NAVAJO NATION - There's a nationwide crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women, and in this report, FOX 10 will turn its focus to northeastern Arizona.
In the town of Sweetwater, loved ones of a missing Navajo woman continue to search for answers nearly five months after her disappearance.
62-year-old Ella Mae Begay was last seen at her home on June 15, and now investigators say she's the victim of a homicide.
Family members remember Ella Mae
For Seraphine Warren, she could rely on her aunt for as far back as she can remember.
Ella Mae stayed safe in her Sweetwater home doing during much of the COVID-19 pandemic, doing what she loved.
"She's reserved, she's cautious, she's a master rug weaver," Warren said. Creating and designing her hand-woven rugs, illustrating the farmlands of her people.
The phrase "bless our home" was weaved into most of the tapestries as words of protection. But Ella Mae wasn't protected during the early hours of June 15 as she disappeared overnight.
Warren lives in Utah and says she received calls from family members immediately.
"I didn't really feel it was concerning because, like I said, she was cautious. She knew her surroundings and at the time she went missing, was really out of character for her because it was 2:30 in the morning."
The woman who rarely left home – now vanished.
Navajo police announced the disappearance and asked the public to look out for Ella Mae's silver 2005 ford F-150.
Days into the investigation, police provided an update on social media.
"As you are aware we have made a transition from a missing persons investigation into a foul play investigation," said Cpt. Leonard Redhorse with Navajo Police.
Authorities now investigating Ella Mae's murder
Ella Mae's disappearance is now classified as a homicide. At the same time, a person of interest was identified just days into the search. Preston Tolth would be arrested on unrelated charges and held for questioning in connection to Ella Mae's case, but he's since been released and no other arrests have been made.
Her niece is left with unanswered questions. "We weren't getting any answers from law enforcement, they left us for a whole month and we were walking in circles. We're just searching areas that we assumed that she might be," Warren said.
Despite Navajo Police and the FBI's search efforts, Warren has consistently made the trip from Utah to Sweetwater to organize her own searches for her aunt.
She met with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez during her 150-mile walk to shine a light on the nationwide issue of missing and murdered indigenous women. Her memory of Ella Mae's love keeps her going.
"Knowing that that's what she felt towards us motivates me to find her to make sure she comes home," Warren said.
FOX 10 asked Navajo Police to discuss the case but a spokesperson hasn't responded for an official interview.
Advocates weigh in on missing indigenous women
The National Crime Information Center reports nearly 5,300 records were filed for missing indigenous females in 2020. A large majority of that number makes up children and teenagers.
Advocates for missing or murdered indigenous women believe cases are vastly underreported due to jurisdictional complexities between federal, state, and tribal law enforcement agencies.
In the meantime, Warren continues to use her voice for her aunt Ella Mae Begay.
"I know that she wants people that did this to her to be found and to be held accountable for what they did," Warren said.
In April 2021, the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior announced the launch of the Missing and Murdered Unit, known as MMU within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services.
The goal is to use federal government resources to investigate these specific cases.
Anyone with tips on Ella Mae's case should call the Navajo Police Department Shiprock District.
Navajo Department of Public Safety
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