ABOUT THIS SERIES: "A Crisis Ignored" focuses on missing and murdered Indigenous women and the grassroots movement to draw attention to disproportionate levels of violence against them. USA TODAY Network reporters in nearly a dozen states worked for more than a year to examine the factors that contribute to the crisis and how laws enacted in many states and at the federal level have largely failed to address it.
Tribal Officer Karletta Tso-Tapahonso arrived for her shift at the Navajo Nation police station to find a woman crying outside the weathered converted post office in the Shiprock, New Mexico, district of the reservation. The pandemic prevented her from going inside, so she’d been waiting in the parking lot in jeans and a T-shirt beneath a blazing July sun.
Tso-Tapahonso approached the woman, who haltingly explained she needed help finding two of her three children, just 3 months and 16 months old. “She was visibly upset … distraught,” Tso-Tapahonso recalled. The mother wasn’t making much sense.
Then she shared a series of texts from the children's father.
In rapid order, the texts revealed how he had taken them from their home in Aneth, Utah, about 45 miles northwest of Shiprock, an area known for its agriculture and split by the San Juan River. Heavily intoxicated and “not in his right mind,” in Tso-Tapahonso’s view, the father had threatened to kill himself along with the children using a recently purchased handgun.
Tso-Tapahonso, 43, and with more than 20 years at the department, tried to calm the woman before she hurried into the station. It was 4 p.m.; two hours had already passed since the mother had last heard from her baby boy and toddling girl. The more time they lost, Tso-Tapahonso knew, the harder the search would be, and the harsher the conditions would become in the desert.
Because shifts were changing, extra supervisors were at the station, along with officials from the emergency management department, which runs 911 and other vital communications. At 4:21 p.m., an Amber Alert went out for the endangered children and the dad. An all-points bulletin for the father’s beaten, two-tone brown-and-white pickup also was issued.
The fact that an Amber Alert had gone out was borne of a tragedy five years earlier – and, for many Indigenous people, an unforgivable lapse in tribal, state and federal planning and response. The level of communication and coordination available this time among agencies in and surrounding the reservation would be instrumental in ensuring the young siblings – whose family is not being named by the USA TODAY Network to protect the children’s identities – were not added to the statistics that document an epidemic affecting Indigenous people across the country.
A dearth of federal data means nobody knows how many missing or murdered Indigenous women there are. The data for missing or murdered Native children is just as scarce, if not more so. Advanced communication and coordination taken for granted in much of the U.S. have been slow to be taken up in Indian Country, where policing is notoriously understaffed and underfunded.
Tribal police lacked the capacity to issue an Amber Alert when 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike disappeared six years ago while heading home from school on the Navajo Reservation. It would take about 10½ hours before police issued the public alert motorists now commonly see on highway signs or cellphone texts. It would be another nine hours before her parents learned her fate.
It was a different matter July 8, 2021. Within minutes of Tso-Tapahonso briefing supervisors, police and agents worked the phones, dug into the father’s history, fired up social media and sent out pictures, pleading for the public’s help.
Tso-Tapahonso’s thoughts turned to her own three children often that day. Though they are mostly grown, she called to check on them during spare moments. Her heart went out to the distraught mother.
"I was very concerned about the welfare of the children, especially after seeing the kind of messages that she had received,” she recalled. “Me being a mother, I know how I would feel about my own children if they were going through something like that.”
The feeling, she knows, is all too familiar among Indigenous communities.
A mother shares the story of her search for her daughter
Hank Farr and Rion Sanders, USA TODAY
The tragedy of Ashlynne Mike
Pamela Foster was home in Redlands, California, when her phone rang on the afternoon of May 2, 2016. She’d left the reservation to heed tribal leaders’ call to get educated and bring help to her people by going to school and working as a medical assistant. She answered the phone, and just like that, her hopes for the future were upended.
Two of her children, 11-year-old Ashlynne and 9-year-old Ian, hadn’t returned from school that Monday. The siblings, along with their 12-year-old sister, Gracelynne, attended an elementary school in Ojo Amarillo, about 16 miles from Shiprock and a few miles from their father’s home in Lower Fruitland.
Only Gracelynne made it home. And she was worried. While walking alone, a red van had pulled up to her, and the driver had asked her to climb inside. Gracelynne had refused, but now she wondered if Ashlynne and Ian – who had stopped to play in an irrigation canal near their house – had gotten into the van.
