Girl Abducted

FBI and local law-enforcement officials hold a news conference on the death of the 11-year-old girl Ashlynne Mike on Thursday. A man believed to be a stranger kidnapped Mike from the Navajo Nation, FBI spokesman Frank Fisher said. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times via AP)

State police issued an Amber Alert across New Mexico early Tuesday morning, about 10 hours after an 11-year-old girl and her younger brother reportedly climbed into a stranger’s van and sped off to a remote area of the Navajo Nation.

The boy was freed, but police found Ashlynne Mike dead on a hill near Shiprock Pinnacle. FBI agents arrested 27-year-old Tom Begaye Jr. late Tuesday in connection with her abduction and death. The case has shaken the Navajo Nation, but it also has raised questions about why it took police so long to issue the Amber Alert and whether Ashlynne would still be alive if the alert had gone out sooner.

An Amber Alert is a procedure police use to rapidly publicize the disappearance of a child. Since Ashlynne’s death, many people have criticized state police and the FBI for failing to act faster. But the agencies say there is a protocol officials have to follow before sending out an alert.

“If they would have put out an Amber Alert right away, I believe they might have saved her life,” Rick Nez, president of the Navajo Nation’s San Juan Chapter, told The Associated Press.

Navajo President Russell Begaye — no relation to the suspect — acknowledged Wednesday that the tribe “needs to implement an effective response system in which modern technology is utilized more effectively.”

Frank Fisher, an FBI spokesman, said he couldn’t provide a timeline of the case and said that questions regarding when the Amber Alert was sent out would be answered “down the road.”

“Our focus has been capturing this abductor,” Fisher said.

Jesse Delmar, director of the Navajo Nation’s Division of Public Safety, said Wednesday that tribal police received a report of the missing girl at about 7 p.m. Monday, three hours after she and her brother had disappeared in a red van. Fifteen minutes later, tribal police briefed the FBI, which took over the case, Delmar said.

“We’ve never had a case like this before,” Delmar said. “We depended on the FBI for this case.”

Kyle Lincoln, a spokesman for the nearby San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, said he was speaking with an FBI agent on the phone at 9 p.m. Monday about an unrelated matter when the agent told him about Ashlynne’s disappearance.

At about midnight, Lincoln said, the FBI called, asking him if deputies could assist in the investigation.

Chad Pierce, a state police spokesman, said the FBI told him about the abduction at 1:30 a.m. Tuesday and asked him to send out a statewide alert. Pierce issued the Amber Alert around 2:30 a.m.

New Mexico State Police is the only agency in the state that issues Amber Alerts. Both tribal police and FBI agents had to build a strong case that met certain criteria before they could request an alert, Pierce said, adding that the vetting process prevents the system from becoming a crying wolf scenario.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, before an agency can send out an alert, it has to have evidence that the child has been abducted and that the child is in imminent danger. It also has to make sure it has enough descriptive information about the victim and the abduction, and the child’s name needs to be entered into a federal database.

“No one would ever sit on information that could help save a child,” Pierce said. “We want to get it out as soon as possible.”

Contact Uriel Garcia at 505-986-3062 or ugarcia@sfnewmexican.com.

Correction appended:Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story as well as the version that appeared in print on page A-1 on May 5, 2016, incorrectly quoted Chad Pierce, a state police spokesman, as saying that the vetting process before issuing an Amber Alert prevents the system from becoming a "crying wolf" scenario. Though the sentiment is correct, the phrase "crying wolf" was a paraphrase by the reporter, not a quote by Pierce. The quotation marks have been removed from the phrase in the story.