GALLUP – Dale West, an experienced investigator with the Navajo Department of Criminal Investigations, broke down in tears on his way to 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike’s funeral May 6, 2016, and could not make it to the Farmington Civic Center where more than 1,600 people gathered to say goodbye to the beloved child.
“Everybody has different reactions when they break down,” said West, who in recent months was promoted to director of the department. “For me, it did not hit me until I was tasked with going to the funeral, and I was on my way there, and I couldn’t do it, and I couldn’t make it. It’s those kinds of challenges that hit you.”
West was the supervisor of criminal investigations in the Shiprock District when Mike was kidnapped and taken to a remote location in the desert where she was raped and brutally murdered. West had been to the crime scene, and was instrumental in processing evidence that led to the capture of Tom Begaye Jr. – who was ultimately found guilty in connection with Mike’s death.
Begaye Jr. was sentenced to life in prison Oct. 20, 2017.
“We’ve had other cases where an individual came by, picked up a girl, and then took her out to the middle of nowhere, but not to that level,” West said. “We have a lot of homicides on the Nation, multiple assaults, especially with domestic violence. You’ll have an individual take a girlfriend or a wife out to the middle of nowhere and assault them. Those kinds of dynamics are fairly similar and, unfortunately, they happen more regularly. But children are not too common.”
For Gilbert Yazzie, a former police officer with the Drug and Gang Enforcement Unit of the Navajo Police Department who was recently promoted to criminal investigator, the breaking point was March 15, 2015, when Navajo Police Officer Alex Yazzie was gunned down and killed while responding to an active shooter call in the Sanostee area.
Gilbert Yazzie said he was among a group of officers with the Navajo Nation Police Department who had been deployed to pursue a suspect who reportedly beat up his mother and wife with a pistol. The suspect, identified as Justin Fowler, led the officers on a high-speed chase to Red Valley, Arizona, where Fowler fired an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, killing Officer Alex Yazzie and wounding officers James Hale and Herbert Frazier.
“It was pretty much the hardest thing that ever hit me in my 18½ years with the Navajo Police,” Gilbert Yazzie said, recalling the shooting, and the moments the officers fell. “That would stay with me forever.”
Frazier was shot in the shin and Hale was shot in the right leg, which had to be amputated. The suspect was also shot and killed. Gilbert Yazzie credited the late police officer, Houston Largo, with saving Hale’s life.
“He was the one who basically saved James Hale after he got shot. He was bleeding. (Houston Largo) had a tourniquet on him. Put the tourniquet on to almost stopping the bleeding. Otherwise, we would have lost James.”
Two years later, Houston Largo was shot and killed while responding to a domestic disturbance call in Casamero Lake. The suspect, Kirby Cleveland, was arrested, charged with murdering Largo and is in custody awaiting trial.
“I responded there as well,” Gilbert Yazzie said.
Cracking down on crimeBoth Gilbert Yazzie and West said they decided to become criminal investigators because they were moved by a desire to get more involved in the investigation and prosecution of crime on the Navajo Nation, where most crimes – 90 percent of the cases – are related to drug or alcohol abuse, and the top cases in terms of volume include aggravated assault and sexual assault, according to West.
“The violations against not just women and children, but where we are seeing the rise is on sexual assaults on men on men,” West said. “So that’s where we are seeing a spike. It’s increasing.”
West could not immediately release statistics on the number of cases investigated by his office because data is kept manually, a challenge the department is trying to overcome with the collaboration of the Division of Public Safety Director Jesse Delmar and Navajo Chief of Police Philip Francisco.
“One of the things that CI is different than patrol, they are on electronic data base where they input in a computer. CI is all paper files,” West said. “We never had the funding to implement a data base. What we are working on, currently, is on a comprehensive computer program that would integrate public safety. So that’s where we are working ... to get everybody on board and that would help our statistical base in tracking a lot of those numbers.”
In March 2016, the Navajo Division of Public Safety reported an average annual criminal statistical data of more than 250,000 offenses, 30,000 arrests, 12,000 DUIs, 250,000 calls for services within the exterior boundaries of the Navajo Nation.
Death overloadsOn top of investigating homicides, the Navajo Department of Criminal Investigations also serve as the Nation’s coroner, which means the staff investigates all deaths, including death of natural causes.
“We are the OMI for the Nation,” West said. “Sometimes people joke we are the grim reaper because we show up at all the death scenes.”
The number of deaths on the Nation ranges from 500-700 a year, with spikes in suicide in certain years such as 2015 and 2016, where at least one of the seven districts reported 20-30 suicides in one year, West said, adding the number of homicides ranges from 30-50 a year.
The task is monumental, considering there are only 27 criminal investigators covering a population of about 300,000 on a landmass as large as West Virginia, or 27,000 square miles. It’s a monumental task, he said, that depends on strong collaborations from partners such as FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
He takes the recent visit of FBI Director Christopher Wray as a testament to that partnership.
“It’s a big deal,” he said. “For a director to take notice and recognize the close working relationships that we have was a very positive thing. A lot of times we have policy-makers in Washington, D.C., because that’s where we get our funding to operate our police department and criminal investigation as well as our department of corrections, through funding from the U.S. Department of the Interior.”
Wray, who made a quick day’s trip to the Navajo Nation in early March along with the heads of the FBI divisions in Phoenix and Albuquerque, Michael DeLeon and Terry Wade, respectively, visited a homicide scene en route from Gallup to Window Rock, where he met with the Navajo leadership, including Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye. West said his department provided Wray and his group with different crime scenes they could visit to get an idea of the remoteness and challenges processing crime.
“We gave them a variety of scenes and from there they picked and chose. And that’s something they didn’t want to disclose, their travel routes,” he said.
West said one of the challenges working with the FBI has always been “their high turnover because the agents are here only for a few years and then they are transferred to another location.”
“So when you bring somebody in from the outside that starts working enforcement and individuals who don’t understand the communities, the tradition, the culture the taboos and the large vast areas that we cover, that can be sometimes a challenge,” he said. “If you have a good FBI agent that comes in, the better working relationship they have with the CI, the better the case goes because the CI is familiar with the relatives and who needs to be talked to, the criminal histories, the family histories, the locations where they need to go.”
West said Navajo criminal investigators are recognized not just as tribal employees but also as a federal nexus of federal employees.
“We are very unique because we not only do tribal enforcement but state enforcement and federal enforcement. You don’t have any other agencies like that within the Nation that have those duties and responsibilities,” said West.