A federal grand jury has indicted a New Mexico man on assault and carjacking charges related to the 2021 disappearance of Ella Mae Begay, a Native American woman whose case brought attention to missing and murdered Native American people, prosecutors said.
Preston Henry Tolth, 23, was indicted on March 14 on charges of assault resulting in serious bodily injury and carjacking resulting in serious bodily injury in the missing persons case of Ms. Begay, a lawyer for her family and the office of the U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona announced after the indictment was unsealed on Tuesday.
Ms. Begay, a Navajo professional rug weaver, was 62 years old when she disappeared from her residence in Sweetwater, Ariz. She has not been found.
“This indictment is an important first step in determining the truth about what happened to an elderly victim on the Navajo Nation,” Gary Restaino, the U.S. attorney, said in a statement, adding that an investigation was ongoing.
According to prosecutors, on or about June 15, 2021, Mr. Tolth assaulted the victim and caused “seriously bodily injury to her.”
Mr. Tolth then took Ms. Begay’s Ford pickup truck and drove it across state lines to New Mexico “with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury to the victim,” according to the indictment.
Ms. Begay’s family reported her missing from her residence in the Navajo Nation on June 15, 2021. The F.BI. said the truck was a gray or silver 2005 Ford F-150 and had a broken tailgate.
“It was believed that the truck may have been driven toward Thoreau, New Mexico, and may have proceeded in the direction of Albuquerque, New Mexico,” according to the F.B.I.
The agency offered a $5,000 reward for “information leading to the identification, arrest, and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the disappearance.”
Darlene Gomez, a lawyer for Ms. Begay’s family, said on social media that Mr. Tolth’s indictment was “a bittersweet moment.” She thanked people who supported and prayed for Ms. Begay and her family.
Luke Mulligan, a public defender for Mr. Tolth, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the indictment.
The F.B.I. handles investigations of “serious crimes” on hundreds of reservations in the United States, including the Navajo Nation, and shares responsibility with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, according to the agency. The investigation into Ms. Begay’s disappearance was part of the federal government’s efforts to address an ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Native Americans, especially Native American women.
In 2021, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the creation of a Missing and Murdered Unit within the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services “to coordinate interagency collaboration and strengthen existing law enforcement resources” involving cases of missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives.
According to the Interior Department, there were about 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Native missing people included in the National Crime Information Center database as of April 2021.
A year after Ms. Begay went missing, her niece Seraphine Warren walked to Washington, D.C., from Sweetwater, Ariz., to spread awareness about missing Native American people, including Ms. Begay.
If convicted of assault resulting in serious bodily injury, Mr. Tolth faces a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. A conviction for carjacking resulting in serious bodily injury carries a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Ms. Gomez said that Mr. Tolth was scheduled to appear before a federal magistrate for a detention hearing and formal arraignment on Friday.