October 28, 2022

A Navajo-led search and rescue team looks for missing and murdered Indigenous people whose cases have been ignored

Shayla Blatchford/Searchlight New Mexico

Family members walk down a dirt road to search for Pepita Redhair, who went missing in Albuquerque.

MONTEZUMA CREEK, Utah — Bernadine Beyale, a commanding woman with sharp eyes, stands with a hiking pole in one hand and a GoPro camera strapped around her chest. She is on a dirt road on the Navajo Nation near the Arizona border, carrying a backpack filled with water bottles for her and her two German shepherds, a notebook, a two-way radio and two phones. A blanket of reddish sand spreads out in all directions, giving way to cliffs, desert washes and broad mesas.

“The last thing he was wearing was a maroon shirt, gray sweatpants and mismatched flip-flops,” Beyale tells the 20 people gathered around her by  a windmill. “If you come across bones… don’t touch it. Don’t disturb it.”

From Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, a dozen volunteers and three separate families — uncles, aunts, cousins, neighbors — have come together to search for Ryan Tom, yet another Navajo man missing on tribal land.

This story was written by Searchlight New Mexico and is republished here with permission.

This particular morning — the last Sunday in September — marks 104 days since Tom’s family started searching for him. They contacted Navajo Police in June, two days after the 32-year-old man failed to return home in Sweetwater, Arizona, where he lived with his brother and grandparents.  

“We were waiting for him to come home, like maybe he was just somewhere, but this is way too long,” says his aunt, Rosina Brown, a member of the search party. 

“We have watched Bernadine look for missing people, and I never thought we would be looking for our own nephew. I never thought I would be asking Bernadine for help,” Brown says.

Beyale, a search and rescue expert, is being asked for help more and more often these days. For the past four years, she has made it her mission to find missing and murdered Indigenous women and their relatives, a movement shorthanded as MMIWR. Fueled by frustration at the slow response from law enforcement, Beyale has stepped in where few have ventured. 

When she started out, it was “just me, them” — she points to her two dogs — “and the family,” she says. Together, they’ve found the remains of five people, one of whom, Beyale says, had been missing for several months. 

In 2022, she founded 4Corners K-9 Search and Rescue, a nonprofit that searches for disappeared Native men, women and children on tribal and surrounding lands. Today, the team consists of Beyale and seven other women, some certified in search and rescue techniques. Some travel from as far away as Phoenix to conduct day-long searches. Some have their own missing loved ones. All volunteer their time while juggling full-time jobs, school or motherhood.

This year alone, the team has received 36 calls for help, 23 of which led to official search parties. Most of the calls were for missing men. 

Beyale sees herself as part investigator, part grief counselor and part advocate. “I keep telling [law enforcement], I’m wearing all of these hats — where are the rest of you that should be helping these families?”

‘Can you help us?’

The daughter of former Navajo Police officers in Crownpoint, a remote community in McKinley County, Beyale, 42, once thought of becoming a police officer herself. But after witnessing the hardships her parents endured — patrolling hundreds of miles, constrained by a lack of resources and staff — she opted for a college degree in accounting and business.

She lives in Farmington, an oil and gas town just east of the Navajo Nation, which stretches 27,000 square miles across Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. When she’s not working as a supervisor in a coal mine, she’s looking for missing people on the vast tribal lands.

The mother of a senior high school student and a college athlete, she is constantly missing family dinners. “I get a call from a family: ‘We need help. Can you help us?’” Beyale says. “Just like officers and firefighters I’ve missed out on a lot.”

Until 2019, she never thought of herself as an advocate for the MMIWR movement. At the time, she was volunteering with a search and rescue group in New Mexico, helping find lost hikers and climbers — aided by Trigger, her well-trained German shepherd.   

Then an elderly Navajo couple from Shiprock approached her with a different kind of request. They were desperate to find their missing son and they’d heard that Beyale could help track him down with her dog.

“They had been looking for their son for the past four months, and they were not getting help from the Navajo police,” she says. “They did not know what to do, and they were going out doing searches on their own.” 

She agreed to help — and after two searches discovered the son’s remains by a dirt road near Shiprock.

The phone number of the “lady with her dog” quickly started circulating around the reservation.

The MMIWR movement grows

The MMIWR issue was by then gaining national attention, driven by decades of work by community organizers and grieving families. The crisis has been ongoing for years, owing to a justice system plagued by racism, lack of accurate data, limited police staffing, and poor communication between local, state, tribal and federal authorities.

Law enforcement agencies have yet to consolidate a comprehensive tracking system, which means they only have rough and outdated estimates of the number of people missing. But even without reliable numbers, the reports that exist are distressing.

Murder is the third-leading cause of death among American Indian and Alaska Native women — almost three times higher than the rate for non-Hispanic white women, studies show. More than 5,700 Indigenous women and girls were reported missing as of 2016, according to the National Crime Information Center. But only 116 of those cases were lodged with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). The discrepancy occurred even though both entities are divisions within the U.S. Department of Justice.

