ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The man accused of kidnapping and killing an 11-year-old Navajo girl pleaded not guilty to murder, sexual abuse and other charges Tuesday in a case that sent shockwaves through the nation's largest American Indian reservation.
Tom Begaye's attorney entered the plea in federal court just over a month after authorities say the 27-year-old abducted fifth-grader Ashlynne Mike and her younger brother as they played along their school bus route near the edge of the Navajo Nation.
An affidavit says Begaye took the children on May 2 to a desolate area south of the towering Shiprock monolith, where he sexually abused and bludgeoned Ashlynne before leaving her to die. The boy — who was freed — ran 2 miles to the nearest highway for help as night fell.
After Begaye's brief court appearance, several women who were relatives of the victim left the courtroom weeping. Shackled at the wrists and ankles, Begaye did not speak during his arraignment, except to acknowledge that he had read a grand jury indictment against him.
The six-count indictment charges him with first-degree murder, aggravated sexual abuse resulting in death, and kidnapping resulting in death. If convicted, the crimes carry a mandatory sentence of life in prison. Another kidnapping charge stemming from the boy's abduction has a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years.
A voicemail requesting comment from James Loonam, Begaye's attorney, was not immediately returned.
Begaye is from the small Navajo Nation town of Waterflow near the unincorporated agricultural community of Lower Fruitland, where Ashlynne lived with her father and siblings, according to the FBI.
Begaye lured Ashlynne and her brother into his van, authorities say. The girl's brother told police that the man took them deep into the desert and then walked off with his sister and a tire iron in hand before returning alone.