For months, the family of 5-year-old Lucas Hernandez wondered if they would ever have answers in his mysterious disappearance. On the day he disappeared, he was left in the care of his father’s girlfriend, Emily Glass. In the missing persons report Glass gave to investigators, she said she saw Lucas playing in his room around three in the afternoon. She then took a shower and fell asleep. When she awoke around six in the evening, Lucas was nowhere to be found.
Law enforcement in Wichita investigated for months, unearthing no credible leads into Lucas’ disappearance. Months later, on May 24th, locals were shocked after a private investigator blew the case wide open by informing law enforcement Emily Glass had led them to the decomposing remains of little Lucas under a nearby bridge. Why would Glass, after dealing with law enforcement for months, only then break her silence regarding her knowledge of the little boy’s body? The answer is as simple as this: Private investigators have advantages law enforcement do not when it comes to conducting concurrent independent investigations in criminal and missing persons cases.
So how is a private investigator’s approach different from the approach of a local, state, or federal law enforcement agency? The first thing to consider is the caseload of most law enforcement agencies. From the moment an initial report is made, in both criminal and missing persons cases, law enforcement have the meticulous and overwhelming task of gathering evidence to build a case that will secure justice on behalf of the victims and the state. Crime scenes need to be mined for evidence by medical examiners and crime scene technicians. Detectives and other investigators need to canvass witnesses—sometimes dozens of people—in the area who might have seen or heard something. Now imagine the workload of one case multiplied by 40 or 50 times. An audit conducted in Portland Oregon in 2007 reviewed law enforcement data from Portland itself, and nine other surrounding cities, to conclude the average caseload for a detective in Portland was a median of 54. This is compared to a 5-year average of 56 cases. Knowing statistics like these are similar in law enforcement agencies all across the country, it’s easy to see how the progress of cases might slow to a crawl. Agencies are overwhelmed, and this is where private investigators have the advantage. Private investigators may only handle one or two cases at a time, giving them their full focus and attention. Wichita law enforcement might have faced similar challenges of an overwhelming caseload when it came to investigating Lucas Hernandez’s disappearance. An article released by the Wichita Eagle in mid-December of 2017 revealed, as of publication, there were still ten homicides from the year 2017 remaining unsolved as the new year approached.
Another compelling advantage for private investigators might initially sound like a disadvantage: Private investigators have no powers of arrest. It seems counter-intuitive that a private investigator may use the same tools as law enforcement, ask the same questions, and may even come to the same conclusion as law enforcement without the ability to arrest a suspect for the crime. However, the case of Hernandez showcased exactly why a private investigator—and their inability to arrest—broke the case wide open. Jim Murray of Star Investigations told KMBC News in Kansas, “We’re less of a threat sometimes to people that we’re talking to because we have no powers of arrest,” said Jim. “We can’t arrest them.” This could explain why Emily Glass finally led a private investigator to Lucas’s body, because she knew they could not put handcuffs on her in that moment.
Unfortunately, family members and locals will never have the truth about what happened to Lucas. In the wake of the private investigator’s discovery, autopsy reports were found to be inconsistent with what Glass told both police and the PI, but before the People could build a case against her, Glass was found dead from an apparent suicide. However, were it not for the efforts of the private investigator, Lucas’s father may never have had answers in his son’s disappearance.
Carie McMichael is the Communications and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, writing about investigative topics such as missing persons and corporate investigations. To learn more about what we do, please visit our website.
At Lauth Missing Person Investigations, we specialize in complex missing person investigations of endangered missing children and adults.
The investigative team at Lauth Investigations has over 40 years combined experience working closely with the families of missing persons, local, state and federal law enforcement, along with national media and missing persons organizations throughout the country and internationally.
Founded in 1995, Thomas Lauth is a nationally recognized Missing Persons and Human Trafficking Investigator and graduate of the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy, who initially served as Senior Criminal Investigator for Marion County Public Defender Agency located in Indiana.
Lauth has served as both a prosecution and defense witness on numerous missing persons and homicides at the federal and state levels, including being appointed by state and federal courts to conduct independent investigations of homicides, robberies, and other serious felony matters.
In addition, Thomas has attended various U.S. Department of Justice conferences on missing persons, human trafficking, and child abduction. He served as a volunteer Advisor to the Nation’s Missing Children Organization and the National Center for Missing Adults for nearly twenty years.
In addition to working with local and state law enforcement, Lauth has worked cooperatively with Interpol, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. State Department, the U.S. Consulate and various foreign embassies.
