CRYSTAL – Jasper Peshlakai’s niece stumbled through the door of his small house on top of a hill in the middle of the forest late at night last week, smelling of alcohol and nursing deep scratches down her arms.
Jasper Peshlakai stands In front of his home atop a hill near Crystal on Thursday, recounting the story his niece told him about the niece’s kicking a mother and her 13-month-old child out of her truck. The child was found dead the next morning in a culvert. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)
The unexpected Jan. 30 visit from his niece, whom he hadn’t seen in around five years, became even more alarming when she told him that she had abandoned a woman and her 13-month-old child a couple miles down the hill, Peshlakai said. The niece told Peshlakai that she and the woman had gotten into a fight while drinking and driving on the way to visit her uncle, so she kicked the woman and the child out of her truck and continued up the hill to her uncle’s house.
Peshlakai said he urged his niece to go back down the hill and get the mother and her toddler.
“But she just kept changing the subject,” Peshlakai told the Journal on a chilly afternoon this week in the small Navajo Reservation town. “Next thing I know, she was tired and went to bed.”
Shortly after 7 a.m. the next morning, Jan. 31, the body of a young child was found in shallow, icy water in a metal culvert at the bottom of the hill. Most Crystal residents politely declined to say what they knew of the death, but several others described seeing a parade of local and federal law enforcement combing through the scene that morning, in addition to a woman seated on the dirt road, distraught and wrapped in blankets.
The FBI, which said it is continuing its investigation, has not released the names of the mother or her child. FBI officials said they have questioned the mother and are waiting for the results of an autopsy from the state Office of the Medical Investigator. A Navajo Nation Police Department captain, reached Friday, said he was not familiar with the case, and a Navajo Nation Department of Justice official said that the case will likely be prosecuted federally.
The cause of death has not been released, and it’s unclear whether the mother was ever arrested or just questioned.
A spokesman for the hospital at Fort Defiance told the Navajo Times that the mother of the victim was treated at the hospital’s emergency room. However, an emergency room employee reviewed hospital logs and told the Journal that the hospital had no patients the morning of Jan. 31 who could have been the mother. The hospital spokesman did not return repeated calls for comment.
Peshlakai said he told investigators about his niece’s visit and what she had said. He said the they were very interested in her whereabouts, but he didn’t know what to tell them. She has no phone, he said, and he doesn’t know where she has been living for the past five years. She was gone when he returned from a day trip to Gallup on Jan. 31, he said.
He also said he has no idea where his niece met the mother or where they were coming from, and he didn’t know whether the two were related or even friends. Temperatures in nearby Navajo, N.M., that night hovered just above freezing.
When asked whether he felt any blame or guilt about the child’s death, he said he has been running through scenarios in his mind since that night – but he just doesn’t know yet. He also said he doesn’t have a phone.
All of the Crystal residents who were willing to talk about the death said they don’t know who the mother was or where she was from. In the 2,000-population town, residents said, it’s pretty clear when someone is an outsider.
Word about the child’s death spread quickly through the town that morning.
Jacey McCurtian, president of the Crystal Chapter, told residents in a community meeting Jan. 31 not to speak of the case as the investigation runs its course, residents said. About a dozen residents approached by the Journal in the Crystal senior center and in remote homes dotting the hills in the area declined to comment about the death, often saying first, “I can’t say anything,” then later, “I don’t know anything.”
But a few were willing to briefly discuss what they saw.
Longtime Crystal resident Franklin Mose said he walked near the culvert on the morning of Jan. 31 and spotted what he thought was a white, shining rock inside the culvert that runs below the dirt road that leads up the hill. He later returned to see a flurry of police activity and learned that he had actually seen the child’s naked body, face down in the water.
By Thursday of this week, when a Journal reporter and photographer walked by, the creek had mostly frozen over. There was no sign that a child had died there less than a week earlier.
Another Crystal resident, Jerry Kee, who was born in a hogan on the same hill and lived on the same plot of land his whole life, said a Navajo Police Department officer knocked on his door last week, asking for the Peshlakai house.
He said his son, on his way to Gallup early Jan. 31, saw the mother sitting at the scene wrapped in blankets while police investigated. He did not know her, but stopped to talk to her briefly.
Just because the woman and her child were likely not from Crystal doesn’t diminish the tragedy, Kee said.
“It’s kind of really shocking,” Kee said. “It’s heartbreaking for all of us. It’s just a little baby.”