Foster immediately dialed the Navajo police in Shiprock, begging for something to be done to locate her two youngest. She hurried to get ready for the 700-mile drive to New Mexico to do whatever she could to help – unaware that her haste would prove unnecessary.
The Navajo Nation had no 911 system at the time, she learned. No Amber Alert. No cross-jurisdiction agreements between tribal police and the surrounding off-reservation agencies.
“And there were no roadway digital signs – nowhere they could just boom up an alert so people could be notified,” Foster recalled in an interview with the USA TODAY Network. “And the cell service at that time; in the Navajo Nation, there’s a lot of remote areas where there’s no cell service. So even if you had a cellphone there, we didn’t have the ability, and law enforcement didn’t have the ability, to even send anything out on text messages.”
She took to Facebook. Her first post went out at 7:01 p.m. At least three hours had already slipped away.
Feeling that the police weren’t taking her call seriously, Foster begged others to call as well. Gary Mike, the children’s father, who’d been at work, went to the police station and filed a missing person report. It was 6:53 p.m.
About a half hour later, passing motorists found Ian, crying hard as he ran along a remote road in the desert several miles from the family's home. “My sister’s out there,” he told them. “My sister’s still out there.”
While Foster was speeding east through the Arizona desert toward New Mexico, Facebook started lighting up with pleas from friends and family for help – along with tips about where a red van had been spotted. She stopped to make calls and social media posts to press for more news.
Mike took what information they had to the police. He asked them to bring up a map so he could pinpoint the location. But the technology was new. As Foster tells it, her ex-husband used the police computer to bring up the map, display the coordinates and print out the information for officers.
“Because it's on a reservation, they don't have street signs and road signs, so everything's kind of like ‘a mile past this dirt road, make a turn at this tire or something like that,’” Foster said. “So it is mostly by descriptions how you get around.”
Around 8 p.m., a cousin went to the police station in Farmington, New Mexico, to enlist their aid in the search. But tribal police from the reservation still hadn’t reached out to neighboring jurisdictions or asked state police to authorize an Amber Alert.
It wasn’t until 2:30 a.m. May 3 that the New Mexico State Police issued an Amber Alert for the missing girl, 4-feet-8, last seen wearing jeans and a pink pullover.
FBI agents, police and sheriff’s deputies from throughout the region scoured the area. At around 11:30 a.m., Foster was still driving when she “got that call that no parent ever wants to hear.”
Ashlynne had been found. The 11-year-old had been sexually assaulted, strangled and beaten to death with a tire iron. Tom Begaye, a 27-year-old newcomer to the area and member of the tribe, pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping in August 2017 and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release. Now 33, he is locked away at a federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana.
Indian Country overlooked in Amber Alert rollout
The Amber Alert system has been credited with locating and saving the lives of at least 1,100 children since it began in Texas in 1996 after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old riding her bike in Arlington, was kidnapped and found four days later, naked and slain in a creek. The system spread slowly to other states, often only after another high-profile case of a slain child.
But no one – not lawmakers, federal emergency agencies or their state counterparts – thought to include tribal lands in the planning for rolling out the alert systems. It took 10 years before the Navajo Nation Division of Public Safety received a $330,000 federal grant as part of a federal pilot program to connect tribes to the Amber Alert system.
That was 10 years before Ashlynne disappeared. According to a civil suit filed by her father against the Navajo tribe alleging wrongful death and negligence, about half the money was spent on megaphones, portable electric heaters and pop-up tents. The rest – nearly $180,000 – was sent back to the federal government.
In 2011, the tribal public safety department received another federal grant for $357,000, this one covering a five-year period, the suit states. But the project was never completed and was not in place when Ashlynne disappeared five years later, the suit alleges.
Ashlynne’s murder changed everything.
The tribal public safety department issued a statement the day Ashlynne’s body was found, deflecting blame and saying “everything was handled according to the protocols and procedures.” But the tight-knit community was enraged, setting off infighting among Navajo leaders. Some officials said Ashlynne’s murder amounted to a colossal failure by tribal police.
The Navajo Nation president’s office issued a statement saying that the tribe would research and fund whatever was necessary to prevent another such tragedy on their land.
"There should be no delay when using technology to report the abduction of our people," said then-President Russell Begaye (no relation to the convicted killer). "We have perpetrators out here who take advantage of our children and this is totally unacceptable."
