SHIPROCK, N.M. - More than 500 people gathered for a candlelight vigil Tuesday to mourn Ashlynne Mike, an 11-year-old Navajo girl whose abduction and murder in Shiprock, New Mexico shook the Navajo Nation on Monday.
Ashlynne, a vivacious fifth-grader and a budding xylophonist, attended school Monday and rode the bus home with her 9-year-old brother, Ian Mike. The two got off the bus at about 4 p.m. and, while walking along a lonely, two-lane highway in northwestern New Mexico, were approached by a man driving a maroon van.
A cousin who witnessed the abduction said the siblings climbed into the van, lured by the promise of a movie. As the van drove away, Ashlynne waved cheerfully from the window. Twenty hours later, she was dead.
"I cannot express how I feel, the hurt I feel," Ashlynne's father, Gary Mike, said Tuesday. "I will always miss Ashlynne in my heart."
Authorities on Tuesday night arrested a 27-year-old man in connection with the abduction and death. Tom Begaye, of Waterflow, New Mexico, is scheduled to appear before a magistrate judge today, the FBI said in a press release.
News of the arrest came as mourners from across the 27,000-square-mile reservation and surrounding areas attended the vigil, held in Ashlynne's home community of San Juan, located south of Shiprock, New Mexico. Hundreds of people packed into a tiny hall and many more crowded around the exterior of the building, peering in through the windows.
Gary Mike was there with Ashlynne's three surviving siblings, who buried their heads in their arms, shoulders quaking as they sobbed.
"May this tragedy that happened to me never happen to you," Gary told the crowd. "Love your child. Hold them, hug them, appreciate who they are. Keep your children close. Watch over them, please."
The vigil drew officials from local Navajo communities, San Juan County and the state of New Mexico. Abena McNeely, Ashlynne's principal at Ojo Amarillo Elementary School, spoke about the shock of the crime.
"My heart is broken," said McNeely, who said she was particularly close to Ashlynne and her siblings. "I just could not believe this abrupt ending. Just yesterday I saw her and today it's over."
The rapid chain of events has left the entire community reeling, Shawn Mike, an uncle to Ashlynne and father to the boy who witnessed the abduction, said during the vigil. The incident took place on an isolated stretch of highway, in a place presumed to be safe. A handful of students exited the bus and walked home around 4 p.m.
The cousin, who was inconsolable after the incident, reported that the man in the van had approached him first, offering to take him to a movie or drive him home. The boy refused.
"A quarter-mile from where I live, my son was approached by this van," Shawn Mike said. "My son came home and told me, 'Dad, Ian and Ashlynne are in the van.' And my son said, 'Ashlynne was waving at me, Dad.'"
By 7 p.m. Monday, the family had alerted the authorities, and Navajo Police and the FBI were working on the case. At 7:15 p.m. a motorist picked up Ian Mike as he was walking along Navajo Route 13, near the Shiprock pinnacle, 25 miles from his home.
The boy told Shiprock Police that the driver had taken them on a dirt road toward the pinnacle and let Ian out of the van while he proceeded with Ashlynne. The abductor later returned without Ashlynne and told Ian to go home, the boy said. He ran two miles to the highway where he was picked up, near the time the family first contacted the police.
Federal, state, tribal and county law enforcement officers embarked on a search for the girl, and an Amber Alert was issued at 2:27 a.m. Tuesday. Just before noon, Ashlynne's body was found six miles south of the Shiprock pinnacle.
During the vigil, citizens posed questions about why it took so long to issue the Amber Alert. More than seven hours passed between the time the family reported Ashlynne missing and receipt of the alert. The FBI did not immediately respond to questions about the timeline of the investigation.
In a statement released Tuesday night, Navajo President Russell Begaye called on the Navajo Nation and other agencies to strengthen laws and protect children. The Nation does not have an Amber Alert system that works in conjunction with local law enforcement.
"Our Nation has just gone through a tragic event," Begaye said in his statement. "One life taken in this tragic way is one too many. We need to do everything we can to implement a system that will enable members of the Navajo Nation to more readily assist in looking for perpetrators, especially when an abduction has taken place."