A man has been charged in Arizona with the alleged assault and carjacking of Ella Mae Begay, a Navajo weaver whose 2021 disappearance became a symbol of the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women in the United States.
The charges were unsealed on Tuesday in Arizona federal court against Preston Tolth for causing serious bodily harm to Begay on June 15, 2021, on the Navajo Nation and stealing her gray Ford F-150 pick-up truck, according to court documents.
Last year Begay’s niece Seraphine Warren completed a walk of more than 2,000 miles from the Navajo Nation – which spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah – to Washington DC to raise awareness about her aunt and other missing and murdered Native women.
“We’re getting somewhere, we’re taking that first step to locating my mother,” Gerald Begay, Ella Mae’s 46-year-old son, said in an interview Wednesday. He said the next step was to find his mother after she went missing from her home near Sweetwater, Arizona.
Luke Mulligan, a federal public defender representing Tolth, and U.S. attorney and prosecutor Dimitra Sampson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Indigenous women are murdered at a rate 10 times higher than the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, and homicide is one of the leading causes of death for young Indigenous men.
Families of the missing blame the crisis on jurisdictional chaos or indifference of law enforcement as well as racism and generational trauma rooted in European colonizers’ efforts to eradicate Native peoples.
Tolth faces a formal arraignment and detention hearing on Friday in Flagstaff, according to Begay’s lawyer Darlene Gomez.
In the last five years around a dozen states have established taskforces to bring together tribes, victims’ families, law enforcement and activists to solve crimes.
Special investigators have been appointed at county, state and national levels and the FBI has begun to develop a missing list solely for Native Americans.
Still, FBI data shows the number of entries of missing and murdered Indigenous people remained little changed from 2016 to the most recent data in 2021.