The shadow of Ashlynne Mike’s kidnapping, rape and murder on the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico remains.
Tom Begaye Jr., 27 at the time, drove about 45 minutes from his home to the town of Lower Fruitland and watched as children he didn’t even know played after getting off the school bus. He drove his van up to Ashlynne’s older sister, offering her a ride home. She declined and continued walking home, having instructed Ashlynne, 11, and their younger brother, then 9, to walk home, too.
Begaye offered them a ride.
Within hours that May 2016 afternoon, Ashlynne had been raped, strangled and beaten to death near the shadows of Shiprock peak, which is visible from afar and held as a special place in the nearby communities. The brother was released and walked miles searching for his sister and for help before a passing motorist picked him up and the successful manhunt began.
Begaye, now 29, was sentenced in federal court Friday to life without the possibility of release.
That he will die there was a slight consolation to Ashlynne’s mother and father, Pamela Frost and Gary Mike, who spoke at the sentencing and have been vocal about the need to improve the well-being of Navajo and all children.
“My world spun so fast I fell to my knees and cried. … The tears have never stopped flowing since,” Frost said in a heart-wrenching victim statement before U.S. District Judge William P. “Chip” Johnson in Albuquerque.
She said knowing Begaye will “live the rest of his life in a living hell” and won’t be able to hurt any other children and families is a sort of consolation, “but I will never heal, and closure is nowhere in sight.”
Begaye spoke through his attorney, James Loonam.
Begaye, shackled in a red jumpsuit, was taking rapid, shallow breaths during the proceedings. He has become aware of what he did to the girl and any words he could have offered would have fallen short, Loonam told the court.
Emphasizing that Begaye did not want statements he made to be taken as an excuse, Loonam said that when he first met Begay, the man was “disassociative,” suffering from untreated mental illness on top of prominent intellectual disabilities.
Since he’s been treated in custody, he’s now aware of “what he’s done” and agrees to the family and public’s assessment of his “evil” and “monstrous” behavior. He willingly accepted a plea deal and the life sentence.
While not an excuse, Loonman said Begaye was aggressively physically abused as a child, sometimes with a 2 by 4 board to the head “when he did something wrong.”
Loonman said Begaye wants the family and community “to find some peace” and push for a “greater effort to protect all children.”
If there is anything good from the girl’s terrifying death, it’s captured in murals under overpasses and along buildings in her town and across the state.
“Hug your lil’ ones,” one reads.
“Tell your children you love them,” another reads.
While Ashlynne’s death will remind Naniba Neshaki to give an extra hug to her kids, there are other lingering affects from the tragedy.
Kids in her hometown and surrounding communities on the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico are no longer allowed to get off the school bus without someone there to pick them up.
Conversations about stranger danger are hammered in with the brutally real story of what happened Ashlynne.
Neshaki’s first-grade daughter is among those abiding by the new bus safety rules.
“So now, kids can’t get off the school bus anymore, and it’s hard. We both work. But if the bus has her, then at least, you know, someone else doesn’t,” Neshaki said. “You have to change.”
She brought her spouse, three children and a friend from their home near Farmington to Albuquerque for Begaye’s sentencing to support Ashlynne’s family, even through they don’t closely know them.
The family and supporters, many dressed in yellow shirts in honor of the girl, released balloons following the sentencing, while Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye spoke to reporters about what the Navajo government is doing to help change the rate of child abuse and domestic violence.
The nation has moved toward getting a functioning emergency system to send alerts to phones similar to the Amber Alert system.
Neshaki’s spouse Barrett Little said that since Ashlynne’s death, he and others have received alerts to missing children or other emergencies.
And Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty, who also attended the sentencing, said the nearly $17 million necessary for the funding has been secured and the process is awaiting a contractors and consultations to figure out how to get the alerts to reach areas not covered by cell phone service.