaye's vehicle, a maroon-colored van, Tuesday morning on East Broadway Avenue.
He said deputies obtained permission from Begaye to search the vehicle, but they did not find anything suspicious. Lincoln said deputies suspected Begaye, but without evidence they could not detain him.
"They knew something wasn't right, but there wasn't enough to be pushy," Lincoln said.
Meanwhile, an unidentified tipster told a Navajo criminal investigator Tuesday that a maroon-colored van, matching the description of the one used in the abduction, was parked outside a sweat lodge near Shiprock.
The criminal investigator spoke to Begaye at the sweat lodge and took photos of the man, who Ian later used to identified Begaye as the kidnapper.
Begaye was arrested and admitted to kidnapping the two children and bludgeoning Ashlynne with a tire iron near the Shiprock pinnacle, according to the complaint. He said he stripped the girl naked while she was "crying and begging to be taken home," the complaint states.
Begaye told police he penetrated Ashlynne with his fingers before hitting her twice in the head with the tire iron. He told police Ashlynne was moving when he left her naked and bleeding in the desert.
Begaye was led into the courtroom at the Farmington Municipal Court Wednesday morning in an orange jumpsuit, leg shackles and handcuffs. Federal Magistrate Judge Paul Briones acknowledged the emotional nature of the case and asked people in attendance to refrain from outbursts within the courtroom.
Outside the courtroom it was a different story. A small crowd of community members shouted curses at Begaye when he was led out of the courtroom after the hearing.
"Hope you go to hell," a bystander yelled.
Briones formally read the charges — murder and two counts of kidnapping — to Begaye at the hearing. Begaye told the judge he could not afford an attorney, and the judge said he would be provided one.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kyle Nayback said in a telephone appearance in court that Begaye faces life in prison for murder and 20 years to life for kidnapping.
Nayback asked the judge to hold Begaye without bond pending detention and preliminary hearings scheduled for Friday.
Briones accepted the request.
U.S. Department of Justice spokeswoman Elizabeth Martinez clarified after the hearing that although Begaye is charged with two counts of kidnapping, he will not be sentenced twice for the offense, if he is convicted. She said both counts were tied to the kidnapping of Ashlynne.
San Juan Chapter President Rick Nez said Wednesday morning that he attended the hearing on behalf of Ashlynne's family members, who were too distraught to attend.
"I want to know the face of the killer," he said. "I probably see it every day."
However, Nez said he did not personally know Begaye.
Begaye was previously cited April 15 for possession of drug paraphernalia and marijuana after he was stopped at a DWI checkpoint by Farmington police, according to court records. He was driving a red Dodge van when he was stopped, records state.
Begaye is identified as the son of Agnes Begaye in the mother's June 2014 obituary, which was published in The Daily Times. Agnes Begaye was preceded in death by her husband, Thomas Begaye Sr., the obituary states. She was survived by sons Shawn Begaye and Tom Begaye Jr.
Agnes Begaye was a resident of Shiprock most her life and was an active member of the Native American Church, according to the obituary. She was a teacher at several schools on the reservation, the obituary states.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye issued a statement Tuesday night regarding Tom Begaye's arrest.
In his statement, Begaye stood behind the Amber Alert system in Navajo Nation. Questions emerged in the wake of Ashlynne's abduction and death about why the alert, which was sent out Tuesday morning, was not issued earlier since the girl had been abducted Monday afternoon. He praised Navajo nation, county, state and federal law enforcement for their efforts locating Ashlynne and arresting a suspect.
“Our Nation has just gone through a tragic event," Begaye said in his statement. "I am pleased to know that both Navajo and outside law enforcement were able to work together and share information. This led to the arrest of an individual who is believed to have caused a horrendous crime on one of our Navajo children."
He also said there needs to be a system in place to help the community search for perpetrators.
"One life taken in this tragic way is one too many," Begaye said in his statement. "We need to do everything we can to implement a system that will enable members of the Navajo Nation to more readily assist in looking for perpetrators, especially when an abduction has taken place."
President Begaye is not related to the suspect, according to Michele Crank, a spokeswoman with the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President.
Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644.
Reporter Hannah Grover contributed to this story.