Originally Published: June 4, 2016 6 a.m.
As my wife and I drove north through the Navajo Nation on our way to Durango last week I sat uncomfortably in the passenger seat, looking anxiously to the east as we crossed the San Juan River. This is an area we know intimately. We look forward to its beauty and especially the grandeur of the iconic Shiprock that can be seen for miles and so dominates the region.
Before moving to Prescott we lived in Durango for many years. We love the Four Corners area, both for its beauty and its cultural history. Our reunion with Shiprock is always a happy time. But on this day I put my head back and closed my eyes. For on this day, at least, Shiprock would not be a welcome sight.
In the afternoon of Monday, May 2, 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike was sexually assaulted, beaten with a tire iron and left for dead almost within the shadow of Shiprock. She and her 9-year-old brother had been abducted while playing near an irrigation ditch near Fruitland, NM. At some point during the abduction her brother was released by the suspect and ultimately found help. I had been following the story in the news. Images of what Ashlynne must have gone through dominated my thoughts as Shiprock sailed by.
In my 30-plus years with LAPD I was involved, one way or another, with many death investigations. For cops in a city like LA, being exposed to 10 or 15 dead bodies in a year is not unusual, whether it’s accidents, suicides, homicides or natural deaths. It’s an average career. Homicides, especially those of children, and especially those involving sexual assault, leave lasting images. To this day I am visited frequently by several of those images.
Ashlynne and her brother were abducted about 4 p.m. They were reported missing about 7 p.m. Sometime later law enforcement authorities coordinated their efforts and issued an Amber Alert about 2:30 the following morning. Ashlynne was found dead about 11 a.m.
The initial response by law enforcement has been characterized as slow and unsophisticated. Many are suggesting that Ashlynne may have been found alive had law enforcement’s response been more rapid.
According to the FBI affidavit filed with the court, Ashlynne was assaulted and beaten very soon after she was abducted, probably within an hour or so. Preliminary autopsy results suggest she died soon after being left by her killer. My guess is that when the final results of the autopsy are overlaid on the investigative time line it will show Ashlynne could not have been saved.
Ashlynne’s case reminds me of the ongoing debate about child protection laws and the various sentencing initiatives we see with respect to sexual assault crimes. I’ve spent a lifetime in the business and I still don’t know what an “effective” legal deterrent to abhorrent psychological behavior is. How would we know? Sick people may tell us why they manifest their illness; they rarely say why they don’t.
I’m all for strict sentencing. Throw away the key as far as I’m concerned. But laws alone do not protect our children. That’s our job.
Child abduction, sexual assault and murder are among civilized society’s greatest tragedies, especially so when committed by a stranger to the child. If there is to be any blessing in this conversation, we know that statistically such an occurrence is a very small part of the total number of sexual assaults committed against children.
But think about what it means if so few stranger abductions occur statistically. It means we are assaulting our own children. Studies by United States Department of Justice, the FBI and a variety of nonprofit organizations, show that as many as 90% of the people who commit sexual crimes against children are known to their victims, and of that 90%, as many as 30% are family members.
When we give thought to this subject, it’s important to understand that we don’t have to become social scientists or mental health professionals. And we don’t need to become paranoid. All we really need to understand is that this behavior is more common than we may know, it occurs in all walks of life and in all cultures, and that we need to remain vigilant and minimize our childrens’ risk.
The man who is suspected of killing Ashlynne waited until the circumstances and opportunity were just right. It is our responsibility to prevent similar circumstances and deny predators their opportunity, be they strangers or otherwise. Any detective who has every interrogated a child molester will tell you the common thread is “opportunity”. Many convicted molesters will say they were scared off by an attentive adult, a parent, a school official, or a bus driver.
No law, no enhanced sentencing initiative, no scientific study, no new medication or therapy will ever be as effective as our vigilance. That’s our job.
May Ashlynne Mike know the Grace of God.
Tom Lorenzen is a retired LAPD Commander. He has served as the Chief of Police of Taos, New Mexico and as a consultant to the US Departments of State and Justice. He has testified before Congress as an expert in police special operations. He lives in Prescott with his wife Pat.