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A New Mexico man pleaded not guilty Friday in the 2021 disappearance of an elderly woman on the Navajo Nation.
Arizona Public Radio’s Ryan Heinsius reports, Ella Mae Begay’s case has brought national attention to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous people.
At his arraignment in Flagstaff, 23-year-old Preston Henry Tolth pleaded not guilty to assault and carjacking charges.
Begay’s friends and family attended the hearing urging that Tolth remain in custody.
Seraphine Warren is Begay’s niece.
“He’s where he’s at, his hands are shackled, he’s helpless, maybe just like my aunt was. We’re going to fight with this and him to get the right answers. My aunt really did not deserve this at all.”
She spoke at the hearing along with Begay’s son, Gerald Begay.
Warren brought attention to her aunt and other cases of missing and murdered Indigenous people last summer as she walked from the Navajo Nation to Washington D.C.
Begay is still missing and prosecutors hope to uncover the truth about her disappearance.
They say Tolth assaulted the then-62-year-old woman in the community of Sweetwater, Ariz. near Four Corners, and then took her pickup truck, which he allegedly traded for methamphetamine and 200 dollars in Albuquerque, N.M.
A U.S. magistrate ordered Tolth to remain in custody pending trial.
He was already in custody on a separate charge and has an extensive criminal history.
A federal trial is scheduled to begin next month in Phoenix and, if convicted, Tolth faces decades in prison.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins Center for Indigenous Health are surveying water quality and access on tribal lands.
KUNC’s Emma VandenEinde joined them on a survey day to see how it works.
Taishiana Tsosie and Kimberly Belone head out on winding dirt roads, following a random list of homes.
To find one driveway, Tsosie and Belone have to count the roads they pass.
TSOSIE AND BELONE: “So this would be seven, eight, eight, right? No, this isn’t it. This isn’t it. No, it is.”
While other surveys did not count hogans and trailers, this one uses satellite imagery to map all homes in the Fort Defiance section of the reservation.
But without good addresses or Wifi on the Navajo Nation, it can be difficult to find.
TSOSIE: “It is. That hogan was there. Okay. Yeah.”
At each home, residents are asked if they want to be interviewed anonymously. The survey has questions about where they get their water, the water’s quality and potential solutions.
They plan to survey more than 1,000 homes, and 100 will be selected for water testing. But the interviews can be a rollercoaster of emotions. Belone recalled one with an old man who was struggling to haul water.
BELONE: “He was just like, ‘I’m not going to have anybody to do this. So that might be the end of us if I can’t haul water anymore.’ It’s just like, Oh my gosh.”
Plus, many barriers stand in the way for tribal communities.
Heather Himmelberger is with the Southwest Environmental Finance Center.
She studied tribal water systems in Rio Grande pueblos And found that old and faulty pipes and other infrastructure were their main concern.
“You have these very expensive infrastructure projects with very few people who can pay for them. So you can imagine that that becomes problematic over time.”
Her 2022 study also found that many water systems were not aware that dozens of grants existed for their projects.
Some did not even receive the full amount of requested funding.
“What part gets done? What part doesn’t get done? And then how does that affect that community for a longer time frame?”
Despite this, Belone believes the Johns Hopkins’ survey is what the community needs.
“Many of them are really, really grateful. They’re like, Thank you. Nobody has asked me these questions. Thank you for being the one to actually start something.”
This story was supported by The Water Desk, an initiative from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Environmental Journalism.
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