JEROME, Idaho – Townspeople and relatives crammed into a church sanctuary Wednesday to mourn 11-year-old Sage Aragon, who died while trying to trudge through 10 miles of snow on Christmas Day to reach her mother.
At the service, a relative asked for forgiveness for Sage's father, charged in her death and the injury of her brother.
The girl died, apparently of hypothermia, after she and her 12-year-old brother, Bear, tried to walk through snow and freezing temperatures to reach their mother's house after their father's car got stuck in a snowdrift.
The boy survived. The girl was pronounced dead Friday, 11 days after her 11th birthday. The father, Robert Aragon, has been charged with second-degree murder and felony injury to a child.
Aragon, 55, was briefly allowed out of jail Wednesday and escorted by deputies to a funeral home in this south-central Idaho town to mourn his daughter after the memorial service, said Blaine County sheriff's Lt. Jay Davis.
Darrell Tendoy, a great-uncle to the children and uncle to their mother, delivered a eulogy to about 300 people at the memorial service at the 1st Ward Chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, Tendoy also played traditional drums at the service and sang Native American songs.
"I want forgiveness for Mr. Aragon. He raised those children, I was proud of him," Tendoy said. "Sometimes in our lives, we do make mistakes. He must be feeling a lot of pain right now."
During the service, the children's mother, JoLeta Jenks, said she was not going to judge Aragon for what happened.
"I talked to him, and he said, 'I'm so sorry,"' Jenks said.
She and Bear left quickly after the service to meet Aragon.
Friends and families at the service described Sage as a sweet girl who was close to her brother, and knew the words to every song in the movie "Grease." Jenks earlier said her daughter wanted to be a lawyer when she got older, then decided she'd rather be a judge.
The children lived with Aragon, who was not married to Jenks. He was taking them to visit their mother for the holidays when his 1988 Buick Century got stuck in a snowdrift north of Shoshone.
Authorities allege Aragon let the children out to walk to their mother's house while he and his cousin Kenneth Quintana, 29, stayed behind to free the car.
As prosecutors build a case against Aragon, who is being held on $500,000 bond at the Blaine County Jail, authorities were trying to nail down an exact timeline of events, such as when the children started walking.
"You try to connect the dots on this thing and you can't, it's just difficult to understand," said Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling, whose agency handled the search for the children.
In an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press, Jenks said she eventually called Aragon because she was concerned after no one arrived at her home on Thursday.
Aragon had driven back to his hometown of Jerome after letting the kids out to walk to her house, Jenks said.
"I could not believe it," she said.
A public defender assigned to represent Aragon did not respond to calls from The Associated Press on Wednesday. A visibly upset Aragon cried during an initial appearance Monday, when a judge said the second-degree murder charge carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled Jan. 7.
Jenks said she called 911 for help after she phoned Aragon and learned the kids were on foot. A search and rescue team found the boy at a rest area near the highway shortly before 10 p.m.
Femling said the boy was delusional from hypothermia and had discarded his jacket and pants, stripping down to his long underwear, and taking off his tennis shoes.
Snow had drifted 4 feet deep in some places and deputies had to crawl over the drifts to reach the rest area and retrieve the boy, Femling said. The child was treated at a nearby hospital and released.
The rest area was about 4.5 miles from where the children started walking. Femling said the girl walked about four miles with her brother and then turned back.
The girl was found by a search dog about 2.7 miles from where the two set out, barely visible under windblown, drifting snow. Femling said she was wearing a brown down coat, black shirt, pink pajama pants and tan snowboots.
She was pronounced dead at a Ketchum hospital. Initial autopsy results indicate she died of hypothermia.
Officials say temperatures in the area at the time the girl was missing ranged from 27 degrees above zero to minus 5.
"I've never seen anything like this, it was a 10-mile walk, the way they were dressed, it's just all mind-boggling," Femling said.