TUBA CITY, Ariz. — Indigenous residents in Northern Arizona are allegedly being targeted by people trying to take them to behavioral health centers in the Phoenix area, police say.
Sgt. Rowland Dash with the Navajo Police Department said he's never seen anything like this before.
The situation came to Dash's attention back in August after speaking to a local man who claimed to have been picked up by a white van and transported to a residential treatment center in Phoenix.
"I started getting more, and more, and more calls like that," Dash said.
These reports involved Navajo residents either walking down the street or at flea markets getting picked up by people in white vans or SUVs and then disappearing. Investigators say those driving are claiming to be behavioral health recruiters and tell victims they will take them to a group home for treatment.
However, once they get to the Valley, police say some of them have no way of getting back to the Navajo Nation and are stranded.
Sgt. Dash could not yet say whether any criminal activity is taking place since the cases are still under investigation.
There have been more than 60 cases of this scenario reported thus far in Tuba City, Dash added, and the Navajo Nation is communicating with other tribal communities about the situation.
Arizona's legislative Ad Hoc Committee on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples discussed these "recruiting" cases during a meeting last month.
State Sen. Theresa Hatathlie, whose district includes much of the Navajo Nation, told committee members she's been in contact with a family who had a relative disappear, only to find out later they had been taken to a Phoenix rehab center.
The senator said she's looking into how the state can ensure these Indigenous people are protected and not taken advantage of.
"We have met with our policy advisors and we are working on finding those laws and finding what those reporting processes are through the state to make sure that we have oversight from the (Department of Health Services) and also from the funding sources," Hatathlie said during the committee meeting.
The FBI in Phoenix is also involved in investigating these recruiting incidents. Kevin Smith, a spokesperson for the FBI Phoenix office, released this statement:
“This situation is something that the FBI is very much aware of and the FBI is very much engaged with our partners on the Navajo Nation and other agencies to look into what’s happening here.”
Smith is encouraging anyone with information to contact them at tips.fbi.gov.
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