'Everything's at a standstill': A Navajo woman goes missing and her family wants answers
Gerald Begay talked to his mother, Ella Mae Begay, three days before she disappeared from Tòłikan (Sweetwater), in northeastern Arizona. It was a Saturday evening in June and they were talking about an upcoming visit this summer.
Begay lives in Denver, where he's been for 25 years, and he often travels back to Sweetwater to see his family. He wanted to bring his daughters this summer, as well as his niece and nephew, whom he has custody of, to visit his mom.
"She was asking for them," he said. They talked for about 45 minutes on that June day and he didn't notice anything out of the ordinary or strange after they spoke. "She sounded happy and excited."
He hadn't seen his mom in over a year and a half. When COVID-19 hit he and the kids didn't take their yearly trip back home, which is why she was excited for them to come out.
Ella Mae Begay was reported missing to the Navajo Nation Police Department on June 15. Ella Mae, 62, is 5 feet, 1 inch tall, has a slender build with brown eyes, and weighs around 110 to 120 pounds.
Her 2005 Silver F-150 Ford truck, Arizona license plate AFE7101, was seen leaving her residence in the early morning hours of June 15. No one could say what she was wearing at the time of her disappearance.
Begay was at work in Denver when he heard that his mom had disappeared. He said it instantly formed a pit in his stomach and he couldn't focus on work after that.
"One of those calls that you don't want to get," he said.
He remembered another time he received this sort of call. It was 20 years ago when his dad was killed in Sweetwater.
"That was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life," Begay said. "This time around, you know, I felt the same way. I'm like, here we go again."
Begay reached out to family in Sweetwater to figure out what was going on. Once he confirmed that they were looking for his mom, he got in his car and started the nine-hour drive back to the Navajo Nation.
Ella Mae's case is one of 61 active missing person cases on the Navajo Nation, according to Navajo Nation Chief of Police Phillip Francisco, cases that date back to the 1970s.
Indigenous people going missing has been an issue for centuries, but over the last 10 years, it has gained more attention, especially cases involving Indigenous women.
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Many of those cases involve violence. Some 46% of all Native American women have experienced rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner, according to the Department of Justice. One in three will, at some point in their life, experience the violence and trauma of rape.
The violence often results in death. In some tribal communities, Native American women face murder rates that are more than 10 times the national average, according to the Department of Justice.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2017 that homicide was the fourth-leading cause of death among Native American women between the ages of 1 and 19 years and the sixth-leading cause of death for ages 20 to 44.
And then there are the cases that remain unsolved.
Not someone who'd leave at night
Gerald Begay's mom lives by herself in a rural part of Sweetwater. Her home is about 10 miles off the main highway but surrounded by other houses nearby. Her daughter lives about 50 yards from her mother.
Ella Mae installed solar panels for her house about 6 months ago, finally gaining access to electricity. Begay said she was happy to have lights rather than just a lamp and oil, as well as a running refrigerator.
Begay said his mother is well known in the area because she's an accomplished weaver. She's known for her pictorial style of traditional rug weaving. He said her work has been featured in various places, and when someone sees her rug, it's recognizable.
"People love her work," he added.
Begay said she was known to stay home as much as possible, especially when COVID-19 hit the Navajo Nation.
"My mom is never the type to just leave in the middle of the night," Begay said. "That's where I believe that she was taken."
Begay arrived in Sweetwater on June 16 around 2 p.m., and as soon as he got there, he started gathering information and went out searching with his family.
"They had a search team out there already," Begay said. The Navajo Nation Police Department had started looking earlier that morning.
"They were there for the first week," Begay said of law enforcement. "A lot of the recruits and searchers really didn't know a whole lot about the area."
It was a very busy first week, Begay said, and he went out every day with his family to search. The Sweetwater area is desert terrain, a rural area, but the family is familiar with the roads along the mesas and backroads.
"We grew up there, so we know the dirt roads, the back roads, all the shortcuts, the fastest way out, and everything else," he said.
It's remote, which makes it easy to miss something, Begay said, especially if you're just driving along the main dirt roads. His teams were out there on foot.
"Every day we were walking two to three hours at a time," he said.
Begay met the investigators in charge of his mother's case, but when he got there, he started talking to family members and others who were last in contact with his mom. He started piecing together what might have happened.
A 'person of interest' surfaces
A missing or endangered persons alert about Ella Mae was posted on the Navajo Police Department Facebook page at 4:35 p.m on June 15.
Police released additional information about her, along with the vehicle description, and where she was last seen. All information was supposed to be reported to the Navajo Police Department Shiprock District.
"We responded to the initial call," Francisco said. Police then assembled resources to start a search.
