Inside America’s ‘Bermuda Triangle for missing people’

·10 min read
Bernadine Beyale, founder of Four Corners K9 Search and Rescue, and her two dogs, Trigger and Gunny, are seen during a search for a missing person on the Navajo Nation on April 23rd, 2022. (Justin Higginbottom)
Bernadine Beyale, founder of Four Corners K9 Search and Rescue, and her two dogs, Trigger and Gunny, are seen during a search for a missing person on the Navajo Nation on April 23rd, 2022. (Justin Higginbottom)

On a still-cold April morning at her home in Farmington, New Mexico, Bernadine Beyale knelt next to two of her dogs – the German Shepherd Trigger and a Czech Shepherd named Gunny – and applied juniper ash above their eyes.

Her Frenchie dog thought Beyale was dispensing treats and bullishingly lined up. So Beyale blessed him too in the Navajo way, even though he would be staying behind today.

Trigger and Gunny, meanwhile, were heading to work.

Beyale is the founder of Four Corners K9 Search and Rescue, one of a number of volunteer groups looking for missing and murdered Native Americans. Authorities on the Navajo Nation don’t yet have a search and rescue canine unit. So Beyale is the first and only responder using trained dogs to search the whole of the reservation — over 27,000 square miles of dry washes, juniper forests and spotty cell service.

On the morning of 23 April, she met around half a dozen other volunteers at a sand-swept gas station within the Navajo Nation on the Utah and Arizona border. Volunteer Chiara Amoroso had gifts: GPS devices and a large duffle she brought from Cortez, Colorado. Amoroso unzipped the bag and removed a replica human skull. “Hello, I’m Larry Jr,” she said, moving the hinged jaw.

It cracked the group up, although one volunteer noted an elder might not find the joke so amusing. For traditional Navajo, even fake skeletons aren’t a laughing matter. They observe human remains with reverence, which makes the possibility of this land holding so many undiscovered bodies that more devastating.

Volunteers with Four Corners K9 Search and Rescue unfurl a new banner before a search for a missing person on the Navajo Nation on April 23rd, 2022. (Justin Higginbottom)
Volunteers with Four Corners K9 Search and Rescue unfurl a new banner before a search for a missing person on the Navajo Nation on April 23rd, 2022. (Justin Higginbottom)

Beyale finds bones nearly every time she goes into the field, almost always from animals. The classroom skeleton will help her group identify those that are human.

Standing in a circle, the smell of burning sage from a pre-search prayer still lingering, Beyale gave her briefing. The victim was Alexander Eskee. He was 37 years old when he disappeared on 5 June 2020, from Dennehotso, Arizona. There was a fight with his in-laws and Eskee got into his white truck wearing a tank top, shorts and flip-flops and drove over the hill. No one even found the truck.

“It’s like the Bermuda Triangle for missing people on the reservation,” says volunteer Andrea Beya.

The missing man’s mother, Berdie Bitsui, barely slept the night before meeting Beyale on this morning. She made the seven-hour drive here from Las Vegas where she lives. It’s a trip she tries to make a couple times a month to help her daughter search.

She was hoping a criminal investigator from the Navajo Nation would be here but she’s not surprised they aren’t.

“They said they’re doing something about it but yet they’re not here. They’re not here to help us search,” sad Bitsui. She said she hadn’t heard anything for a year after she reported her son missing. Desperate, she contacted another police department on the reservation who told her they ran a search on Eskee’s Social Security number and came up empty – no new job, no rental applications.

Bernadine Beyale, founder of Four Corners K9 Search and Rescue, is seen during a search for a missing person on the Navajo Nation on April 23rd, 2022. (Justin Higginbottom)
Bernadine Beyale, founder of Four Corners K9 Search and Rescue, is seen during a search for a missing person on the Navajo Nation on April 23rd, 2022. (Justin Higginbottom)

Angel Charley, executive director of Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women, said Bitsui’s desperation isn’t unique in Native communities. Charley said that despite increased press coverage, legislation, a Bureau of Indian Affairs missing and murdered unit and various task forces – including the President Trump’s Operation Lady Justice – families are still struggling. So-called auntie armies are left to scour reservations like the Navajo Nation for their loved ones.

