Sometimes the Story Finds You: An Interview With Rachel Monroe

Rocky outcrop in the desert near Shiprock in far northwestern New Mexico. (Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

For Esquire, Rachel Monroe spent time on the enormous Navajo reservation to examine how the Amber Alert system failed to protect a missing girl. Typically, child abductions launch immediate responses from local law enforcement, but when a Navajo sister and brother, Ashlynne and Ian Mike, went missing in Shiprock in 2016, the Navajo Nation Police Department didn’t put out an Amber Alert for eight hours after the girl went reported missing. Jurisdiction, a lack of resources, and confusion about procedure wasted vital time, and Ashlynne was found dead.

Monroe spent two years speaking with sources and unraveling the bureaucratic and cultural threads that kept the Navajo Nation Amber Alert system from working as well as is does off the reservation. Monroe tells a chilling story, especially to parents, but it honors Ashlynne’s memory and offers hope that the bipartisan bill that Ashlynne’s mother helped pass, a bill to fund a Amber Alert in Indian Country system, and renamed it after Ashlynne, will help save the lives of other Indigenous children when they go missing. I spoke with Monroe about the years it took to bring this story to publication, and why a complex story often needs to take the time.

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You’ve been writing features for a long time and covered everything from the culture of living in vans to a West Texas fertilizer plant explosion. How did you find out about the abduction on the Navajo reservation?

In 2016, my editor, the wonderful Whitney Joiner, asked me to find an Amber Alert story since it was the program’s 20th anniversary. I dug around a bit and found the Amber Alert in Indian Country program, and went to Taos for a conference in April 2016. At the conference, I heard people talking about the mistrust, underfunding, racism and jurisdictional tangles that make it so challenging to deal with abductions on reservations. I just got kind of obsessed with how knotty and complicated it all was. And then, a few weeks later, Ashlynne and Ian were kidnapped. It was a perfect, awful illustration of all these issues I’d been thinking about.

One structural issue this kidnapping illustrated was an issue unique to many tribes: that talking about abductions and doing training exercises invites these particular evils into the tribal community. Were there other culture-specific issues that you wish you could have explored further?

There are more than 500 different federally recognized tribes in the U.S., and they’re all distinct, even though the issues they’re grappling with are similar. The story kept shrinking and ballooning and shrinking again as I tried to figure out how much to include about the specifics of this case, and of the Navajo Nation. A lot of the struggles with writing it had to do with questions of scale — how to write about this one child and colonialism without writing a 20 million word story. I also thought a lot about how to portray the culture-specific challenges, which many people discussed with me, without playing into tropes of Native people being exotic or mystical. I really didn’t want to do that.

Many Americans have little opportunity to interact with Indigenous people, so many don’t understand how tribal sovereignty works, or what life on reservations is like. It was interesting to learn about how accepting federal money to improve things like the Amber Alert system on Navajo land could undermine tribal sovereignty. What other things did you learn about the Navajo Nation that surprised you?

The community was so shaken by this crime, and I wanted to make sure that came across in the story. When it works well, crime writing can give you a portrait of a community and a place — the horror of a murder brings internal conflicts and debates into relief as people try to negotiate what happened, how it happened, what it means, what should be done.

I was surprised by the layers of bureaucracy that has to be negotiated to get anything taken care of on the reservation. Gary Mike told me about how he helped the FBI agents plan the raid on the sweat lodge where they arrested the man who was eventually convicted of Ashlynne’s murder. Gary was so anxious that they might mess it up, because the sweat lodge was on a patch of land that technically wasn’t a part of the reservation, so the jurisdictional rules and responsibilities were different in that particular spot. And he knew all of that just because in his daily life he’d had to deal with all these overlapping systems all the time.

How do you write a story of this size and complexity? What’s your process, from reporting to writing?

I started by going to that conference in Taos, which was useful in that it provided an overview of the various issues at play, and it also helped me connect with people working in the field. After Ashlynne was abducted, I knew I had to go to Shiprock. It was difficult to find contact information for anyone in advance, so I just crossed my fingers and drove out there, hoping it would all work out. I started by going through local leaders like Rick Nez and Chili Yazzie. It’s a very tight-knit community, so when those people met me and saw that I was sincere and committed to telling the story in its full complexity, they helped put me in touch with others.

Eventually I was introduced to Ashlynne’s dad. I also had one really intense, long off-the-record interview that I wasn’t able to use, but that proved to be really crucial in helping me understand the dynamics at play in Shiprock. Jim Walters, who has been involved with Amber Alert in Indian Country for over a decade now, was very patient in explaining the intricacies of the system to me over and over again. He also helped facilitate the connection with Pamela, Ashlynne’s mom. Basically all the important connections I made with this story were person-to-person. It’s always so daunting to approach a story like this and not know whether or not people will give you access, but I was fortunate that so many people were so generous and willing to share. After that visit to Shiprock, I just kept following the case through the court system, got all the documents I could get my hands on, FOIA’d some police departments, and attended various court proceedings.

 

Ashlynne’s mother helped get a bill passed to improve the Amber Alert system on tribal lands, and the alerts are named after Ashlynne. In the long-run, do you think the improvements will stick?

I try to avoid prognosticating. In one sense, I’m optimistic. People are paying more attention to violence committed against Indigenous women and children. At the same time, everyone working in this field is fighting such intense headwinds — poverty, trauma, racism, just to name a few. Even so, I have so much admiration for those fighting the good fight, and I think that their work does make a difference over time.