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The search for Tanya Begay: Months after accused serial killer claims he sacrificed his girlfriend in Arizona, FBI says her case remains open

Tanya Begay vanished in March of 2017. The missing indigenous woman was last seen with her then-boyfriend Jason Alan Thornburg, now facing capital murder charges.

PHOENIX — Family and friends of then 36-year-old Tanya Begay have been searching for the missing indigenous mother of two for years before the gruesome discovery of three dismembered bodies found in a dumpster set on fire in Fort Worth Texas last September

Begay's then-boyfriend Jason Alan Thornburg was arrested and charged with the capital murders of Lauren Phillips, Maricruz Mathis, and David Luera in a Euless hotel. 

Thornburg allegedly told detectives that he killed and dismembered 42-year-old David Lueras and the two women in the name of God and believed the Bible called him to commit human sacrifices.  

He then confessed to killing 61-year-old Mark Jewell in May and sacrificing his girlfriend (Begay) in Arizona. 

But the FBI still considers Tanya's case open and she has yet to be found. 

She knew in her gut, her best friend was never coming home

“I miss her like every day," said Melissa Bradford. "You know when you instantly feel and sense something like I just knew my friend was gone forever.” 

Melissa and Tanya were best friends, first meeting in 2014 in Phoenix. Melissa hired her at the Restaurant Depot after she became a front-end manager. 

"We automatically clicked," said Melissa. "She was an amazing woman and loved her kids." 

Later on, Melissa moved to Kansas City but never lost touch with Tanya. She never met Thornburg but knew something was off about the relationship. 

"She was needing a place to get away," said Melissa. "She wasn't herself. Prior to her disappearing, I knew something was going on in her relationship, but she (Tanya) wouldn't go into detail." 

The last time they spoke was a month before Tanya vanished. 

"She was not safe, I could hear it in her voice," said Melissa. When she heard the news that Thornburg was arrested and charged with murder, she knew he had something to do with Tanya's disappearance. "I knew in my heart she was never coming back," said Melissa. "Reality truly hit home. When his story came out about the other four murders, I knew he killed Tanya." 

According to the FBI, Tanya's case is still officially open. 

The silent crisis of missing and murdered indigenous people 

"Our lives are not valued," said Navajo Nation Amber Kanazbah Crotty. "We are a disposable population, a banished people." 

Delegate Crotty is a member of the Missing and Murdered Diné Relatives (MMDR) task force helping to develop a framework for a proposed MMDR data institute.

Delegate Crotty says there is a lack of equity in the coverage of missing and murdered Dine people. "We've heard from many families that they feel alone and have to do searches themselves due to a lack of resources." Delegate Crotty and the task force have helped to develop a database on under-reported missing cases. 

"As Tribal leadership, we can see the glaring gaps in what the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is not providing in terms of investigations," said Delegate Crotty. "The FBI will investigate crimes considered a major crime. So, if someone is missing and there’s no suspected reason of foul play, the FBI is not getting involved.” 

Delegate Crotty says more needs to be done and she's not the only one. 

More needs to be done 

Representative Jermaine leads a committee studying the underline causes of Missing and Murdered Indigenous people.

“In some parts of the state there are crimes of opportunity, people going missing because we don’t have cell service or broadband," said Arizona State Representative Jennifer Jermaine. "Some parts of the state it’s tied to human trafficking and in some parts of the state, it’s domestic violence and sexual assault.”   

Jermaine says the committee is working with law enforcement agencies to build cross-agency task forces to close the gap or inequity in communication. 

She introduced HB2142 which will require agencies to reach out to federal partners once an adult has been missing for 30 days. 

“People are going missing here in our state, in our local communities and we need to find them,” said Jermaine. 

She says Arizona State University's Violent Victimization Lab in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice is with American Indian leaders across the state to develop strategies to address and minimize missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG). The lab has found that Indigenous women are murdered at a rate of 10 times the national average.   

ASU MMIWG report November 2020  

Melissa says she will never forget her friend and hopes Tanya's family will soon find closure. 

“Everyone’s story deserves to be heard. She is going to truly be missed."

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