“No solutions have been offered in terms of how do we actually get the people who are doing the work of investigation the resources they need,” said Charley.

Even Beyale can’t be dedicated full time to finding the missing. She has a day job and must spend precious weekends and vacation time searching. She was volunteering with the state-run New Mexico Badlands Search and Rescue Team when families on the reservation began approaching her for help. Her number spread like wildfire. Twenty families have called her this year so far. This is her 12th search since January.

So far she said her group has found the remains of one person and evidence for another case. She and her dogs also found an elderly man who had wandered into the desert with dementia.

Volunteers with Four Corners K9 Search and Rescue are seen during a search for a missing person on the Navajo Nation on 23 April 2022. (Justin Higginbottom)
Volunteers with Four Corners K9 Search and Rescue are seen during a search for a missing person on the Navajo Nation on 23 April 2022. (Justin Higginbottom)

Charley said there’s still a relative dearth of data for the missing. In a report last year the National Crime Information Center notes 9,500 missing Indigenous people. Activists place much focus on missing women and girls but men like Eskee are also vanishing.

“We just know that the numbers are higher, that the information that they’ve been able to gather is probably a snapshot of the larger picture,” said Charley. Speaking with Beyale’s volunteers, the ambiguity of that picture contributes to a climate of fear on the Navajo Nation.

Beyale puts drug trafficking and human trafficking at the top of the list for causes. But that’s mostly conjecture. She figures the reasons behind those missing are as individual as those who vanish. She does know that her searches for the New Mexico state usually involve hunters and hikers. But on the reservation, it’s different.

“It’s so weird. Everything is getting so weird,” said volunteer Shirley Shepherd, who knew Eskee when he was a boy. She also lost a relative, Laura Sheppard, who disappeared from a Bureau of Indian Affairs highschool in 1978. But she said it seems worse now.

“It’s so scary. Maybe it’s the drug that’s driving people crazy. Long time ago, there was none and we had less problems. Today, there’s more and more,” said Shepherd.

’We believe that dogs can sense things and see things that we can’t’

Her team doesn’t have a “last point seen” for Eskee. Rather, they have the visions of a medicine man. After receiving few answers from authorities, Eskee’s family turned to a Navajo seer. It’s a common practice, said Beyale. The man told them Eskee would be found near a water tank covered in red writing. There would be a windmill. And his body would be tucked between rocks. Eskee’s sister thought she found a place that matched this description, near a route he would drive.

Beyale’s group headed out in a convoy and just a few miles from the gas station turned off the highway onto sand and saw it: a water tank covered in red graffiti, a windmill and a rocky ridge with crevices like wrinkles in a sheet.

Volunteers carrying radios, GPS devices and green flags to place near potential evidence fanned out, moving slowly across the sagebrush-capped dunes. Beyale carried plenty of water and dog bowls — dehydration dries a dog’s nose, lessening their ability to smell, she said.

“My job is to watch their body language,” said Beyale. Because she doesn’t have a scent from Eskee to provide the dogs, she explained they would be slow-moving. But if one of them picked up on anything, they would cue her. Trigger would touch her leg and Gunny would spin.

Beyale said she trained her dogs with New Mexico’s search and rescue before meeting other canine teams who offered resources. Unfortunately, she said, training with real body parts is a luxury, although on lucky occasions it’s possible to use donated placenta or teeth.

To an observer, on this day at least, it’s unclear whether the dogs knew the mission, despite constant reminders by Beyale (“Get to work Trigger, get to work Gunny.”) They played with each other and relieved themselves a surprising number of times between pausing briefly over sun-bleached cow bones and rusted cans.

A water tank and windmill, suggested by a medicine man to be the potential site of remains, is seen on the Navajo Nation on April 23rd, 2022. (Justin Higginbottom)
A water tank and windmill, suggested by a medicine man to be the potential site of remains, is seen on the Navajo Nation on April 23rd, 2022. (Justin Higginbottom)

The Navajo have a long working history with canines. Shepards and wranglers relied on the animals to protect their livelihoods and families. Pull down any rural reservation road and you’ll be greeted by a diverse pack of dogs — although many likely strays — before any person. And there’s another aspect to the animal’s value.

