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Bill clears U.S. hurdle to expand Amber Alerts in tribal lands

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    Klandre Willie, left, and her mother, Jaycelyn Blackie, participate in a candlelight vigil for Ashlynne Mike at the San Juan Chapter House in Lower Fruitland, N.M.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. >> Federal legislation to expand the Amber Alert child abduction emergency notification system in Native American communities across the country has cleared its last hurdle before heading to the full U.S. Senate for consideration.

The legislation is in response to the 2016 deadly abduction of 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike on the Navajo Nation, the largest American Indian reservation in the U.S.

The high profile case raised questions about gaps in communication and coordination between tribal and local law enforcement.

Sponsor John McCain, R-Arizona, said authorities did not issue an Amber Alert for Ashlynne until the morning after family members reported her abduction.

The girl was found dead in a remote area near the New Mexico-Arizona border after police have said she was abducted by a stranger in a case that McCain described as devastating. FBI data shows 7,724 Native American children listed as missing in the U.S., McCain said.

The measure was endorsed this week by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and has bipartisan support from lawmakers from Montana, New Mexico and North Dakota.

The measure would make permanent and expand the tribal Amber Alert pilot program, which provides training for tribes to operate their own alert systems. Grant funding would be available, and the U.S. Justice Department would be required to assess the capabilities of tribal Amber Alert systems.

Amber Alerts are triggered when authorities notify broadcasters and transportation officials about abductions — resulting in a barrage of public messages via the media, cellphones and alerts on highway electronic signs.

After years of struggling to develop an emergency notification system, the Navajo Nation — which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — is now implementing a new system and training officers.

Ashlynne was lured into a van near her school bus stop on a Monday afternoon in May 2016.

Tom Begaye Jr. of Waterflow, New Mexico, has pleaded not guilty to murder and other charges in Ashlynne’s death.

He told investigators he sexually assaulted the girl and struck her twice in the head with a crowbar and that she was still moving when he left her in the desert, according to court documents.

An Amber Alert was not issued in New Mexico until around 2 a.m. the morning after Ashlynne’s disappearance, leading to outcry that the public did not get information about a child in danger during crucial hours of the search for her.

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