SAN JUAN – Mourners filled the San Juan Chapter House on Tuesday evening, standing and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder inside the stucco and stone building to pray for Ashlynne Mike.
Hundreds more spilled out onto the sidewalk and the parking lot, clutching candles and a flier with a picture of the 11-year-old and the words: “An angel we will never forget.”
Inside the chapter house, the crowd cried as they listened to prayers and speeches from community and religious leaders and Ashlynne’s family.
Ashlynne’s siblings sat with her father, Gary Mike, in front of the room, before he addressed the audience.
Mike told the gathered crowd he would tell Ashlynne he loved her every day.
“That morning before this tragedy happened we also said, ‘I love you,’ so I’ll never regret that,” he said. “Keep your children close, watch over them, please, they are God’s gift to you.”
Outside the chapter house the crowd stood mostly quietly, talking among themselves about the tragedy and their grief for the family. Children ran and played through the crowd as parents stood in small circles.
Even those who did not know Ashlynne, or her family, said they were compelled to come and support them in any way they could.
“She was such a young girl, I never would have expected anything like this to happen on the rez,” said Trinity Begay. “Everyone knows each other. We’re all connected in some way.”
Begay said he sees Ashlynne’s death as a wake-up call to the community to talk to their children about strangers and about being safe. His first child is due in August and he said he knows he or she will grow up in a very different world than he did.
“When I grew up we were able to run around and go wherever we please,” he said. “We never thought anything like this would happen.”
Felicia Moreno echoed that thought, saying that when tragedy strikes a child in the community, it hits everyone hard.
“I have a daughter not too many years apart so it hits home,” she said. “As soon as we heard what happened, I shared it with her. It opens her eyes to the reality and seriousness of it.”
Moreno said everyone on the reservation has been talking about the news all day, grieving and sharing memories. She said she’s been walking around in a daze.
“It’s like the world stopped,” Moreno said. “That second you just want to go and get your own kid, hug them and hold them.”
Around 8:30 p.m., the crowd of mourners lit their candles and a pastor led them in a prayer, recited in English and in Navajo.
Then the group blew out the candles and released a couple balloons into the sky, meant to symbolize the release of Ashlynne’s spirit into the heavens.
Following the vigil, a long procession of cars filed down the road away from the Chapter House, passing the street where Ashlynne was abducted.
A large memorial had been erected on the corner, spelling out her nickname “Ash” in cups stuck in a chain link fence. Flowers, teddy bears, and candles adorned the memorial and a group of mourners gathered to sing popular songs and sob in each others arms.
Earlier in the day, state, local and Navajo Nation leaders responded with shock to the news:
- “I can’t imagine the pain and suffering of Ashlynne’s loved ones right now but what I do know is that the heart of all New Mexicans grieve and pray with them. I pray that friends and family may find love, comfort and hope.” – Gov. Susana Martinez
- “We need to make a commitment to teach our children about the dangers of strangers, love each of our children and never let them out of our sight for an extended period of time.” – Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye
- “It is with great sadness and grief we mourn the passing of Ojo Amarillo Elementary student Ashlynne Mike. Our hearts are broken.” – Central Consolidated School District Superintendent Colleen Bowman
- “We never expected anything like this to happen in our small community here. It’s become a wakeup call to all communities and entities, schools especially, where we need to be more aware of kids getting on the bus and off the bus.” – Stanley Wauneka, Chapter Manager at the San Juan Chapter House.