Lauth is considered an expert in missing persons by national media and has appeared in publications like Essence Magazine, USA Today, Los Angeles Daily News, San Diego Tribune, New York Times and more.
According to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as of May 31, 2018, there were 87,608 active missing person cases in the United States.
Missing persons are entered into various categories such as Juvenile, Endangered, Involuntary or Non-family Abductions, Disability, Catastrophe and Other. Though it is not mandated for law enforcement to enter missing persons into NCIC, it is beneficial to both the missing person and the private investigation. Lauth Investigations verifies all missing persons investigated are entered into NCIC making the missing person’s information available to all law enforcement throughout the country to include, medical examiners and Coroners.
By creating more public awareness, it increases the potential for generating leads. Lauth is one of the few private investigators in the country who works every day in locating missing persons, focusing on creating a collaborative effort between various victim assistance organizations, media, and law enforcement to create a successful public awareness campaign.
Lauth Investigations success rate is averaged at approximately 85% over 20 years working with families of missing persons. Every case is unique based on the circumstances of the disappearance and discovery based upon the private investigator’s fact-finding.
When hired, Lauth exclusively focuses on the specific missing person case, ensuring full attention is given to each case. Lauth is experienced in searching for missing persons between the ages of approximately 12-years old to seniors.
Circumstances of disappearances include at-risk children, teens, at-risk adults missing due to foul play, human trafficking, custodial and non-custodial abduction, (including Hague and non-compliant Hague countries), homeless, and those suffering from disabilities such as mental illness or missing persons suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Following are a few excerpts from letters Thomas Lauth has received throughout the years:
Mr. Lauth’s credentials indicate he has a high success rate of locating individuals and we have also found this to be true. He not only utilizes various resources to help locate individuals, but he frequently follows up with them after they are located to see how they are transitioning.
We will continue to utilize Thomas Lauth’s services in the future. His assistance with this organization and the many families of missing person we refer him to give hope to the possibility these families will once again be able to hold their loved ones in their arms. We highly recommend the services he provides to the families of missing persons.
Erin Bruno, National Center for Missing Adults
At a highly emotional time, I found the contact with Mr. Lauth to be quite reassuring. His experience in investigations of missing persons is quite impressive and without pressure, he outlined the stages of his proposed investigation costs and projected number of days to successfully locate my son.
As Tom predicted, my son was located a day later and was brought to the hospital in very bad shape. I am convinced without his intervention, my son was at extreme risk of death, or trafficked to other major cities around the world.
I am honored to provide a letter of reference for this remarkable man who is such a strong advocate for missing persons. My experience is such that I do not recommend relying solely on a local police department to locate a missing person, particularly with mental illness. The risk of exploitation or other harm is simply too great and hiring an experienced private investigator is more likely to bring a loved one home again.
Liz Mallin, mother of Brandon
Thomas Lauth, an investigator who specializes in missing children and adults, has been one of the most reliable and imaginative investigators we have found to date. Mr. Lauth’s experience with our organization, as well as the work he has done for the National Center for Missing Adults, has proven to be invaluable in the locating of abductors and bringing missing children and adults home.
Mr. Lauth’s impressive list of successes as well as his passion for the “left behind parent” makes him more than qualified to work in the area of child abduction. I would not hesitate to recommend Mr. Lauth to any parent who has lost a child. I personally feel that it is Mr. Lauth’s feelings for the children that separate him from so many other investigators.
David Thelen, CEO of Committee for Missing Children, Inc.
I wanted to take this opportunity to formally commend and recommend the services provided by Thomas Lauth at Lauth Investigations. My family and I recently worked with Thomas regarding my sister and nephew who had been missing for almost two years.
Tom was the second investigator that worked the case. Based on the excellent service we experienced, I sincerely regret that we did not work with him initially.
I found Thomas to be extremely knowledgeable, professional and emphatic. I immediately felt comfortable confiding in him. In response, Thomas offered a complete plan, with accurate cost disclosures and regular substantive updates.
Most importantly, Thomas did exactly what he promised to do, on time and within the estimated budget we initially discussed. Thanks to his efforts, we were able to speak with both missing parties for the first time since 2003.
Tom is an absolute gem. I strongly recommend him to anyone who may find him or herself in the unfortunate circumstance of losing contact with a loved one.
Andrea D. Townsend, Attorney at Law
Recently, my son was missing, and we had nowhere to turn until we found you. He had taken off for work and never got there. No one knew where he was, and police couldn’t help because he was of age.