The first search was conducted on June 16. Francisco said they searched in the most probable locations in the area, completing about four large-scale searches.
Francisco said his police officers also pulled information from cell phone pings, looked through surveillance video and interviewed people.
"We had a lot of dedication, not only from us, from our partner agencies," Francisco said. "We brought the police recruits out on three different occasions from the academy to help with grid searches."
Ella Mae has not been found in any of the searches.
Between June 16 and June 25, the Navajo Police Department posted updates about the case on their Facebook page.
On June 17, the department said they had identified a person of interest connected to the case.
The man may have been in the area the morning of Ella Mae's disappearance, police said. Preston Tolth is a resident of Thoreau, New Mexico, and on the afternoon of June 17, he was found and arrested there.
“Preston Tolth was arrested on Navajo Nation charges for an unrelated battery on a family member and was held at the Crownpoint Department of Corrections,” NPD spokesperson Christina Tsosie said in a news release.
The Navajo Police Department said Tolth had some outstanding warrants with the Farmington Police Department and was extradited with the approval of the Navajo Nation.
Tolth was booked into the San Juan County Adult Detention Center in Farmington, New Mexico, on the evening of June 18, according to records. He was held on a misdemeanor charge.
No further updates have been provided on Tolth.
On June 25, the Navajo Police Department posted its latest update. The case had been reclassified as a homicide investigation on June 20.
By the end of week one, Franciso said investigators involved in the case decided it was going to be an open homicide case.
"We had enough information to lead us to believe that at that point that it was no longer going to be just a missing person," he added.
When the case was shifted to homicide, the investigation was taken over by the FBI and the Navajo Department of Criminal Investigation. The Navajo Police Department has no authority over the case.
"Unfortunately, right now for the Navajo Police Department, we don't have any other good leads that we can help with the investigation," Francisco said, adding that the department would still assist as needed.
"If there's some lead that they develop or the family develops, we're actively talking to the family taking those. And if it's something that we feel is valid and that will help locate her, will dedicate more resources," Francisco added.
"The FBI continues to assist the Navajo Police Department and other agencies to find Ella Mae Begay," said FBI Public Affairs Specialist Brooke Brennan in an email to The Arizona Republic. "We encourage anyone who may have information to contact law enforcement."
The Republic reached out several more times to the FBI Phoenix office for more information, but no response was provided.
Navajo police released a lengthy statement Monday addressing the concerns voiced by the family and community about Ella Mae's case.
"We are aware of statements and comments expressed regarding the case, in particular, to the lack of information to the family and public and we want to reemphasize, the release of information has been limited due to the sole purpose of protecting the integrity of this active homicide investigation," the statement said in part. "Ensuring accountability and justice to be served for Ella Mae Begay and her family is, and remains, our top priority."
'Trying to find an answer'
Even after all the law enforcement efforts, Begay and his family are still frustrated with the lack of progress on the case. It's been over a month and neither Ella Mae Begay nor her truck have been found.
"It's just another case to them," Begay said. "It seems like this is going to go cold."
Begay said is frustrated and tired of how few updates he receives on his mom's case, but the family is trying to stay positive and hopeful.
He feels that law enforcement should've been able to find something within the first week, but nothing new has been reported in the case.
"I'm pissed off about it. It shouldn't be like this," he said. "All they keep telling me is they're working on this investigation and people are working on it."
Begay said the family was never told when law enforcement agencies changed Ella Mae Begay's case from a missing person case to a homicide investigation. Instead, they had to read about the updates on social media or in the newspaper.
"We're trying to find just an answer," Begay said.
It's already been a month since his mom went missing. The family is not thinking about the worst-case scenario, but they need something to keep them going.
"Everything's at a standstill," he added. "This is all in their hands."
Begay said he had to return to Denver the first weekend of July for his kids and work.
"I got so exhausted," Begay said, and he was hoping something would have broken in the case while he was still there searching.
He tries to keep in touch with investigators and his family in Sweetwater for updates.
"I understand the family's frustration," Francisco said. "There's no closure yet. We want closure also."
Francisco said it is an active and open investigation, so while it seems like they're not providing information, it is very sensitive.
"It can really compromise the case if we give out details of what's going on," he added. "On our side, we did a lot of investigation, and all the leads that we were given and that we had ended up being dead ends."
Family continues search
The family in Sweetwater continued their search for as long as they could. Their last big push was the second weekend of July after they received a tip that Ella Mae's truck was spotted in the Montezuma Creek and Aneth, Utah, area.
Begay's cousin, Seraphine Warren, has been helping on the ground in Sweetwater since Ella Mae disappeared. She's been working alongside him, and when he returned to Denver, she became his main point of contact and organized the searches.
