When 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike and her 9-year-old brother stepped into a stranger’s van after being dropped off by a school bus Monday, they likely believed they were heading to see a movie.
The stranger, it seems, had a more sinister plan.
According to authorities, he abducted the children, and in a crime that shocked the entire Navajo Nation and surrounding communities, killed Ashlynne, leaving her body along a desolate dirt road that cuts through the desert near the towering rock monument outside the town of Shiprock.
Late Tuesday, the FBI arrested 27-year-old Tom Begaye of Waterflow, N.M., in connection with Ashlynne’s abduction and death – putting an end to a massive manhunt and easing fears that rippled through the community regarding all children’s safety.
FBI spokesman Frank Fisher wouldn’t say why authorities believe Begaye is connected to the crime. He has a court hearing scheduled for today.
Cheers erupted among hundreds at a vigil being held Tuesday evening for Ashlynne when word of his arrest was announced. Many said the abduction hit close to home.
A friend of Ashlynne’s brother Ian Mike avoided being abducted by the suspect.
That boy’s father, Shawn Mike, said his son was asked to join the children in the stranger’s van Monday afternoon but declined. The boy said he saw Ashlynne inside the van smiling as she waved goodbye.
“You would not believe how thankful I am,” Shawn Mike said Tuesday holding back tears. “Thank God that he had the wisdom to just say no. I held him so close last night.”
Ashlynne’s neighbor Nicole Manuelito said she saw the girl playing with some other children at the bus stop Monday afternoon. She said she honked and the kids waved at her. The next time she passed by the bus stop she said Ashlynne’s bag was lying on the ground but she was gone.
Manuelito said a man she believes was the suspect came to her house around 4 p.m. and talked briefly to her 13-year-old son and her uncle. She said her uncle asked him his name but he wouldn’t answer. Then she said the man drove off in his maroon van.
As the small community of Fruitland began to process the tragedy Tuesday, authorities launched a massive search for the suspect who was last seen driving a maroon minivan with sliding doors, a luggage rack on top and no hubcaps on the vehicle’s wheels.
The man was described as a light-skinned Native American man in his 20s or 30s with short, dark hair, a teardrop tattoo under his left eye and pierced ears. Authorities later announced the search was over after the arrest of Begaye.
Ashlynne and Ian Mike were on a school bus from Ojo Amarillo elementary school that dropped them off at their regular stop in Lower Fruitland Monday afternoon, according to Shawn Mike.
Shawn Mike’s son got off at the next stop and went for a bike ride, which is when the maroon van pulled up to him. The male driver asked Shawn Mike’s son if he wanted to go to the movies with them, and when the boy said no, tried to give him a ride home. The boy still refused and the driver left, with Ashlynne smiling and waving out the window.
What happened next is unclear.
Family members say Ian Mike either escaped or was released somewhere near Red Valley just across the state line Monday evening. A passing driver spotted Ian Mike and took him to the Shiprock Police Department, according to authorities.
He told his family members the abductor took Ashlynne to the Shiprock pinnacle and took her over a hill, then came back with her jacket.
Hundreds of volunteers
Volunteers tried to look for her Monday night, but their efforts were called off by law enforcement officers, who continued to comb the area. On Tuesday morning, hundreds of volunteers showed up to look for Ashlynne.
One of those searchers was Graham Beyale, 26, who was driving back to the Four Corners area from the Gathering of the Nations in Albuquerque when he heard his friend’s girlfriend’s sister was missing.
He said he immediately wanted to help because the abduction hit close to home.
“In Navajo culture there’s this concept of kinship,” Beyale said. “I didn’t know her personally, but the drive I had to help try and find her would basically be the same drive I would have with my own little sister.”
He said a group of searchers on ATVs found the girl’s body around noon.
“It was really difficult. The picture they put out looks like how my younger sister looked when she was younger,” he said. “It was really tough.”
Shawn Mike said the children were living with their father, Gary, who loves them deeply.
“I just can’t imagine what the individual said or did to lure them into the vehicle,” Shawn Mike said. “I know Gary, he’s a good father and taught his kids well and really cares and loves his kids.”
He spoke with Gary on Monday night and Tuesday morning before Ashlynne’s body was found and he seemed very hopeful. After searchers found the body, he was wrecked.
“He was in no condition to talk. He was freaking out, very emotional, who wouldn’t be,” Shawn Mike said.
Shawn Mike said the crime is a wakeup call for the community.
“I think it’s really important to remind our children everywhere not to talk to strangers,” he said. “And most importantly to tell them that we love them.”
In response to the abduction, the Central Consolidated School District announced Tuesday it wouldn’t drop children off at a bus stop without a parent there. If a parent wasn’t there, the children would be taken back to the school, said CCSD spokesman James Preminger.
He said that would remain in effect at least until the suspect was caught. It’s unclear if that will continue after Begaye’s arrest.
Superintendent Dr. Colleen Bowman issued a statement Tuesday saying students and staff members at Ashlynne’s school are devastated by her death.
“Our hearts are broken. Our students are family,” Bowman said. “Counselors from all of our Kirtland schools were at Ojo Amarillo Elementary Tuesday to speak with the students and staff about her passing.”
Bowman asked that students and the community stay strong when dealing with the tragedy.
“I also ask our parents and staff to tell their children how much they love them,” Bowman said. “It is important to honor Ashlynne’s memory and for our students, parents, community members, and staff to continue to move forward with their lives.”
‘Tears are falling’
Stanley Wauneka, Chapter Manager for the San Juan Chapter House, said everyone is shocked over the crime.
“We never expected anything like this to happen in our small community here,” Wauneka said. “This morning when we heard the Amber Alert we were just praying and hoping we would find her. But we never thought we would find her dead somewhere.”
It’s unclear why the Amber Alert wasn’t sent out sooner. The abduction happened around 4 p.m. and the alert didn’t go out until around 2:30 a.m. the next morning.
Shawn Mike said he spoke with young Ian Mike Tuesday morning.
“I told him God was with him and that’s how he managed to get free, and to just keep praying for his sister,” he said. “I can’t believe how anyone would be so cruel.”
The girl’s family took to Facebook to express their grief.
“Tears are falling,” the girl’s mom posted soon after the child’s body was found. “Mommy loves and misses you my sweet little angel.”
Later in the day, she posted again. “Mommy will never stop loving you… sending hugs to heaven.”
Journal staff writer Elise Kaplan contributed to this report