“We believe that dogs can sense things and see things that we can’t,” said Beyale. She said some Navajo believe dogs’s useful senses go beyond smell. She thinks they dream, like humans, and can augur clues to cases.

She said her efforts aren’t just about bringing canine searches to the Navajo Nation. It’s also about training volunteers in best practices. The auntie armies mean well but can sometimes damage evidence.

Beyale was about a mile out when a volunteer radioed. The owner of this land had warned she was walking towards a canyon crawling with mountain lions. Beyale climbed a rock outcropping to get a last look before turning back. The landscape here can be deceptive. Without a reference, the distance of hoodoos and ridges are hard to judge, the extent of the void between them unknown in more ways than one.

“Honestly, if you were to get rid of a body, the rez is the place to do it,” Beyale said later.

It’s not only about the rugged swathes of open space, she noted. It’s about the lack of watchful eyes. Navajo Nation police are stretched thin with fewer than 200 officers. Police may be hours away from any given call. And jurisdictional issues also hamper investigations. State police can’t chase crime on the reservation unless it involves a non-Navajo.

She said there’s still no streamlined process on the Navajo Nation for search and rescue. Although there’s a host of agencies and investigators located here: Department of Emergency Management, Navajo Nation police, Bureau of Indian Affairs police, the FBI, various community emergency response teams. “You have all this here, but no one knows how it’s all supposed to work together,” said Beyale.

Her group didn’t find anything of Eskee’s on this search. Valya Cisco, a volunteer, only found a couple piles of animal bones. This was her second outing with Beyale. For her, search and rescue is personal. In 2017, her sister Katczinsky Ariel Begay disappeared. The Navajo Nation only assigned a criminal investigator to the case after her family marched to the president’s office.

Cisco said her family organised searches for three months. Authorities weren’t always helpful. “They pretty much said that we were interfering with the investigation and that we were disrupting evidence,” said Cisco. Investigators later found her sister’s partial remains. “But when I mean partial, just the upper torso of her remains were found,” said Cisco.

She said authorities ruled the cause of death a suicide. But she doesn’t believe her sister killed herself. And she thinks authorities made the decision either because they didn’t have the resources or the will for a real investigation – a distrust of local authority’s capabilities that seems common.

Trigger and Gunny of the Four Corners K9 Search and Rescue investigate cattle bones during a search for a missing person on the Navajo Nation on April 23rd, 2022. (Justin Higginbottom)
Trigger and Gunny of the Four Corners K9 Search and Rescue investigate cattle bones during a search for a missing person on the Navajo Nation on April 23rd, 2022. (Justin Higginbottom)

’It’s like digging, slowly’

Beyale’s group drove for over an hour on riveted and rocky dirt roads to reach a second location. They arrived in a cloud of dust at another water tank and windmill. In the distance was Black Mesa with dark-green slopes of pinyon and juniper.

Beyale and her dogs headed into a dry wash filled with tumbleweeds. There were dozens of branches to this creek bed and she knew she couldn’t explore them all this afternoon. As she readied to call it a day her radio crackled and a volunteer let her know they found something: an iPhone near the portentous water tank.

Beyale charged it in her truck and revealed a locked screen with a picture of a chubby baby in a red Elmo shirt.

It wasn’t Eskee’s phone.

Although it could have been simply misplaced by a rancher, anything found in the field held a nefarious weight with her group. If it wasn’t owned by this missing person, it could be another’s.

Even though nothing was found on that day, Eskee’s mother said seeing the volunteers searching helped. “At least I’m not alone… It’s like digging, slowly,” she said.

For Beyale, at least these two areas can be cleared; a few square miles out of tens of thousands. As she made the long drive home with Trigger and Gunny in the backseat, she looked out the window and couldn’t help but notice the number of water tanks with graffiti, windmills and space between rocks.