Warren said a lot of the searches with law enforcement agencies have been confusing because officials never provided any guidance.
"It kind of was like just doing whatever we need to do. Go out there to look for her without looking for evidence or anything," she said. "There was no communication between us."
On July 10, as temperatures neared 100 degrees, volunteers stood next to the truck, soaked their hats in cold water, filled their water bags and grabbed their walking sticks before they headed out to start searching.
The team was walking alongside Highway 41 in the Montezuma Creek and Aneth, Utah, area. The terrain along the highway was sandy and full of sticker weeds, but navigating their way through tough terrain has become a routine for Warren and her family.
Warren and other volunteers were disappointed that they didn't have any help from law enforcement agencies. They were searching along the highway, which can be dangerous with passing cars.
"They should be out here with us, at least one officer," a volunteer said. "What if we run into something?"
Some cars would honk in support, others wouldn't even slow down as they zoomed past, but the volunteers continued their search.
"We don't want to find her body," Warren said. "We don't want to find her out here."
They've been searching every day for the last month. Warren says their recent lead led them to the Montezuma Creek and Aneth area. She was at work when she heard about her aunt's disappearance, and she immediately wanted to come back to Sweetwater and search for her.
She took time off of work and created a Facebook page to provide updates about what was going on and share information about their searches.
Warren said she started crying because she knows that a lot of Indigenous people go missing, and they are someone's loved ones, but she didn't want to be part of that statistic.
Because this happens a lot in Indigenous communities, Warren said she wishes family and loved ones had somewhere to turn that could better prepare them to handle the situation. Advice about dealing with police, searching and following leads would have made it easier for the family to process information.
"Our beliefs really got tested here," she said.
The Navajo Nation does not have victim advocate resources, Francisco said, but when the case becomes federal, the family is connected with a victim's advocate from the FBI.
Warren said they were connected to one, but it still hasn't been easy. Warren said one person who has really been an advocate for their family is Navajo Council Delegate Charlaine Tso. Tso represents the chapters in Mexican Water, Tòłikan, Teec Nos Pos, Aneth and Red Mesa.
"I know that a lot of our constituents have put their jobs and lives on the line, some were even terminated from their positions," Tso said in the search for Ella Mae Begay. "I know that we're fully dedicated to finding Ella Mae."
Tso has been on some of the searches, and she said they faced challenges from the beginning.
"A lot of search teams have devoted their time and lives to this but don't have the necessary resources," she said.
One of the biggest obstacles is the weather. Temperatures have been at the 100-degree mark for several weeks and that affects the work.
"My heart has been broken with the family," Tso said. "We're still hanging on to hope. We're still hoping that our communities will be her strength."
Tso knows that the case rests with the authorities, but she is hopeful for their success.
"You don't know who it may happen to," Tso said. "Always look out for one another."
Warren said an agent from the FBI contacted her on Monday, July 12, and requested that the family stop searching while authorities conduct their investigation.
The agent told her that instead of focusing on searching, she should focus on the families. She didn't catch the agent's name before their phone call ended, but she was upset about the request to stop.
"We are lost again on what we should do," Warren said. "We definitely don't want to sit back and it becomes an unsolved case and goes cold."
Warren, like her cousin Gerald Begay, lives off the Navajo Nation. She has a home near Salt Lake City with her kids, and when her aunt went missing she took time off work to search for her. She's been out in Sweetwater for a month now, but she's not ready to leave.
"I really don't know how to sleep knowing we're told to stop and I'm not sure if I'll ever make it home knowing she's still out there," she said. "I really would rather stay around here and risk losing my job to make sure the FBI are gonna hold someone accountable for what happens."
"They have to find my aunt," she added.
Ella Mae's house is locked up, and they don't let anyone inside besides investigators. Whenever she goes back to the house, Warren said she doesn't feel like her aunt's gone. She feels she'll come back.
"We need closure because (someone) probably knows something and we're not asking for much," she said. "We don't know what we're doing and we need something to go off of."
Warren announced on the Facebook page that the family is going to halt searches for now and let the FBI handle the investigation, but if they don't get updates, they'll go back out again.
To raise more awareness about her aunt's case, Warren said she planned to do a walk from Sweetwater to Window Rock starting Monday, July 19. She wants people to know that they're not giving up.
She's walking with a larger missing poster of her aunt taped on her chest. She'll provide updates on their Facebook page, Trailing Ella Mae.
The family is offering a $10,000 reward for any information or tips that successfully lead to the finding of Ella Mae or her return.
Anyone with information should contact the Navajo Police Department at (505) 368-1350 or (505) 368-1351. Donations are being accepted through a GoFundMe page.
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