If any parent is in our situation, I highly recommend they call you. You were so helpful and kind to us. You understood just how worried we were.
You met my husband in Massachusetts, where we finally figured out where he was. You stayed there until he was found and let us contact him. Your kindness and professional manner were of great comfort to us in our time of need. It is so hard not knowing where your child is. Anyone going through these hard times needs to know there is an organization out there that cares and handles the problem for you.
You don’t know what you gave back to us. My son means the world to me and getting him back made my world complete again.
I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart and hope that anyone else missing a child will call you. You are the best!
It was St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2018, a mother of three boys vanished into thin air in Longmont, Colorado. Rita Gutierrez-Garcia went out to celebrate with friends and family in the evening.
The group went bar hopping to the Speakeasy located at 301 West Main Street and the Breaker’s Grill located at 380 Main Street. Rita was last seen in an alley behind 3’s bar talking on her phone at approximately 2:30 a.m.
Deputy Chief Jeff Satur of Longmont Police Department said Rita was overheard telling someone on the phone she would get a ride from “someone else.” Authorities also say there were as many as seven or eight potential witnesses behind the bar that evening.
“Our old standby of tracking the phone is not working for us,” said Satur. “But we are working our very hardest to find Rita.”
Rita is a mother of three young boys, ages 9, 13, and 18, and described by family as a bubbly and busy mom, who is just one college semester away from becoming a paralegal. Something she has worked very hard for.
Satur told Fox 31, “As you can imagine, everybody is concerned,” he said. “This is unusual behavior.”
Police have asked for anyone who may have seen Rita that evening, to call them immediately.
Connection to Beating Victim Dismissed
Longmont Police Department was investigating the possible connection between a young man found with head trauma and the disappearance of Rita. Tyler Bullock was found at the same location eight days after Rita disappeared, at approximately 2:30 a.m.
Tyler Bullock was found unconscious five days after Rita Gutierrez-Garcia’s disappearance in the same area.
According to Tyler’s sister Kristal Beecher, Tyler was in the intensive care unit for head trauma due to bleeding on his brain. Tyler was found behind the bar unresponsive due to serious head injuries. He is now recovering.
“There is zero connection. I just need to stress there are no suspects in my case. It’s really just a matter of the specific block in Longmont needing better security systems, more cops on busy nights, and cameras, maybe undercovers,” said Tyler, still recovering from the traumatic experience.
On March 24, 2018, Longmont Police divers searched a pond at Golden Ponds Parks southwest of Hover Street and Third Avenue but did not find anything. Golden Ponds is a network of ponds and walking paths. Police, Longmont Emergency Unit, and Longmont Fire Department searched from approximately 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Canines were also used in the search.
Police diverssearching area of Golden Ponds inLongmont, Colorado. Courtesy of Daily Camera.
Deputy Chief Satur declined to answer what they were searching for. “We were looking for evidence,” Satur said. “That’s all I can say.”
Police are treating the disappearance as a missing person case and “suspicious disappearance.”
“We will continue to work all leads and go from there,” Satur said. “We are going to continue working until we figure out what happened.”
Police have been working long hours in the search for Rita, and rotating staff to ensure fresh eyes are involved in the investigation.
Mom and Sister Plead for Help at Press Conference
Prior to Rita’s disappearance, she was very active on Snapchat but has not posted since her disappearance. This worries her family.
Diane Romero and Jessica Romero please for the public’s help in the search for Rita Gutierrez-Garcia.
“I love you,” said Rita’s mother Diane Romero at a press conference organized by Longmont Police Department on March 22, 2018. Holding a picture of her daughter, “I need you here,” she said.
Rita’s sister Jessica Romero tearfully told reporters, “She’s my older sister and I’ve never had to go a day without her in my entire life,” said Romero.
Family and Friends Hold Vigil
Family and friends of Rita held a prayer vigil on March 25th at Longmont’s Thompson Park. There, they offered comfort to each other and covered a tree with ribbons of different colors and cards with prayers for her safe return.
“I know they are doing all they can do to help us,” Romero said about police investigators. “They are doing a lot to bring Rita home.”
Rita’s sister Jessica said, “I’m trying not to break down.” Rita’s three sons are staying with her and she is trying to be strong for them. “It’s been nerve-wracking just trying to remember to breathe.”
