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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


October 5, 2002 - Issue 71


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Fate leads Navajo to Texas job in unusual field

by Nathan J. Tohtsoni - Special to the Navajo Times

HOUSTON - September 25, 2002

A senseless slaying in May 1999 east of Gallup was not only a tragedy, but it presented a new path to Beverly Begay, Harris County chief medical investigator.

After that tragic incident, Begay, former McKinley County medical investigator, left Gallup. Today she is the only Navajo to achieve the position of chief medical investigator for a major city.

In the 1999 homicide, the vehicle a couple and infant were riding in broke down east of Gallup on Interstate 40. A concerned man pulled over to help. What happened next was horrific. Instead of thanking the sympathetic man for his kindness, he was violently killed and his body hastily buried.

The suspects drove the victim's vehicle to the Houston area where they were arrested for a minor traffic stop.

Houston Police Department homicide detective Darrell Robertson was assigned the case. He and several investigators were subpoenaed to testify in Gallup when the McKinley County District Attorney's office brought murder charges against the suspects.

It was then that Begay first met Robertson. They stayed in touch and in December 1999 Begay moved to Texas.

The big city

"When I first moved to the big city, I questioned my ability to handle such a heavy caseload," she said. "But once I got involved in my job, I realized I could handle my caseload and the difficult situations when they arose."

In December 2001, Begay and Robertson were married at the Spider Rock formation at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle. It is the second marriage for both.

The newlyweds and Begay's 15-year-old son, Corey Hechtor, reside in Sugar Land, Texas, a suburb of Houston. Begay has a second child, Shondeen Hechtor, 11, who lives with her father in Gallup.

Begay's promotion in April to chief medical investigator of the largest county in Texas and fourth-largest city in the country did not come without difficulty.

"My rapid promotion to this position was quite honestly a surprise," Begay said. "I think when someone loves their job, they get good at it. It's amazing how far it can take you. That is why I was shocked when I was offered this job. I never thought my love for my job and the hard work would put me here."

Although Begay found her promotion shocking, Robertson didn't.

"I didn't think she'd be in this position that quick but I'm not surprised she's in the position that she is," he said. "Beverly is the constant professional. She is completely dedicated to make positive changes."

Begay, 40, was raised in the Blackhat, N.M. area, a few miles east of Window Rock. Her family moved to Henderson, Nev., when her father found work with Union Pacific Railroad. She returned to the reservation her sophomore year and attended high school in Many Farms, Ariz. She graduated from Gallup in 1980.

For 13 years, Begay worked in dual roles as the McKinley County DA office's criminal investigator and deputy medical examiner.

More than likely, Begay would have continued working in Gallup if not for the 1999 homicide.

She and Robertson kept in touch during the court proceedings. Seven months after meeting, Begay took a job with the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office so she could be closer to Robertson.

For 18 months she worked as an investigator. Then in June 2001, Begay was promoted to senior investigator.

In her three years with Harris County, the least amount of bodies processed in a day has been four and the most 38.

Harris County, which includes most of Houston, conducted 3,500 autopsies in 2001. That does not include juvenile and contract cases with the 15 surrounding counties. The medical examiner's office does not conduct autopsies of natural causes or suicides.

Migraine headaches

Obtaining such a position is difficult enough for a minority woman, but it also goes against cultural beliefs for a Navajo to be around death.

Begay suffers from migraine headaches. Sometimes it's so bad she can't function.

A late aunt said the reason she suffers from migraines is because of her job. Ever since taking the McKinley County job, Begay has been reminded that death is a cultural taboo.

"Even officers who were non-Navajos would express to me that I shouldn't respond to death scenes, especially when I was pregnant with my daughter," Begay said. "I tell them someone has to do it, it's my job."

The aunt, who was the family matriarch, requested that Begay undergo a purification ceremony.

"For one reason or another, I didn't," she said. "I guess it's because I don't view it as a bad thing. Seeing a dead body you have to take a clinical approach and view bodies as evidence. I always view death as something we can learn from to prevent death and raise awareness."

Robertson, who is non-Navajo, said having a Navajo as a medical investigator should be viewed as positive.

"I do understand there's a taboo on dealing with death, but perhaps there's an unspoken appreciation that there's someone like her who is compassionate," he said. "Beverly can take culture into consideration because she knows that there's a need."

A calm leader

In the six years that Joye Carter has been chief medical examiner of Harris County, she has begun training for investigators, created a photography department and started a community outreach program.

She is impressed with Begay's credentials and calmness.

"That's a very important trait because you're dealing with irritated families, irritated staff, so having patience is something that serves a leader well," Carter said. "The fact that she's Native American is a plus and is just what this field needs."

Without a doctoral degree in pathology, Begay can't become chief medical examiner. She is double majoring in criminal science and political science in courses from Eastern New Mexico University in Portales.

For now, she's not looking beyond her present duties. However like the I-40 homicide, Begay will let fate determine her next path.

"I'm a firm believer things happen for a reason," she said. "Whether it's good or bad, it happened for a reason. In the meantime, I will still do what needs to be done."

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