A trip gone awry
One Christmas later, family of Colleen Lincoln still awaits closure
By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times
WINDOW ROCK, Dec. 22, 2011
In most of these cases, the missing person, both young and old, turn up in a few days - teenagers who decide they want a break from their home lives and older men on a drinking binge in one of the border towns.
But there are a handful of cases each year when the missing person stays missing and never returns home. That happened in the case of Colleen Lincoln, 18, of Mariano Lake, N.M., who went to Gallup on Dec. 23, 2010, and vanished.
Two months later, on Feb. 16, her body, burned beyond recognition, was found on a hill in Gallup by a passerby.
Three women - Pamela Davis, 18; Larita Smith, 20; and Marissa Yazzie, 17 - were arrested and charged with her murder.
Yazzie eventually pleaded guilty and was given 10 years in prison. Smith was found not guilty of second-degree murder but the jury found her guilty of contributing to the delinquency of a minor because she had allowed the others to drink alcohol at her house. She's on probation.
Davis, who was Lincoln's cousin and who, according to the other two, actually committed the murder, is not scheduled to go to trial until June or July.
For Lincoln's family, the ordeal has been a painful one, with family members spending weeks searching in Gallup and Window Rock for the missing girl.
The last time Colleen spent with the family was on Dec. 21, 2010, when she joined other family members watching television at their home in Mariano Lake, said her mother, Emma Lincoln.
The mood was festive, with not only Christmas but Emma's birthday just days away.
"We joked and ate a lot of food," Emma said. "It was the happiest time of our life."
The next day, Colleen's sister Krystal Mike dropped her off at the Allsup's Convenience Store near the west "Y," where Coal Avenue splits from Route 66 west of downtown Gallup. She returned that night and told family members she'd gone to a couple of movies at Red Rock Six Theatres.
The next day, Dec. 23, Colleen said she was going to Gallup again. Emma said she urged her daughter to stay home so they could plan her birthday party, to take place the next day.
"I begged her to stay," Emma recalled.
But at 18 and a recent graduate of Ganado High School, Colleen wouldn't be deterred. She said she would be back that evening and they would start making plans then.
This time Colleen had a friend, Domenic Curley, drive her to Gallup and drop her off in the same area, telling him she would text him if she needed a ride home.
Emma said the last text message she received from Colleen was at about 11:20 a.m., just asking what she was up to. She later called her daughter but Colleen didn't answer.
Colleen did continue to text Curley throughout the early afternoon. At 2:30 p.m., she texted him that she was ready to be picked up.
Curley didn't see that message until about 3:30 p.m. He texted her back asking where she wanted to be picked up but got no reply.
According to testimony in the Smith trial, Colleen was dead by that time.
How could it happen?
Alcohol fueled violence
The narrative that emerged at Smith's trial began with Colleen going to Smith's apartment, located less than a mile from where she'd been dropped off. She was accompanied by her cousin Pamela Davis and another teen, Marissa Yazzie.
Yazzie testified that the three planned to rob Colleen of her money and cell phone, but Smith denied any knowledge of that and said the three had alcohol with them when they showed up at her door.
They began drinking and eventually, Smith said, she took her 1-year-old son and left, wanting to get away from the three intoxicated teens. But they followed after her and Colleen pushed the child, Smith said.
Smith said she hit Colleen once in retaliation. She said she then backed off and returned home as Yazzie and Davis continued hitting Colleen.
According to Yazzie, she and Davis followed Smith back to the house a few minutes later. Colleen was still alive, she said. Later, she said, Davis went up the hill by herself and when Yazzie came up a little later, Colleen no longer had a pulse.
The two of them dragged Colleen's body further up the hill and Yazzie said she went and purchased gasoline. Then, as dusk drew on, they poured it over Colleen's body and set it afire.
Back in Mariano Lake, Emma was getting worried. Although Colleen was 18, she was still expected to adhere to rules that required her to keep in touch if she was away from home.
"I kept trying to reach her by phone that night and all the next day. I called everyone I knew," Emma said, adding that she got no sleep that night and the family decided to call off the birthday party.
Instead, on Dec. 24 she and other family members began searching for Colleen in Gallup, driving around the streets and calling on people the teen had known.
Davis lived in Mariano Lake, but Colleen had met Smith and Yazzie for the first time on Dec. 23 so her mother had no idea that she had gone to Smith's house. She also didn't know Colleen had been with Davis at the time.
The family concentrated their search efforts that day on the north side of Gallup where Colleen had some friends. None of those friends, however, had seen her.
By Dec. 26, the family was really worried and decided to get the Navajo Nation Police involved in the search. Emma traveled to Crownpoint, police headquarters for the eastern chapters, and filled out a missing person report.
"We continued looking ourselves for days, spending six hours a day," she said.
On Dec. 27, Emma saw Davis walking near Gallup Indian Medical Center and stopped to ask if she knew where Colleen was.
Emma said when Davis saw her, she tried to turn away, hiding her face in the hood of her coat. By then Emma knew from Curley that in one of the last text messages he had received from Colleen on Dec. 23, she mentioned that she was with Davis.
"I pleaded with her to tell me where she was," Emma said.
But Davis refused to say anything.
Emma said she noticed that Davis had a lot of bruises on her body and looked like she had been in a fight.
The next day, she said, she saw Davis again and once again begged her for information about her daughter but Davis continued to say she had no idea where Colleen was.
By then, the Davis family, which includes Emma's brother, began telling her to stop harassing Pamela.
A couple of days later, Colleen's family tracked down the location of her cell phone using GPS, Mike said. They traced the phone to a street in Window Rock where Davis' stepsister lived.
But when they contacted Davis' relatives who lived there, they claimed to have no idea of Colleen's whereabouts or any knowledge of her phone.
Her family continued to search in that area until 4 a.m., with no success.
A couple of days later, the family went to the tribal police in Window Rock to get their help in tracing the phone, only to learn that no one there had heard that Colleen was missing.
Crownpoint had failed to file the missing person report so that it could alert other police agencies in and around the reservation, including the FBI.
That visit finally got the Navajo police more involved, however, and when the police checked out the area where the GPS signal said the phone was located, they told Emma the area was used for drug deals and was a hangout for gang members.
The family continued searching throughout January, hoping to get any word of where Colleen was. They were still hoping she would one day turn up in Phoenix or Albuquerque, and it would all turn out to be a case of teen wanderlust.
On Feb. 18, the FBI began leaving text messages on Emma's phone that they needed to talk to her.
"I wasn't checking my phone that day so I didn't get the message until Feb. 20," she said.
She headed for Gallup, expecting to learn that the FBI had found her daughter in Phoenix. When she got to the agency's offices, the first thing she noticed was that there were a lot of people standing around looking at her.
One of the officers told her he was sorry to have to report that her daughter had passed on and that they had arrested three suspects for her death.
Emma said she was shocked to learn Davis was involved.
In Smith's trial, both Smith and Yazzie testified that it appeared Davis had some grudge against Colleen. Emma said she could only think that Davis went after Colleen because she was jealous.
"Maybe Pam saw in Colleen her beauty and that she was smart and that she came from a caring family," Emma said.
Davis is in detention in Gallup awaiting trial and her attorney has not commented regarding the claims made by the other two defendants.
Emma said the family still has not had closure and is waiting to see what happens in Davis' trial. She said she is hoping that Davis spends most of the rest of her life in prison.