Arrest made for missing Navajo Nation woman highlights progress in similar cases

A man charged with assaulting and carjacking Ella Mae Begay in Arizona was not only arrested this week but will remain behind bars until trial.
Published: Apr. 7, 2023 at 7:53 PM MST
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FLAGSTAFF, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) - A major break in the case of a missing Navajo Nation woman that’s gained national attention- a man charged with assaulting and carjacking Ella Mae Begay in Arizona was not only arrested this week but will remain behind bars until trial. Twenty-three-year-old Preston Tolth’s arraignment hearing revealed details about what may have happened to Begay, though she is still missing.

This arrest has a bigger meaning than just this case. This is huge for how hard native families have fought for years to get the same attention other missing women cases get from law enforcement and also the media.

Friday was bittersweet for Ella Mae Begay’s family; it was a guarantee the suspect will stay detained, but the realization of a heartbreaking reality. “My hope is someday Ella Mae’s name will be the same as Gabby Petito,” said attorney Darlene Gomez.

As the national spotlight focused on the 2021 disappearance of Gabby Petito, another woman’s disappearance was unfolding at the same time, but in the shadows: Ella Mae Begay, on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. “I think by always saying her name and keeping her in the spotlight, that kind of puts pressure on law enforcement to do something,” said Gomez.

Gomez is an attorney who’s been working pro bono for the Begay family to try and keep the 62-year-old’s case at the forefront, and now, it’s paid off. This week, the U.S. Attorney’s office announced that Tolth was indicted in March for assaulting Ella Mae Begay and carjacking her truck in June of 2021, at her own home, with the intent to cause death or serious bodily harm to her. Begay’s son reacted to that news just days ago. “To lose someone to this act of violence, it’s worse. It’s the worst thing you can ever imagine,” said Gerald Begay.

But Friday, they learned much more. Gomez listened in on Tolth’s arraignment hearing in Flagstaff and said they learned disturbing details about what he reportedly did. “After today’s hearing we learned that he battered her, left her for dead, and that’s no way for someone to live their last hours of their life,” said Gomez. “The family realized that more than likely Ella Mae is no longer on this world and that’s very hard to come to terms with because you always have hope.”

Though they believe Ella Mae is no longer alive, her body has never been found. She’s one person on a new poster just released by Navajo Nation PD Friday, showing the 82 current missing person cases they have on their reservation alone.

As for Tolth, he was previously identified as a person of interest in the case and has a lengthy violent criminal history.

Gomez said he knew Ella Mae Begay through family connections. Now, Gomez is thankful for the care and attention the U.S. Attorney’s office has shown the Begay family. “The family didn’t feel like they were alone. They felt like the U.S. Attorney’s office, the family, and myself, that we were all working together,” said Gomez.

The search will continue for Ella Mae Begay’s remains. Tolth will stay detained until trial. If convicted of these charges, he faces up to 25 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.