The loss of her daughter awoke a stranger in Foster. The once-quiet homebody transformed into a defiant crusader to see Amber Alert in, or accessible to, every tribal land in the country. She’s traveled the U.S., making the trip from California to Washington, D.C., at least a dozen times to advocate for more resources for tribal police departments.
“With the kidnapping of my children and horrific murder of my daughter, I felt a great injustice,” Foster told the House Oversight Committee during her last trip in March. “My daughter’s death may have been prevented if there was an Amber Alert in place at the time. … (I) vowed to make a difference in Indian Country … (and with) the many crimes that happen to our Indigenous people on and off Indian Country – kidnapping, sexual assaults, child abuse, violence against women and girls.”
She elaborated on her frustration with how tribal lands have been ignored in an interview with the USA TODAY Network. “We are just as much Americans as the rest of you, and, even though we’re put on reservations, we need you to acknowledge us still as American citizens and know that we are part of the country just as much as you. … We’re equal, we don’t want to be left out. Don’t overlook us.”
Of the 574 federally recognized tribes, few, if any, have what the Navajo Nation does: a standalone Amber Alert system. About 400, however, now have access to Amber Alerts on their reservations through coordination with local, state and federal authorities, said Jim Walters, who was the program coordinator for the Amber Alert Training & Technical Assistance Program before retiring.
The Navajo Nation’s success means its leaders now work with the federal Department of Justice on sovereignty and jurisdiction issues with other tribes to get a network up and running on their lands, Walters said.
Foster’s lobbying, he said, helped lead to the passage of the 2018 Ashlynne Mike Amber Alert in Indian Country Act, making tribal lands permanently eligible for assistance with the program.
“It would not have happened had it not been for Pamela Foster,” Walters told the USA TODAY Network. “I can say that unequivocally because I was there the whole way through. I watched her, and I watched how she worked with lawmakers and how she was received.”
Tribal police still face staffing issues
Navajo Police Capt. Leonard Redhorse III was a young officer with the tribal police when Ashlynne was killed. He did not work on the case but shared in the community’s anguish.
“The most sacred person within Navajo culture is our young,” Redhorse said. “They hold the same venerated level as our elderly.”
A lot has changed in the past six years, including issuing a half-dozen Amber Alerts that all ended with the return of the children. And almost immediately the department got a police chief – something it had been without for nearly 10 years. Phillip Francisco took the helm, with Daryl Noon serving as his deputy chief. Francisco resigned at the close of 2021 and is now police chief in Bloomfield, New Mexico. Noon took over, continuing the many reforms Francisco initiated following Ashlynne's murder, according to department spokeswoman Christina Tsosie.
The following year, for example, the department began increasing officer and recruit pay to be competitive with local, county and state agencies. The department also tightened relations with outside agencies by cross-commissioning officers in surrounding jurisdictions so that they can make arrests on tribal lands.
Filling senior positions including commanders in various districts on the reservation helped stabilize department leadership. And after being shuttered for about a decade, the Navajo Police Training Academy reopened to aid with recruiting. Navajo police cover 27,000 square miles in parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. A recent assessment shows the 200-member department needs upward of 500 officers to meet the needs of Navajo Nation’s more than 150,000 residents.
Such staffing issues remain a problem on most reservations, officials say. On Montana’s Crow Reservation, for example, five tribal police officers patrol an area of nearly 3,600 square miles – bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.
“Anywhere else in the country outside of Indian Country, you make a phone call to police, you get a five to 10-minute response,” said Frank White Clay, chairman of the Crow Nation. “In Indian Country, it’s five to 10 hours. Or weeks.”
Redhorse said the changes have put his department in a better position to make a lasting difference. “I believe that the leadership team in place is critical … to ensure that we create a condition of trust, reliability and responsiveness,” he said. “Because ultimately, we as a law enforcement entity cannot perform our responsibilities if the community does not trust us.”
Even with new leadership, a history of distrust between members of the tribe and the tribal authorities who police them doesn’t make it any easier to solve cases that may not even be reported.
“There is still trust to be won,” Walters said of the tribal relations – internally and with outsiders. “A lot of promises have been made over the years,” and many tribes are used to those promises not being kept, he said. “You have to make sure that people trust you in this regard.”
The staffing issues mean even when tribal members aren’t pushing Navajo police away, they’re pleading for a presence to cap crime on the vast reservation, Redhorse said.
“We have a public who says, ‘Where are you now, police department? Where are you?’ It’s just, right now, we don’t have the personnel, the resources, to meet the insistence of our community that we be more involved in the day-to-day responses.”
