FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
GALLUP, NM (May 18, 2023) – City of Gallup officials were joined by representatives from the Navajo Nation for a joint press conference Wednesday to discuss collaboration on preventing and investigating cases of missing persons.
The press conference, held at City Hall, included comments from Mayor Louie Bonaguidi, Gallup Police Department Chief Erin Toadlena-Pablo, and officials from the Navajo Nation, including Speaker of the House Crystalyne Curley and delegates Seth Damon, Dr. Andy Nez, and Amber Kanazbah Crotty. Navajo Nation Vice President Richelle Montoya and Delegate Vince James also joined the meeting remotely. The officials came together to address ongoing reports of people, mostly Native Americans, being taken to “sober houses” in Arizona as part of an alleged health care fraud scheme.
“Early on, our law enforcement personnel knew we had a problem,” Chief Toadlena-Pablo said, referring to incidents in 2022 her department has investigated. “Our public service officers, who are out and about in the community, really know our vulnerable population.”
She shared departmental data for 2022 and 2023 to date. In 2022, her department was able to investigate and close 17 “sober house” cases, with three still open. So far in 2023, the department has investigated and closed one case with 12 sober house cases open.
Chief Toadlena-Pablo also reported data for all missing persons cases so far in 2023. The GPD has closed 32 juvenile cases, with four still open. Among adults, there are 21 closed cases and nine open. She also reported
Gallup and Navajo Nation Leaders
that people from other jurisdictions report missing persons to the GPD, which adds to the numbers of missing people reported to originate in Gallup. From other jurisdictions, there have been seven closed cases and one remains open.
When the GPD became aware of the sober house issue in 2022, they immediately began meeting with other law enforcement agencies to coordinate a response. They have also included behavioral health providers in the discussions, since the sober house scheme reportedly involves attempts to persuade people into travelling to Arizona for supposed behavioral health services.
Since learning of the issue, Chief Toadlena-Pablo explained that the GPD has increased awareness through social media, print materials, and on-the-ground community outreach.
“A lot of people probably don’t have access to the Internet or cellphone usage, so the outreach is what was really important for us to do,” she said. “Meaning going out on foot, having these flyers, and talking to those in our area. That was something we wanted them to know, to be aware of your surroundings and look out of for one another.”
Delegate Dr. Nez reinforced the importance of community outreach and stressed that messaging needs to be in multiple languages, including the Diné language. He offered his time to help translate printed materials and record voiceovers in the Diné language. He also proposed cross-commissioning law enforcement in the region to increase collaboration and response to this ongoing issue.
Delegate Crotty asked the group for recommendations to increase resources, and prevention and treatment efforts in collaboration with the City of Gallup, citing concerns with housing and substance abuse. She also said she “wants to be sure there is no victim shaming or blaming.”
Speaker Curley and Delegate Damon both emphasized the importance of increasing communication and collaboration between agencies, with Speaker Curley adding that bilingual radio updates should be held. Vice President Montoya echoed the call for collaborating, and noted the involvement of the state of Arizona. She also said she is sending prayers to law enforcement and the community.
Some tips shared during the press conference to protect yourself and others include being aware of your surroundings, sharing a contact number with friends and family when you go out-of-town, and reporting suspicious behavior. Reports, including those made anonymously, can be made by contacting Metro Dispatch at 505-722-2231.