‘It’s starting our healing process’: Family of murdered Navajo woman seeks justice
Tre C. James was arrested for Jamie Yazzie’s murder more than 3 years after she disappeared.
Wearing all black, a picture of Jamie Lynette Yazzie on her shirt the only color in her outfit, Marilene James, stepped up to the podium inside a packed federal courtroom in Flagstaff to give a victim statement on behalf of her niece’s family.
“Tre James didn’t give my daughter a chance to enjoy life with her loved ones,” Marilene read from a statement by Yazzie’s mother, Ethelene Denny. “Tre C. James is the reason why Jamie lost time with her sons, and he is why they will never know or feel their mother’s love, hugs, or pride in them again.”
It was an emotional day for the family and supporters of Yazzie who packed the courtroom gallery and listened to details of her case shared as part of the detention arrangement for Tre C. James, who was arrested on Aug. 4 and is charged with Yazzie’s murder.
Speaking for Yazzie’s mother, sister’s and three sons, Marilene stood at the podium and urged the court to keep James in federal custody until his trial.
James, 30, faces federal first-degree murder and domestic violence charges. In an eight-count indictment against James, federal prosecutors allege that he shot and killed Yazzie.
The criminal complaint alleges that, sometime between June 30 and July 5, 2019, James murdered Yazzie, his girlfriend, in or near Pinon, Ariz., on the Navajo Nation.
James has pleaded not guilty.
Telling Jamie’s story
Yazzie was a mother of three, a nursing assistant and to her family a caring, loving person who helped people in need. When she went missing on June 30, 2019, her family knew something was wrong because it was not like her to leave without communicating with anyone. Yazzie was 31 at the time of her disappearance.
“She was the type of person that you could meet one day and become best friends with the following day,” Marilene, 38, told the Arizona Mirror. Elders and children knew her in the Pinon community because she worked at the clinic.
When she went missing, Marilene said that people noticed, and would often ask the family where she was or tell them how much they missed her.
“Her missing was the hardest part, because we didn’t know if she was still out there,” Marilene said. “If she was still alive or already gone.”
For 876 days, Yazzie’s family didn’t know where she was. They held walks to raise awareness, paid for billboards, posted flyers, and became active advocates in the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People movement.
The first advocacy walk that Marilene and her family participated in was in remembrance of Yazzie a little more than a year after she went missing. It was September 2020, and Marilene said that they walked to the Navajo Nation Capitol in Window Rock on Yazzie’s birthday, Sept. 13.
At the end of the walk, they ate a birthday cake in honor of Yazzie.
“We sang birthday songs in hopes that somebody would see us, hear us and know that we’re not letting her go and that she’s not forgotten,” Marilene said.
Marilene said their fight continued every day, they worked with other advocates to raise awareness for Yazzie, and her name did get out there. The family was continuously seeking answers from tribal, state and federal law enforcement agencies assigned to the case. But for nearly three years, their efforts yielded no results and they still didn’t know where she was.
“My fight was pretty hard as her aunt,” Marilene said. “I never stopped telling her story.”
What happened to Jamie
It wasn’t until Nov. 23, 2021, when Yazzie’s family got their first bit of closure when her remains were found.
“That’s when it was clear she was never coming home,” Marilene said. The family had hopes of bringing Yazzie home safely or that she would walk through their doors one day, Marilene added.
“It was unfortunate, and it did break our hearts to know that she was not coming home,” Marilene said. “But it was one step closer to knowing what happened.”
Yazzie’s body was found on the Hopi Nation, seven miles from where she went missing in Pinon. The medical examiner concluded that Yazzie died of a gunshot wound to the back of the head, according to comments made in the courtroom by a federal prosecutor.
“The facts of this case show that Tre James was the last person to see the victim alive,” the criminal complaint states.
According to court documents, Yazzie and James were in a relationship and living together in a blue house in Pinon at the time of her disappearance. The house was also occupied by James’ grandmother, but she was not there the night of Yazzie’s disappearance.
Two witnesses — identified in the indictment by their initials, but reported by Law and Crime to be Yazzie’s brother and his girlfriend — were at James’ house with Yazzie on the night of June 30, 2019. They said that Yazzie and James were arguing about his alleged infidelity.
All four of them were drinking alcohol that night, and Yazzie was reportedly drinking heavily and arguing with James. Yazzie’s brother and his girlfriend both told the FBI that James showed off a gun that night. Her brother told investigators that he heard Yazzie, who was intoxicated, claim James had “pointed the gun at her” and “actually tried to shoot me with that.”
The two witnesses left around 2 a.m. on July 1, 2019, due to James and Yazzie arguing, leaving the couple alone in the house. They both told FBI agents they didn’t fear for Yazzie’s safety and thought she would be OK.
“Jamie was not OK,” the prosecutor said in court. “The defendant shot her in the back of the head (and) disposed of her body seven miles away in the desert on the Hopi Reservation.”
The Coconino County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Yazzie’s death a homicide on March 3, 2022, and Yazzie was identified based on dental records, according to court documents.
Yazzie was reported missing on July 5, 2019, by her mother and co-worker. Both mentioned that they had not heard from Yazzie since June 30, 2019. Yazzie was listed as a missing person by both federal and tribal law enforcement agencies.
