SHIPROCK, N.M. — The stranger walked with 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike into the hills of a remote area of the Navajo Nation known for its breathtaking views and the monolithic rock outcropping that stands as a beacon for miles.
As the sun faded, the stranger returned alone with a crowbar tucked in his jacket; the girl was nowhere to be seen. Her body was found hours later.
But as he came back, her distraught and scared 9-year-old brother started to run and kept running for more than two miles toward the lights he could see on the highway in the distance until a passer-by scooped him up and took him to police.
“He was so tired and just crying and crying for his sister. It was really hard for the FBI to get any information from him,” said the children’s aunt, Darrell Foster-Joe, as she recounted what the boy eventually told authorities.
The siblings were abducted after being dropped off at a bus stop after school about a quarter-mile from their home May 2. A man in a van offered to take them to watch a movie. The brother and another boy — a relative of the children — said no, but Ashlynne was somehow lured into the van.
Not wanting his sister to go alone, her brother jumped in too.
The abduction sparked a frantic air and ground search. But the immediate search was focused on the opposite side of the highway from where authorities needed to be looking.
On May 3, Ashlynne’s body was found after about 100 people from the community turned out to help look for her.
A 27-year-old man identified as Tom Begaye, of Waterflow, New Mexico, was arrested hours later in connection with the girl’s death and disappearance, FBI spokesman Frank Fisher said.
Shawn Mike, Ashlynne’s cousin and the father of the boy who stayed behind, said he didn’t believe the family knew Begaye. Mike said the man who took Ashlynne and her brother tried twice to get his son to get into the vehicle with the other children.
“My son said he just waved,” Shawn Mike said. “He said the vehicle just sped off, and as it was driving off he just saw Ashlynne waving toward him.”
Heartbroken, the community paused the night of May 3 for a moment of silence. Hundreds of residents packed the Navajo Nation’s San Juan Chapter House, a tiny community hall south of Shiprock, while hundreds more stood outside of the building in support of Ashlynne’s family.
Her father sat silently at the front of the room, listening as the girl’s principal remembered her as a kind child who was a part of the school band, and local leaders offered condolences.
Ashlynne, who played xylophone, had performed just last week, said her cousin Shawn Mike.
“As a dad, you would like to see your daughter grow up and see her have a family of her own one day. And unfortunately, Ashlynne won’t experience any of this,” he told The Associated Press after the vigil.
Residents also gathered for a vigil in nearby Shiprock, the largest town on the Navajo Nation.
Federal authorities remained tightlipped about their investigation, even after Begaye’s arrest. He is expected to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge B. Paul Briones in Farmington on May 4, according to the FBI.
It’s unclear how long it could take for medical investigators to determine the cause of the girl’s death.
Tips flooded in from across the reservation that spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah as well as the San Juan Chapter where Ashlynne lived.
Authorities described the kidnapper as having a teardrop tattoo under his left eye and two earrings. He drove a maroon van with a luggage rack but no hubcaps.
A fifth-grader, Ashlynne attended Ojo Amarillo Elementary School in Fruitland, New Mexico. Her aunt described her as a fun-loving, quiet girl. She sometimes visited Foster-Joe at her home in nearby Hogback to play games with her cousins.
An Amber Alert for Ashlynne was issued around 2:30 a.m. May 3. It wasn’t clear why it took hours for authorities to get word out about the abduction, and FBI Special Agent in Charge Terry Wade declined to answer related questions during a news conference.
The search for the girl included federal, tribal, state and county officers who used all-terrain vehicles and a K-9 unit from Farmington in the search on the ground. A New Mexico State Police helicopter searched by air.
Meanwhile, community members who heard about the abduction via radio and social media congregated to join in the search Moday around 9 p.m. and again May 3, said Graham Binaal, a Shiprock resident who helped spread the word about the search.
“Once someone put it out there that there was this missing child, then the word just spread from there,” he said.
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez joined Navajo President Russell Begaye in the call for prayers for the family.
By Felicia Fonseca and Mary Hudetz. Susan Montoya Bryan contributed to this report from Albuquerque, New Mexico