A federal grand jury has indicted a New Mexico man on assault and carjacking charges in connection with the 2021 disappearance of a Native American woman whose case helped raise awareness of missing persons and unsolved murders in Indian Country.
The indictment naming Preston Henry Tolth, 23, was released Tuesday. He is scheduled to appear before a federal magistrate Friday in northern Arizona for a detention hearing and formal arraignment.
Federal prosecutors allege that Tolth assaulted a Navajo woman named Ella Mae Begay, who was 62 at the time, took her pickup truck and drove it across state lines. Velocity not found.
“This indictment is an important first step in determining the truth about what happened to an elderly Navajo Nation victim,” Arizona U.S. Attorney Gary Restaino said in a statement, stressing that the investigation is ongoing.
Begge’s truck was spotted on the morning of June 15, 2021, leaving his home in the remote community of Sweetwater, Navajo Nation, not far from where Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado meet.
The FBI has offered a $5,000 reward “for information leading to the identification, arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the disappearance of Ella Mae Bege.” The FBI said Bege was driving a gray 2005 Ford F-150 with a broken tailgate when he disappeared.
A year after Bege’s disappearance, her niece began walking from the Navajo Nation to Washington, D.C., to bring attention to a decades-long epidemic of violence that disproportionately affected indigenous peoples.
Attorney Darlene Gomez, who is representing Begay’s family, said in a social media post that the indictment marked a bittersweet development for family members. Gomez said the family appreciates the prayers and support from those who have followed Begay’s case and shared his story in hopes of bringing him home.
The investigation into Begay’s disappearance is part of the U.S. Department of Justice’s efforts to solve cases involving missing and murdered Native Americans. Navajo Nation authorities previously identified Toloth as a person of interest in the case.
Luke Mulligan, the federal public defender in Toloth, declined to comment on the case Tuesday.
New Mexico court records show Toloth has a criminal history that includes aggravated battery, resisting arrest, residential burglary and drug possession charges that date back to 2019. He was already in custody pending the outcome of a 2022 case in which he was charged with stealing, court documents show, a man’s wallet while armed with some kind of sharp weapon.
Begg’s family members met with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Holland, who recently joined Justice Department officials in Washington to host the first in-person session of the Invisible Laws Commission. The commission will hold field hearings across the United States this year as it develops recommendations to prevent and respond to violence affecting tribal communities.
There are about 1,500 American Indian and Alaska Native missing persons in the National Crime Information Center database, according to the Interior Department.