Yazzie’s mother contacted the Chinle Police Department on July 5, 2019, and reported that she tried to contact the victim but her phone calls were going straight to voicemail, according to court documents. She would then try to reach out to Yazzie at work but was told Yazzie did not show up to work.
Another co-worker reported receiving a text message from Yazzie on June 30, 2019, asking for a ride to work the next day, Monday, July 1, 2019, but Yazzie never showed up, court documents state.
Investigations into Jamie’s case
Twelve days after Yazzie went missing, the FBI searched James’ house, finding what appeared to be blood in the bedroom used by Yazzie and James, on the drywall and baseboard in the bedroom, in the hallway and on the front porch.
Investigators sent several items to the FBI lab for forensic testing. Because Yazzie’s DNA was not available, they used samples from her parents to create a DNA profile of her. It would take more than two years for the results to come back: On Sep. 7, 2021, the FBI lab reported that it was Yazzie’s blood.
Yazzie’s case was investigated by the Navajo Nation Division of Public Safety Criminal Investigation Services, Navajo Nation police Department, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Navajo County Sheriff’s Office, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Marilene said the family had believed from Day One that James had something to do with Yazzie’s disappearance.
“It wasn’t a shock to us,” Marilene said. “All the details in the criminal complaint is basically what we already knew.”
Marilene said they are interested in knowing who may have had a hand in helping James, because they believe that he could not have disposed of Yazzie’s body on his own.
“Who’s the one that had a hand in disposing of her body?” she said. “Throwing her out there like trash. My niece was not trash.”
Victims want suspect kept in jail
James’ initial appearance in court was on the day of his arrest on Aug. 4. On Aug. 9, he had a detention hearing, at which victims of his alleged crimes gave statements on why they believed he should remain detained until his trial.
The detention hearing was held at the U.S. District Court in Flagstaff. Dozens of people showed up to the hearing, nearly all of them Yazzie’s family members. Many wore red in honor of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People, and most had shirts that had either Yazzie’s picture on them or read “Justice for Jamie.”
Marilene spoke on behalf of Yazzie’s family, and one other victim called into the courtroom, stating why she believed James deserved to remain detained.
During her part of the victim statement, Marilene said she wanted law enforcement to continue to detain James until his trial because he does not have compassion for other human beings. James has verbally and physically threatened Yazzie’s mother, she added, as well as her three sons, who are now 16, 14, and 7 years old.
“Jamie’s boys deserve to heal and move on with their lives,” Marilene said. “They’re tired of crying and hurting from grief because their mom hasn’t come home yet.”
Due to the active investigation, Yazzie’s body has not been released back to the family. They have been unable to hold a funeral or burial for her.
“It’s been three years of torture with an empty seat at our family’s table, a pain that is so often too much to bear,” Marilene said. “Tre has been able to spend three years as a free man, he’s spent time with people who love him and his friends.
“He’s spent the last three years abusing three other women, before and after Jamie went missing,” she added.
The indictment accuses James of committing acts of domestic violence against three victims between 2018 and 2021, including suffocation, strangling, kidnapping and assault with a dangerous weapon.
The victim that came forward to give a statement during the detention hearing spoke to the courtroom over the phone. As she shared her story, she became increasingly emotional. At one point, the U.S. Magistrate Judge Camille D. Bibles gave her time to compose herself, as it had become almost impossible to understand what she was saying through her crying.
“It’s hard for me to talk about this subject,” she said. “I have been very abused by this person.”
“He is a monster,” she added. “He deserves to be locked up.”
The Mirror does not identify victims of domestic violence, and is not publishing the woman’s name.
Her victim’s statement was the last one before Bibles decided whether James would remain locked up until his trial begins Oct. 4 in Phoenix.
Closer to getting justice
Three of the four victims requested that James be detained, and Bibles said that the victims made compelling arguments.
Concluding that James posed a flight risk and a risk to the community, she ordered him detained until his trial.
“Our prayers were answered,” Marilene said of the ruling. She said it shows that all the support they’ve gotten over the years and all the advocacy efforts weren’t for nothing.
“I feel like we’re one step closer to bringing Jamie home,” she added. “It’s starting our healing process.”
When Yazzie’s remains were found, Marilene said their efforts shifted from trying to find her to getting her justice. James’ arrest and the judge ruling that he should stay behind bars is the first step in that journey.
“We’re one step closer to getting justice,” Marilene said. “I’m relieved, happy and I’m not angry anymore.”
After the hearing, Yazzie’s family and friends held signs outside the courthouse that had names of different missing and murdered Indigenous People. They wove two flags, one with a red handprint in honor of MMIW and another with the seal of the Navajo Nation on it.
Through Yazzie’s story, Marilene said she hopes that it will help other families who are victims or have loved ones that are missing. She knows how hard it has been for their family, and she does want to keep advocating and raising awareness for others.
“I just pray for closure for the rest of these people that went missing,” Marilene said.
Marilene said the family hopes they get to lay Yazzie to rest soon. They want to be able to finally say their goodbyes and have a place for her so they can visit.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.