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Man charged in case of woman missing from Navajo Nation

Ella Mae Begay’s case has helped raise awareness about missing and unsolved slayings in Indian Country

Raquel Sam, a member of the Navajo Nation, rides a horse in a downtown parade at the 100th Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial on August 13, 2022
Raquel Sam, a member of the Navajo Nation, rides a horse in a downtown parade at the 100th Gallup Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial on August 13, 2022, in Gallup, New Mexico.MARIO TAMA (AFP)

A federal grand jury has indicted a New Mexico man on assault and carjacking charges in connection with the 2021 disappearance of a Native American woman whose case has helped to raise awareness about missing people and unsolved slayings in Indian Country.

The indictment naming Preston Henry Tolth, 23, was unsealed Tuesday. He is scheduled to appear before a federal magistrate Friday in northern Arizona for a detention hearing and formal arraignment.

Federal prosecutors alleged that Tolth assaulted Ella Mae Begay, a Navajo woman who was 62 at the time, took her pickup truck and drove it across state lines. Begay has not been found.

“This indictment is an important first step in determining the truth about what happened to an elderly victim on the Navajo Nation,” U.S. Attorney Gary Restaino of Arizona said in a statement, stressing that the investigation was ongoing.

Begay’s truck was seen the morning of June 15, 2021, leaving her home in the remote community of Sweetwater on the Navajo Nation, not far from where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado meet.

A year after Begay disappeared, her niece began walking from the Navajo Nation to Washington D.C. to bring attention to a decades-long epidemic of violence that has disproportionately affected Indigenous people.

Attorney Darlene Gomez, who is representing Begay’s family, said in a social media post that the indictment marked a bittersweet development for family members. Gomez said the family appreciates the prayers and support from those who have followed Begay’s case and shared her story in hopes of bringing her home.

The investigation into Begay’s disappearance is part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s efforts to address cases involving missing and slain Native Americans. Navajo Nation authorities had previously identified Tolth as a person of interest in the case.

Luke Mulligan, a federal public defender for Tolth, declined to comment on the case Tuesday.

New Mexico court records show Tolth has a criminal history that includes charges of aggravated battery, resisting arrest, residential burglary and drug possession that date back to 2019. He already was in custody pending the outcome of a 2022 case in which he was accused of stealing a man’s wallet while armed with some kind of sharp weapon, court records show.

Begay’s family members have met with U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who recently joined Justice Department officials in hosting the first in-person session of the Not Invisible Act Commission in Washington. The commission will be holding field hearings across the U.S. this year as it develops recommendations for preventing and responding to violence affecting tribal communities.

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