“I’m OK. Bye, Dad.”
Those were the last words uttered by Natalie Whiteplume Hatch via telephone to her father on Sept. 15, 2013. The family had planned to go shopping with their 21-year-old daughter the following day; instead, they started making funeral arrangements after Hatch was gunned down in the doorway of her home by a masked, then 19-year-old, Jeroen Begay.
“Mr. Begay, you took my precious little girl away from me,” said her father, Frederick Hatch, Jr., his knees shaking and voice quivering at sentencing on Tuesday, Sept. 2.
Chief District Court Judge Doug Walker sentenced Begay, now 20, to 30 years in prison followed by five years of mandatory parole. Initially facing life for first-degree murder, Begay pleaded guilty in July to second-degree murder, which carried a maximum 48-year sentence.
“She was our pride and joy,” said Hatch’s father. “Now she’s gone, and all we have is memories. Her future is lost.”
Citing the defendant fired off five rounds from a 12-gauge shotgun, Walker said he was unsure that any sentence would ever offer the victim’s family true peace. Begay must serve 75 percent of his 30-year prison term before becoming eligible for parole.
“I don’t know what’s just for Natalie Hatch,” said Walker.
After shooting Hatch, Begay entered the Cedar Terrace Apartment residence and shot an 18-year-old man, who survived. Two additional counts of attempted first-degree murder were dropped as a result of the plea agreement.
A photo collage of the victim, spanning from birth to high school graduation, was erected inside the courtroom at Tuesday’s hearing. Several loved ones spoke, including a high school counselor who described Hatch as intelligent, reliable, passionate and caring.
“Natalie had a heart as big as the world,” said the counselor. “We will always wonder why Mr. Begay felt compelled to commit this senseless crime.”
Hatch’s former boxing coach said he’d always remember his pupil as a “respected, little girl.” Hatch reportedly won several amateur boxing titles since 2001.
“I lost my fighter and my friend,” he said.
The mother of a woman who committed suicide after being implicated in the murder, told Begay she hoped he would one day find peace knowing that his family would have to carry his shame.
Her daughter committed suicide two days after Hatch was buried, the woman said.
“You will have to learn how to live with this,” she told Begay.
The woman also reminded the Hatch family to stay positive and strong, citing that’s what their daughter would have wanted.
“We will get through this together,” she said.
District Attorney Will Furse read from a written statement prepared by the victim’s mother, Christine Hatch, who described her daughter as “full of wonder and curiosity” with plans to travel the world and become a veterinarian. Hatch’s mother wrote that each passing day seemed to be harder than the last.
“Natalie will never return us, forever,” the mother penned.
In his own remarks, Furse said Begay’s “horrific acts of violence” had “gravely harmed” countless family members and friends who continued to grieve over their loss of Hatch. He added the family simply wanted closure and justice.
“This may be the end of the criminal proceedings for Mr. Begay, but the memories of Natalie will live on forever,” said Furse.
Shackled in a khaki inmate uniform, Begay kept his baby-faced head bowed throughout most of the near two-hour proceeding on Tuesday. He declined to address the court.
“We’re not here to make excuses or shift the blame,” said public defender Kenneth Pace. “We’re here today to share Mr. Begay’s story.”
Pace argued that adolescent psychological studies show that his client’s brain would not fully mature until his mid-20s, and his actions on the night in question were emotionally based reactions to an escalating series of events.
Pace screened several videos in the courtroom, including one from Begay’s girlfriend, Winter Whitehorse, who stated a rival gang member at the victim’s home physically assaulted both her and the defendant on the night in question, which ultimately led to the murder.
“Jeroen was scared,” said Pace. “In hindsight, he could have done anything but grab a shotgun. There’s no question that really bad choices were made.”
Pace concluded his client was sad and remorseful, but he never acted with ill will or hatred. Begay reportedly inscribed on a jailhouse wall, “I’m sorry, God. Please forgive me.”