U.S. judge orders man held in case of missing Navajo woman
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - The family of a Native American woman who went missing from her home on the Navajo Nation pleaded with the man accused of assaulting her and taking her pickup truck, asking during a court hearing Friday that he tell them where he left Ella Mae Begay so they could bring her home and find closure.
The tearful messages of family members resonated through a courtroom in Flagstaff, Arizona, as they told the judge about what they have endured since Begay disappeared nearly two years ago.
"There’s nothing that’s coming out of this whole situation except all the pain that he’s caused, the anger, the frustration," her son Gerald Begay said. "I mean, this is a mother, an aunt, a grandma, a sister, you know, that doesn’t deserve this type of assault."
A soft-spoken woman who was known as a master weaver, Begay was always cautious and never drove around at night. So her family knew immediately that something was wrong when they saw her gray pickup truck leaving her home in the remote community of Sweetwater, Arizona, that June night in 2021.
Prosecutors outlined the allegations against Preston Henry Tolth, 23, after he entered not guilty pleas to assault and carjacking charges that stemmed from Begay’s disappearance. The indictment naming Tolth had been under seal until earlier this week.
Tolth was ordered to remain in custody pending trial after U.S. Magistrate Judge Camille Bibles determined that he was dangerous and that no conditions of release would guarantee the community’s safety.
"The proffered facts of the case are extremely concerning," the judge said. "They involve senseless acts of extreme violence against a victim who was defenseless."
Luke Mulligan, a federal public defender for Tolth, did not argue with the prosecution’s request that Tolth remain in custody.
Begay was 62 at the time she disappeared. Her case has garnered national attention as tribal leaders, state legislators and law enforcement agencies across the country have been working to establish special commissions and task forces aimed at investigating missing person cases and unsolved slayings in Indian Country.
A year after Begay disappeared, her niece Seraphine Warren began walking from the Navajo Nation to Washington, D.C., to bring attention to the decades-long epidemic of violence that has disproportionately affected Indigenous people.
Begay’s family members also 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 is developing recommendations for preventing and responding to violence affecting tribal communities.
Warren addressed Tolth directly during Friday’s hearing.
"Will you please just tell us where my aunt is? You know exactly what you did to her," Warren said before breaking down in tears.
Federal prosecutors said the indictment naming Tolth marked an important step in determining the truth about what happened to Begay.
They told the judge that Begay’s daughter had called authorities the night of the disappearance to report that someone was breaking into her home. She hid while the suspect rummaged around and took some drinks before leaving and walking down the road in the direction of her mother’s home.
The daughter called police again after they did not respond to the first call and told them that she saw her mother’s truck leaving the home and that she could not reach her. Police arrived about 20 minutes later and the search began.
Navajo Nation authorities previously identified Tolth as a person of interest, and federal prosecutors confirmed Friday that shoe prints found between the two homes matched shoes belonging to Tolth. Investigators also found bloody clothing that belonged to Tolth at a relative’s home.
Authorities said Tolth admitted to taking the truck so he could drive to New Mexico, where ultimately he ended up selling the vehicle for $200 and methamphetamines.
Authorities determined through multiple interviews that Tolth had been drinking that night and got into a fight with his father, resulting in him being left on the side of the road. The spot where he was dropped off was about 11 miles (18 kilometers) from Begay’s home.
Tolth told federal agents during a series of interviews that he "snapped" and struck Begay in the face multiple times, causing her to bleed from the nose and mouth. He told authorities that he wasn’t sure if she was dead when he drove away and that he regretted hitting her since all he wanted was the truck.
Tolth has a criminal history including charges of aggravated battery, resisting arrest, residential burglary and drug possession dating back to 2019, according to New Mexico court records.