Pastor Choutka, the pastor at the Rocky Mountain Christian Church’s Niwot campus, asked people attending the vigil to gather around the family, asking God to give Rita’s mother strength and help the investigators.
“By the powerful name of Jesus, we do ask for a miracle, that she be found safe and sound,” Choutka said to those who gathered at the park to pray.
Rumors and speculation of what happened to Rita have circulated and the family is trying to protect the young boys and cousins. “We are trying to keep them strong,” Diane Romero said.
Rita was last seen wearing a black long-sleeved shirt with black leggings. She has tattoos on both arms, as well as on her shoulder and on her feet.
Sleeve tattoo with eye and wave design on Rita Gutierrez-Garcia’s arm.
Anyone with information about the disappearance of Rita Gutierrez-Garcia should contact the Longmont Police Department 303-651-8501.
Millions of people are visiting our beautiful national parks each year. They travel from one side of the continent to the other to see the breathtaking tall Sequoia trees on the west coast to the pristine beaches of South Carolina on the east coast.
Attendance numbers at national parks have set record highs in the last few years. According to Los Angeles Times, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Sequoia and Yosemite national parks reported setting attendance records during 2016, with all parks reporting a 330.97 million people visiting our recreational parks – and hundreds, maybe thousands, of those people are now missing.
Shoshone National Forest: Amy Wroe Bechtel
It was 21-years ago, on the afternoon of July 24, 1997, Amy Wroe Bechtel, 24, began her run outside of Lander, Wyoming, training for the 2000 Olympic Marathon she had hoped to qualify for. She never returned.
Wyoming is called “America’s biggest small town” and Lander is an outdoor enthusiast hub, where climbers gravitate to the unique geological formations in Sinks Canyon within the Shoshone National Forest.
Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming is a climber’s paradise.
Sinks Canyon is part of a magnificent ecosystem stretching from sagebrush and juniper covered foothills, through conifer forests, aspen meadows to the alpine habitat in mid-central Wyoming.
Amy vanished while running along Loop Road, a route that includes Sinks Canyon Road and runs the Popo Agie River approximately 15 miles south of Lander. Her car was found by her neighbors, Todd Skinner and Amy Whisler, parked at Burnt Gulch where Amy was marking her 10K hill climb she was planning for the fall. When Amy had not returned by evening, her neighbors got into their car and headed for the gravel road of switchbacks ascending to Loop Road. At approximately 1:00 a.m., they find Amy’s white Toyota Tercel wagon parked on the side of the road where Loop Road splits to the pine-shrouded Burnt Gulch turnoff.
The weather during July is mild with days averaging 85 degrees and evenings about 54 degrees. There had been rain in the afternoon. Puddles of water surrounded the vehicle. Todd and Amy look for footprints or tire tracks but see nothing. Only Amy’s sunglasses, her keys in the driver’s seat and a to-do list were found in the car. Her green “Eagle” wallet was missing. Panicked, Todd calls Amy’s husband Steve Bechtel.
The search for Amy began early the following morning with her husband Steve and about a dozen of his friends. By day’s end, dogs, dirt bikes, ATVs, and over 100 volunteers had joined the search. The following day, horses and helicopters began searching the rugged terrain. By the third day, police expanded the search to a 30-mile radius.
As with most missing person cases, or missing wives, police turn toward the husband. In this case, Steve Bechtel. A move that, 20 years later, appears totally unwarranted and limited the search with tunnel vision, the enemy of any investigation.
Amy and Steve both graduated from the University of Wyoming with degrees in exercise physiology. They had been married a little over a year.
Steve was a climber. He and Amy both worked at Wild Iris, the local climbing shop. Amy taught a youth weightlifting class at Wind River Fitness Center and worked part-time at the Sweetwater Grill.
By all appearances, Amy and Steve were the bubbly, happy newlyweds and had just bought their first home in Lander, with a population of 7,000.
Police searched Steve’s journals and acquaintances gave conflicting statements about their relationship. Some described them as idyllic, while others stated Steve was often jealous and belittling.
The FBI would make accusations Steve killed his wife. A claim current detectives disagree.
Steve had an alibi backed up by a fellow climber. At the time, he had been about 75 miles from his home in Lander. He met with his friend Sam Lightner and Bechtel’s yellow lab Jonz and rode north to Cartridge Creek area of Shoshone National Forest to scout for a climbing location.