Yet Redhorse is a firm believer in the role of tribal police on reservations, calling his department part of a Navajo push to alter the characterization of Indian Country – and one Walters said is among the highest-regarded in the U.S.
“We share cultural affinities that are unique,” Redhorse said. “What this means is, when tragedy strikes such as missing children, the officers really draw on their personal experience to push them to find the best avenues to create a positive outcome. We're a very homogeneous community.”
‘We can become self-reliant’
The fast action by Tso-Tapahonso and her supervisors started to pay off in the evening of July 8 as tips started to come in from the alerts. Sightings of the father who’d threatened to kill himself and his two babies were reported near the family’s hometown of Aneth — but also some 60 miles to the northeast in the quiet canyon town of Delores, Colorado.
Police and emergency services began contacting outside jurisdictions, including the FBI, and pinging the father’s cellphone. He was on the move, driving northeast toward the areas of Cortez and Delores. Even as police closed in on the location, nerves were on edge.
“It can go from positive to negative very quickly,” Redhorse said. “All situations of this nature are dynamic.”
Precious moments ticked by. There still had been no word on the children, their health or whether the dad even had baby materials with him. About two hours into the search, authorities caught a break: The truck had stopped, and a sheriff’s deputy from Montezuma County had spotted a man with two children fleeing from the area.
Authorities knew they were on to the father. Yet the challenge remained of how to apprehend him before he could act on any of his threats. The children’s mother was brought to Cortez, Tso-Tapahonso said, in hopes that she could be reunited with the children, who then wouldn’t have to be turned over to state protective services. She waited in a hotel with police and social workers from a nearby medical center.
Tso-Tapahonso was among nearly 10 Shiprock officers who drove up and joined the search. Because the Colorado towns weren’t a part of the reservation, the tribal officers – in a first for Navajo – were deputized on the spot in Montezuma County to continue working the case.
Nearing 7 p.m., a sheriff’s deputy spotted the brown-and-white pickup in Delores, abandoned at a gas pump outside the Skyline Food and Gas Mart, which had closed. The search spread into surrounding neighborhoods of trailer parks and homes. Authorities took turns until about midnight flying drones over the area in hopes of spotting the man and the children.
The best lead came at about 2 a.m. when the owner of a travel trailer dialed the county police to report that a man had been pounding on his door, demanding to be let inside. The camper’s owner warned he would shoot and kill the intruder to protect himself, and the man fled into the darkness before authorities could swarm the area.
Around 2:30 a.m., 10 hours into the search, officers found the older child, the girl, who toddled along a gravel and grass road toward them after her father released her.
“He couldn't carry the one anymore,” Tso-Tapahonso said. “I think she just got too heavy for him.”
Officers grabbed the younger boy from the father’s arms.
Police found Budweiser and Bud Light cans scattered about the cabin of the father’s F-250 Ford pickup. “There was a case in the vehicle,” Tso-Tapahonso said. “Children’s supplies were strewn throughout. … Car seats and the diaper bag, and milk, the powdered milk was spilled over. It just looked like he was trying to deal with the children and care for them at the time while he was intoxicated.”
Ammunition was found. But no gun. Not in the truck, and not on him. The father was charged tribally with endangering the welfare of a minor and threatening a family member, and by the county with child abuse and reckless endangerment, said Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin. It is unclear what became of the tribal charges, according to Tso-Tapahonso and Redhorse. Navajo Nation’s judicial branch did not respond to repeated requests for court records on the case.
The father was jailed in Montezuma County until December, by which time his charges had been dismissed, Nowlin said. He has since been arrested on DUI and drug charges in various jurisdictions, according to Nowlin and court records from Utah.
Coming five years after Ashlynne Mike’s murder, Redhorse said important lessons were learned from this missing child case.
“One lesson we learned is we can become self-reliant; we are self-reliant,” the police captain said. “And we need to build upon that … confidence.”
The night the children were found, Tso-Tapahonso held the youngest before both were reunited with their mother.
“It was just a lot of stress and hoping for the best but knowing there’s a possibility of the worst,” she recalled of the day. “It could always go to the negative, but this time it didn't. … I went home. I was able to go and see my daughter and know that she was taken care of.”
Contributing: Derek Catron, USA TODAY; Nora Mabie, USA TODAY Network
Eric Ferkenhoff is a regional criminal justice reporter for the USA TODAY Network based in Kansas City. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ericferk. Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for the Farmington (N.M.) Daily Times. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @nsmithdt.