ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – More than a year after a Native American girl was killed and her tribe was criticized for not having an alert system in place when children go missing, the Navajo Nation has signed a contract to purchase the software it needed to get the notification system running by the end of this month.
The tribe, whose reservation is the largest in the U.S. and spans three western states, came under fierce criticism in 2016 after 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike was reported missing. She never made it home from her school bus stop and was found dead the next day, killed by a stranger who sexually assaulted her and struck her twice in the head with a crowbar.
An Amber Alert that would have sent information about her via cellphone messages and information to the media did not go out until the day she was found. The case raised questions about gaps in communication and coordination between tribal and local law enforcement.
Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye said Wednesday that the new notification system will help make life safer on the vast reservation.
“We always pray that we will never have another abduction, but we need this in place so that the whole nation can be alert and help make sure that a child is recovered safely and quickly,” he said in a statement.
The tribe has relied on New Mexico, Arizona and Utah to activate Amber Alerts. Before an alert is issued, officers must go through a list of requirements to establish a case. If they meet the criteria, they can start the process of asking the states to issue an Amber Alert.
That procedure was used during Ashlynne’s abduction. Ashlynne’s father, Gary Mike, has sued the tribe, claiming it failed to send the alert about his daughter in a timely manner.
Prosecutors have said Ashlynne and her younger brother were lured into a van after the pair got off the bus and started walking home. The boy was left in the desert and later found his way to a highway, where he was picked up and authorities were notified.
The man convicted of the crime – Tom Begaye, no relation to Russell Begaye – was sentenced in October to life in prison.
After the abduction, Navajo officials began working on getting federal approvals and training for an alert system. It then took several months to acquire funding to purchase the software.
Once the new system is installed, it will be managed by the Navajo Department of Emergency Management.
The tribe will be able to push alerts over radio, television and text messaging to 11 counties within the reservation’s borders.
Ashlynne’s case drew the attention of elected officials, including U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who sponsored legislation to expand the Amber Alert system in Native American communities across the nation.
McCain has called the case devastating, saying that FBI data shows more than 7,500 Native American children have been listed as missing in the U.S.
The measure is pending in the House after getting Senate approval two weeks ago. It has the bipartisan support of lawmakers from Montana, New Mexico and North Dakota.
“This is part of a broader effort raise awareness and bring better systems of justice to Indian Country and to give law enforcement agencies at all levels the tools they need to prevent crime and bring criminals to justice,” said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, a Democrat from North Dakota and a co-sponsor of the bill.