According to a Runner’s World article, “Long Gone Girl,” Fremont County Sheriff’s cold case detective Sergeant John Zerga disagrees with the way the case was handled in 1997. “Nowadays everything is viewed as a homicide. Back then it wasn’t viewed that way. She was just a missing runner. For three days,” Zerga said. “We didn’t close off any routes out of here,” Zerga continues. “We didn’t close off any vehicles. All we had was a bunch of people up here looking for a missing runner. We actually ruined the investigation with the vehicle because we allowed the Skinners to drive it home. [The investigation] was not good for at least the first three days. There was a lot of stuff lost.”
While all eyes had been on Steve, it wouldn’t be until over a decade later when the brother of Dale Wayne Eaton, 57, would talk to police. He had tried to contact law enforcement earlier but no response.
“I think our detectives who were working the case were so adamant it was Steve, they weren’t looking in other directions.” said Sergeant Zerga. Fifteen years after Amy vanished, Zerga spoke to Eaton’s brother who told him Eaton would often camp in the area Amy had vanished. “Few camped in the area, and few outside of Lander even knew about the area” Zerga added. “If we could prove Dale was in the area, that puts him as the number one lead.”
Eaton had tried to abduct a family pulled over with car trouble. After his arrest for the attempted kidnapping, he escaped and was later found by authorities in the Shoshone National Forest. He was incarcerated and required to submit a DNA sample.
In 1988 Lisa Marie Kimmel vanished on a trip from Colorado to Billings, Montana. Fourteen years later DNA would be linked to Eaton. An autopsy would determine Kimmel had been beaten, bound and raped for at least six days, then taken to the Old Government Bridge where she was hit on the head with a blunt object, stabbed six times in the chest and abdomen, then thrown into the river.
Police searched Eaton’s property about one hour away from where Kimmel was last seen alive. They excavated a spot on the property and unearthed Kimmel’s Honda CRX bearing her license plate “LIL MISS.”
Eaton was sentenced to death on March 20, 2004, for Kimmel’s kidnapping, rape, and murder. As for Amy, Eaton had remained tight-lipped but as with everything, justice has a way of coming around.
Anyone with information should call the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office at 307-332-5611.
Coconino National Forest: David Barclay Miller
The Red Rock-Secret Mountain Wilderness is a collection of buttes, cliff, and canyons known as one of the most magnificent places on the planet. The red rock cliffs of the Mogollon Rim mark the edge of the Colorado Plateau in the Coconino National Forest. Sycamore Canyon Wilderness borders on the east, the high mesas of Secret Mountain and Wilson Mountain jut out into lower canyons as deep as 1,500 feet draining out into Oak Creek and the Verde River.
Sedona Red Rocks is one of the most popular traveler’s destinations in the world.
Red is the predominant hue in the 43,950 acres. It is a 360-degree view of wind and water sculpted pinnacles, arches, windows and slot canyons. It is a place where sound bounces back and forth, almost in a musical chorus.
Trails crisscross the area taking one from the deepest gorges to protuberant panoramas overlooking the beauty. There is rock art on the walls from the area’s early inhabitants, along with abandoned dwellings high in the canyon walls.
The area draws hikers, photographers, backpackers, and horseback riders from around the world to wander among the manzanitas and red rocks.
An experienced hiker, David Miller, 22, was last seen at the Beaver Creek Ranger Station preparing to leave on a two-day hike on May 19, 1998, in the Red Rock/Secret Mountain Wilderness area.
At the time of his disappearance, David was employed by the Sedona Forest Service. The weather would have been mild with days reaching 83 degrees and nights about 51 degrees.
David was last seen wearing a T-shirt, black hiking boots, and carrying a forest green Gregory backpack.
It is thought David may have fallen on slippery terrain or became lost. Anyone with information should call Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office at 520-771-3260.
Salmon-Challis National Forest: DeOrr Kunz
It has been nearly two years since 2-year old DeOrr Kunz vanished on July 10, 2015, while on a camping trip at the Timber Creek Campground in the beautiful mountains of Idaho.
DeOrr’s father, Vernal DeOrr Kunz, mother Jessica Mitchell and grandfather Robert Walton, along with Isaac Reinwand, Walton’s friend and fishing buddy, had set up camp in the remote wilderness of the Salmon-Challis National forest.
The Salmon-Challis National Forest contains over 4.3 million acres in east-central Idaho. The Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness area takes up 1.3 million acres, the largest contiguous wilderness area in the Continental United States.
Salmon-Challis National Park is not only breathtaking, it is a rugged and remote area in the state of Idaho.
