Even during a spate of reports of extreme domestic violence in the Navajo Nation, the incident stood out.
Elvira Charley, 31, begged everyone for intervention. She recited her frustration with “the system” and complained to relatives that she was unable to feed her children. She even traveled to Window Rock, the Navajo Nation capitol, to confront the problem “head on.”
She was turned away there, too, and said, as she had before, “I might as well shoot my kids.”
On New Year’s Day, at 7:00 a.m., following a night of New Year’s Eve festivities at a Shoe Game in Kinlichee, Elvira Charley picked up a loaded weapon. It was intended to be emptied into the air to celebrate the New Year with her children. Instead she did the unthinkable.
She emptied the chamber, repeatedly, into three of her sleeping children, ending their lives and destroying her own.
Leaders of the vast Navajo reservation have frequently faced criticism for policies which often seem to leave women and children in dire straits, forced to fend for themselves in abject poverty without adequate housing.
In recent years, welfare reform has taken a further toll on the women who might once have been accepted into the welfare and WIC programs. Now, many are advised to find jobs and search for “new alternatives,” even on reservations where unemployment can exceed 50 percent.
According to her mother, Connie Platero, Elvira Charley faced a system that repeatedly failed her. She begged for intervention and told others, more than once, that she was considering taking her own life. Several times, the mother of six told people in a position of authority, “I might as well shoot my kids.” Still, no one intervened on a permanent level on behalf of the children or their mother.
The New Year’s Day tragedy claimed the lives of Elvira’s daughter Ganelle, 11, son Jerrel, 10, and daughter Radelle, 9.
The isolated home of the family lies miles off Route 191 from Chambers to Ganado, the only significant road in the area. Neighbors are few. Opportunities are scarcer.
Charley, by all accounts, was having a difficult time providing for her children. Although she had repeatedly asked for help from the Nation, she was told that the wait for tribal housing would be a minimum of two years. Out of desperation, Charley reportedly tried to earn a living chopping and hauling wood.
Her home, a structure with about 600 square feet of living space, had no utilities at all. Even water was not easily accessible. Charley supplied it by hauling a variety of containers over difficult terrain.
Her relationship with her husband had recently failed. On Oct. 25, 2001, a court granted a temporary restraining order against Tommy Charley, which prevented him from even seeing the children without prior written notice. Court records indicate that the decision was based upon information indicating that “protection for Elvira is necessary.”
The records say “it is more likely than not that [Tommy Charley’s] past act or pattern of domestic violence occurred and [is] likely to occur and [Elvira Charley] needs protection.”
With this history of domestic violence, Elvira had miscarried during her last pregnancy. Tommy Charley, now residing in Texas, had left her and the children and entered into a relationship with another woman. According to witnesses, battles ensued almost daily, primarily over the telephone.
“On behalf of Elvira,” said Connie Platero, “I feel she has actually been pushed into the position she did. I think she had no intention of hurting the kids. I know she was upset, struggling day after day with no change.”
Tommy Charley, the father of all six of the Charley children, has defended his role in an open letter to at least three newspapers with Indian readership. He pleaded for understanding, defended himself against allegations of abandonment and denied he had refused to provide financially for his children. In all of the letters, Charley reiterated his intentions to regain custody of the three remaining children, ages five, two and one.
While reports have consistently alleged that Charley was physically abusive to his wife, he commented only, “he and his wife had problems, as all couples do, and that on a few occasions, we hurt each other.”
Commenting on the restraining order, Charley said that she called him daily to discuss the children and other family matters.
“The suggestion I drove or forced Elvira to kill our children is absolutely ridiculous,” he wrote. “Then again ? maybe not.”
Charley’s letter detailed a chain of events that, looking back, seem ominous.
“The first sign of danger Social Services should have alerted to was a statement allegedly made by Elvira because of her frustration with the lack of assistance from that division and the President’s [Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye] to which she stated, ‘I might as well go shoot my kids,'” he wrote.
Charley cited a second incident in which Navajo social services were aware that Elvira had threatened to kill herself by drinking antifreeze. In a third warning, he personally advised the social services offices of a phone call with his wife in which she seemed suicidal.
“After this third call they did act,” he wrote, “but it wasn’t enough.”
Charley indicated that Elvira and the children were placed in a women’s shelter in Farmington, N.M., “primarily for Elvira to undergo counseling for her suicidal and emotional problems. I understand the Division [of social services] remained concerned about her condition, but apparently not enough to remove the children from her care.”
“Instead, supposedly ‘in the best interest of the children,’ the Division of Social Services placed the children back in the care of Elvira, despite these clear warning signs,” he wrote. “If the Division had a sincere and legitimate concern about my children’s best interests, they would have intervened in a more active and responsive manner rather than placing the children in a situation where it was very obvious that Elvira was disturbed enough to hurt herself and had access to the firearm.
“For these reasons, I hold the Division of Social Services responsible for what happened.” Charley wrote.
The Navajo Tribal Division of Social Services has refused to comment on the allegations. It has not made known the reasons why the seven-member family was turned down for welfare services and assistance.
According to relatives in the area, Elvira Charley complained bitterly that she was unable to feed her children and that they “cried” endlessly about their circumstances.
Media accounts have frequently portrayed Elvira Charley as “a heavy drinker, searching for a man to help her raise her kids.”
Defense attorney John Trebon, though, presented her as a long-term victim of an intensely abusive relationship. Trebon cited two occasions in which Elvira Charley was actually hospitalized following beatings, ultimately recovering at her residence on the reservation.
“The second beating,” Trebon stated, “caused her to have a miscarriage.”
When she was confined to a bed, said Trebon, “[Tommy Charley] told her to stop faking it and get up. There was no compassion from him.”
Following the standard pattern, Charley’s stay in the Farmington shelter lasted three weeks. Friends of Charley indicated that she confided to them following her time there that she “believed the system had failed her.” The family returned to the reservation just before Christmas, re-enrolling the three oldest children in the Wide Ruins boarding school where they had been staying in dormitories.
But the children and their mother would be at home for the New Year’s holiday, back on the reservation, isolated and alone.
By all accounts, the school-aged Charley children were loving and bright, described repeatedly as “really good kids” by school officials who saw them daily. But their lives ended just days before they would have returned to their dormitories.
Charley now faces three federal charges of first degree murder with malice aforethought on a federal reservation and using a deadly weapon while committing a violent crime on a federal reservation. She awaits trial in U.S. district court in Prescott, Ariz. on June 18, said Assistant U. S. Attorney Mike Johns. U.S. Judge Earl H. Carroll will preside.
Charley’s isolated home has since been burned to the ground, apparently by neighbors following the Navajo tradition in which no one will inhabit a home where someone has died.
Charley’s aged uncle, whose small hogan was one of the closest dwellings to Elvira’s home, walked through the haunting site at dusk and spoke of Elvira’s last days with her children.
“She went everywhere looking for help ? she begged. She even got mad at them. But no one cared,” he said, “No one would help her. It is a sad thing. Now that the children are dead, that’s what they all say … it is a sad thing.”