Apparent Murder-Suicide Puts Spotlight on Tribal Law Enforcement Conditions

The Albuquerque office of the FBI is investigating an apparent murder-suicide that left a Navajo mother and her teenage daughter dead.
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The Albuquerque office of the FBI is investigating an apparent murder-suicide that left a mother and her teenage daughter dead in an isolated community on the Navajo Nation.

Authorities believe Zonnie Begay and her 13-year-old daughter, Zachanda, were stabbed to death on November 20 inside a residence in the community of Ojo Encino, which is located on the eastern edge of the Navajo reservation, near Cuba, New Mexico. The perpetrator, a 22-year-old man who was associated with the family, later shot and killed himself about 10 miles away from the residence, said Frank Fisher, an FBI spokesman.

Final autopsy results are pending, Fisher said, and the investigation is ongoing.

Zonnie, a mother to three girls, is survived by her two older daughters, Charmaria and Zenicha, and by her common-law husband, Elmer Trujillo. Family members are remembering Zonnie as a caring individual with a positive attitude who always put others before herself.

“She was a very lovable, laughable type of person,” said Jarvis Mullahon, a cousin to Zonnie. “When she was in the room, the whole environment was positive. Her laugh was contagious. You would notice her if she was in the room.”

Zonnie, the main provider for her family, worked as a driver providing safe transportation services for elders and other individuals in the community, Mullahon said. The selfless compassion she exhibited for those she served spilled over into other aspects of her life, he said.

“She had unbelievable energy, regardless of what was happening in her own life,” he said. “If something was bothering her, you would never know.”

Zachanda, an honor student at Cuba Middle School, will be remembered for her intelligence and infectious smile. She adored horses and spending time with her father, according to a statement from the family.

Zonnie and Zachanda were buried November 29 after funeral services that drew more than 300 mourners.

Family and community members are hoping the incident helps shed light on longstanding issues in Ojo Encino and other remote areas of the Navajo Nation where communication is unreliable and law enforcement presence is rare.

“It’s very rural, basically made up of the chapter house and residences,” Mullahon said of Ojo Encino. “There is no police substation there, and you have to climb the highest hill to get one bar on your cell phone.”

While residents may enjoy the secluded lifestyle, lack of communication, infrastructure and resources can mean Ojo Encino becomes a “haven for criminals,” Mullahon said. Locations throughout the Eastern Navajo Agency recently have opened to oil and gas drilling, and community members claim violence is escalating as more workers enter the area.

“When people cry out for help, the people terrorizing them know any response will be slow,” he said. “It can take police up to six hours to respond to a place like Ojo Encino. It’s easy to point a finger, but this needs to be a huge wakeup call.”

The Navajo Division of Public Safety is cooperating with the FBI on the case, Director John Billison said. The FBI has not released the identity of the man responsible for the deaths.