Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal
FARMINGTON – When Tom Begaye Jr. saw an 11-year-old girl playing in an irrigation ditch with her little brother near their bus stop after school Monday, he decided he had found his target.
“He had the intention of having sexual intercourse with her,” an FBI agent wrote in federal court records.
So he picked up the siblings and drove them to a desolate stretch of desert near the towering Shiprock pinnacle, left his vehicle with Ashlynne, and, ignoring the little girl’s cries, sexually assaulted her and bludgeoned her to death, according to authorities. He then left her brother Ian, 9, to find his own way home.
Begaye, 27, detailed his crimes in a shocking admission to police after he was arrested Tuesday evening, according to a federal criminal complaint charging him with murder and two counts of kidnapping.
He faced those allegations in a tense court hearing Wednesday morning.
Shortly after 10 a.m., Begaye, shackled at his ankles, shuffled into a courtroom in the Farmington Municipal Courthouse for his initial appearance. He was watched by a couple of Ashlynne’s family members, a group of federal agents and other onlookers sitting on folding chairs.
He kept his head down and didn’t look at the crowd.
A prosecutor informed Begaye he is facing between 20 years and life in prison for the charges of murder and kidnapping a minor, and U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Briones ordered he stay in custody until his next hearing, which will be in Albuquerque.
After the hearing, Begaye was escorted out of the courthouse in front of an angry crowd that had gathered across the street.
“Die (expletive),” they yelled as he was ushered into a waiting SUV. “Go to hell!”
Identified by brother
According to details released in the complaint, Begaye pulled up to the children in his maroon minivan and offered to give them a ride.
Ashlynne agreed because she had injured her foot, and Ian followed her into the van.
Begaye then drove them away from town toward the barren Shiprock pinnacle.
“(Ashlynne) was crying and begging to be taken home,” an FBI agent wrote in the complaint.
Begaye parked the minivan and Ian watched him grab a “curved piece of metal” – later discovered to be a tire iron – and lead Ashlynne behind a hill on the desolate area south of the massive Shiprock formation.
Ian never saw her again.
Begaye told investigators he took some of the girl’s clothing off and sexually assaulted her. When she started to cry, he hit her on the head with the tire iron, according to the complaint, and left her for dead.
Ian waited in the car for an hour, and Begaye eventually returned with the tire iron. He ordered Ian out of the car and drove away.
Ian tried to find his sister but couldn’t, according to the complaint. So he walked more than a mile down the dirt road to Navajo Route 13, where a passing driver noticed the small boy walking alone and took him to a local police department.
Authorities then began investigating, and an Amber Alert was issued early the next morning.
Ashlynne’s body was found near that dirt road late Tuesday morning after a massive search was launched by both law enforcement and volunteers.
The abduction case then turned into a murder investigation.
About that time, San Juan County deputies spotted a van matching the description given by Ian. They questioned Begaye, but let him go because they did not have the information they needed from the Navajo Police to detain him.
Authorities later got another break in the case when someone led them to a sweat lodge in the area where Begaye’s red minivan was parked.
Ian Mike identified Begaye as the kidnapper and he was arrested Tuesday evening at the sweat lodge and later admitted to the crimes in detail, according to the complaint.
On Wednesday, federal investigators and Navajo Nation police officers converged on Begaye’s house, a small, white one-story house several miles north of the Shiprock pinnacle to search for further evidence.
The home is on the outskirts of a small cluster of houses down a dirt road south of Highway 64. A pack of dogs roamed the properties looking out over the plains toward the Shiprock pinnacle.
Investigators were seen taking pictures of Begaye’s home, along with pictures of his yard and a wooden hogan – a traditional Navajo dwelling – not far from the main house. A child’s pink tricycle could be seen in the front yard.
A neighbor said Begaye and his brother have lived in the home alone since their parents died a few years ago. The neighbor said he heard them drinking and occasionally would see people come over for ceremonies inside the hogan.
Online court records show Begaye was charged with use or possession of drug paraphernalia, a misdemeanor, and possession of marijuana or synthetic cannabinoids, a petty misdemeanor, just three weeks ago on April 15. The case is pending.
In Fruitland and surrounding towns, including Farmington and Shiprock, memorials in honor of Ashlynne cropped up throughout Wednesday. Everyone was talking about the tragedy.
At Shiprock High School, just a couple of miles from Begaye’s house, two teenagers hung a banner saying “In loving memory of Ashlynne.”
Another memorial was set up at the bus stop where Ashlynne and her brother were abducted, and a teddy bear and flower wreaths adorned a little bridge over the irrigation ditch where she had been playing when investigators said Begaye approached her. Visitors, mourners and well-wishers were seen there throughout the day.
Rashida Jim visited the bus stop with her children and husband. She said she drives her children to school, but if they took the bus they would have gotten off at that stop.
She said when she went to Ojo Amarillo Elementary School, where Ashlynne had attended, to pick up her two sons Wednesday it was clear everyone was feeling her loss.
“It was very somber, quiet and sad,” she said. “There are banners everywhere for her and a memorial on the fence.”
Inside the school, students signed posters in memory of Ashlynne and left flowers in another makeshift memorial for her.
Rick Nez, the San Juan Chapter president, said the whole community is devastated.
“It could have been anyone,” Nez said. “We’re a family down here. We’re devastated, it’s debilitating to know this happened in our community.”
Nez said even the suspect is part of that community.
“My heart goes out to (Ashlynne’s father), the kids’ mother, the kids, and also (Begaye’s) family,” he said. “I’m sure they didn’t realize what their son or brother was capable of.”
Ashlynne’s father, Gary Mike, spoke at a Wednesday evening meeting at the Nenahnezad Chapter House and thanked the nearly 300 people in attendance for their support.
“There are so many people out in the world with hearts,” he said. “This person who took the life of my child had no heart.”