Here in New Mexico and across the Navajo Nation, at least 192 Indigenous men, women or children are confirmed missing, according to an FBI report in October. Yet that report lacks such key information as the person’s tribal affiliation and the location where they were last seen.

Looking for Ryan Tom

The family of Ryan Tom describes him as sweet, friendly and funny. 

“He is too nice of a guy for anyone to want to harm him,” says Steven Tom, who refuses to talk about his older brother in the past tense. He and the rest of the family still hope to find him alive. 

But the area where Ryan Tom’s brother saw him last — the windmill near the Arizona-Utah border — has become increasingly dangerous. Remote and unpatrolled, it is a perfect spot for drug use and bootlegging, Beyale says. Residents have told her they don’t drive in this area at night, fearing for their safety.   

After the Tom family filed a missing-persons report, Navajo Nation Police officers from Shiprock went to the area and met with them. Two months later, the police reported that the case had been reassigned to someone new.

“The only time we saw an officer out here was the first day,” says Rosina Brown, Tom’s aunt. “I know we are not the only family. There are lots of families that have relatives missing, and I don’t know why they don’t update the families.” 

Daryl Noon, the Navajo Nation’s Chief of Police says the agency is required to update families about their cases every three months to let them know they haven’t been forgotten. He acknowledges that this doesn’t always happen.

“That is one of the most important things that we haven’t been good at, keeping in touch with the families,” Noon says. “For most of the officers, they don’t know what it feels like. I’m trying to get them to put themselves in the shoes of the family and stop treating calls just like calls.”

Noon says he was assured a canine police officer would be present during the search party on behalf of Ryan Tom’s family, and he was surprised to find out that an officer never showed up. He says he intends to investigate what happened.

Turning to Beyale

This latest search represents one of the countless times the Tom family has gone looking for Ryan. They’ve scouted around the Red Mesa Chapter House on ATVs, searched a nearby solar energy plant and looked along County Road 443, which divides Utah and Arizona. Finally, empty-handed, they turned to Bernadine Beyale.

Though her team is all-volunteer, these search parties don’t come cheap. A single search can cost up to $1,000 for food, fuel, medical supplies, printouts and electrolyte drinks. Beyale relies on community donations to cover expenses; searches are always conducted free, she says, for families with missing loved ones. 

Recently, she and her team assisted the Blackfeet Nation in Montana in a search for 3-year-old Arden Pepion. They also helped search for Ella Mae Begay, who disappeared in Sweetwater, Arizona, last April. Begay’s disappearance prompted a 2,400-mile prayer walk by her niece, Seraphine Warren, from Sweetwater to Washington D.C., to raise awareness for missing Indigenous women. Warren reached the nation’s capital this month. 

On Oct. 15, the team helped Anita King look for her daughter, Pepita Redhair, who disappeared in Albuquerque in March 2020. 

New Mexico ranks number one in the country for having the highest number of confirmed missing and murdered cases in urban areas involving Indigenous people, according to a 2018 report by the Seattle-based Urban Indian Health Institute. Albuquerque has the second-highest number of MMIWR cases after Seattle. 

Staying safe in the desert

Back at the windmill, Beyale heads toward a canyon, looking for footprints, clothing, human bones — anything that might hint at Ryan’s presence here three months earlier.

“You see these dips out here?” says Beyale, pointing to a hollow area between sagebrush and sandy terrain. “You need to really check them because you’ll miss something.” 

Previous searches have sharpened Beyale’s attention to detail. Though she doesn’t mention it to the group, she is thinking of the time this August when her dogs found human remains lying in a dip similar to this.

“Trigger, keep checking,” Beyale says as the dog quickens its pace. Search and rescue dogs can pick up a scent from as far away as a mile.

By 11 a.m., the scorching sun lingers over the dunes. It can be deadly here for a person without water. That’s why so much of Beyale’s work consists of educating families — coaching them about how much water they need to drink, the kind of clothing they need to wear and how to stay safe in the desert.

“I do not want them to get hurt. I want them to be able to conduct a safe and successful search on their own if I cannot be there for them,” she says.

In less than an hour, a voice comes over her radio: Bones have been found. 

A member of the team snaps a photo and reads the coordinates aloud. All the details will later be uploaded into a digital map for the families, who can share this information with police if they wish. The only exception is when human remains are found: In those cases, Beyale contacts law enforcement directly. 

Judging by their size, however, these bones belong to an animal. Beyale knows this is always a possibility, but even when searches turn up false positives, the search work is helpful.

“If I don’t find anything out here at least I’m canceling out an area.” 

Still, she says she feels a weight on her shoulders whenever a search fails to turn up anything. While she continues looking for answers, she’s learned that there’s no such thing as “closure” for the families.

“They don’t like that word,” she says. “Because most of the time you won’t find closure.”

Searchlight New Mexico is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.