The area is remote, rugged and draws those seeking adventure, solitude and breathtaking scenery. The scenic Salmon River area is popular for fishing, hunting, and white-water rafting.
The winter weather in Salmon-Challis can be brutal, but in July averages 85 degrees during the day and 52 overnight.
The day of DeOrr’s disappearance, Kunz and Mitchell said they took their son to the general store for snacks and supplies. Upon their return, they walked down an embankment to scout a place to fish. Within minutes, they found minnows and quickly turned back to get DeOrr so he could see them and found he was not in his chair and was not with his grandfather. There has been about a 7 to 10-minute gap where DeOrr was not supervised. Panicked, they searched the surrounding campsite and could not find the little boy. They called the police.
Within three hours, authorities from the Lemhi County Sheriff’s Office quickly responded and began swarming a two-mile radius with search and rescue crews using ATVs to search the landscape and divers scouring the nearby reservoir.
For two-days, approximately two hundred volunteers responded, searching the wilderness for a tiny toddler to no avail.
“At this point, I have kind of accepted I might not see him, I might not bring him home like I want to,” Mitchell said. “Any answers are better than what we have now.”
Two years later, there is little else to go on. In a KTVB interview, Mitchell says she believes her son is still alive but admits she is losing hope.
Impossible to move on without answers, Mitchell and her husband are named suspects in the disappearance of their son by former Lemhi County sheriff, Lynn Bowerman. A common response for law enforcement is to look closely at all family members. They both maintain their innocence. No arrests or charges have ever been filed.
There is no evidence DeOrr was attacked by an animal. Investigators remain baffled.
Mitchell and her family believe someone abducted DeOrr. She has returned to the campground several times to search but to her frustration has not found anything. “Every time I leave there, and there is still nothing, it just goes back to I think someone has him,” Mitchell said.
Trina Clegg, Mitchell’s mother has spearheaded the search for little DeOrr handing out business cards and flyers with age-progression photos of what DeOrr would look like today.
“In my opinion, he could be anywhere,” Clegg said. “We just want you to care about baby DeOrr. We want you at night to say your prayers for baby DeOrr. We want you to wake up in the morning and hope he’s there,” she added.
Anyone with information about DeOrr’s disappearance should contact Lemhi County Sheriff’s Office at 208-756-8980.
Rio Grande National Forest: Joe Keller
Joseph Keller, 19, was an adventurous young man from Cleveland, Tennessee. He was spending his summer with friends Collin Gwaltney and Christian Fetzner exploring the west between his freshman and sophomore years at Cleveland State Community College. They had visited San Francisco, Las Vegas, and the Grand Canyon on their way to Joe’s aunt and uncles dude ranch, The Rainbow Trout Ranch, in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.
Rated as one of the top fly-fishing ranches in the country, it is based in southwestern Colorado, with private angling along the Conejos River, a tributary to the Rio Grande flowing right through the property.
Rainbow Trout Ranch is nestled in the San Juan Mountains with the Rio Grande running through the property.
The young men were in for a treat visiting a place that combines the splendor of the Rocky Mountains with the enchantment of New Mexico.
About four hours south of Denver, the Rio Grande National Forest surrounds the ranch with 1.83 million acres and is considered a jewel of Colorado. The Continental Divide runs 236 miles along most of the forest and the tops of the Sangre de Christo Mountains form the eastern border. In between, sits the spectacular San Luis Valley which is a large agricultural alpine valley. This majestic sprawling land is the last place you want to get lost.
Joe was a competitive runner and obstacle course racer. His friend Collin, a varsity cross-country runner. They had been spending time running together during their travels.
Neither was used to the high elevations, the ranch sitting at approximately 9,000 feet.
It was July 23, 2015, they had planned an hourlong run along Forest Road 250 that crosses the ranch into the national forest, following the Conejos River upstream.
Joe left shirtless, wearing only red running shorts, blue trail shoes, and his Ironman watch. At 4:30 p.m., the friends started out together, but Joe soon fell behind as he was the slower runner.
Collin’s GPS watch shows him turning off Forest Road 250 onto the ranch drive that snakes up behind the lodge. The run became a scramble, so Collin headed back toward the road and upstream. A fly-fisherman spotted Collin about 2.5 miles up the road but never saw Joe. Collin finished his run and began puking due to the high altitude.
Joe never returned.
When Joe didn’t show up for dinner, Collin and Christian drove up the road honking, while ranch hands and guests hiked up the rocks toward a mountain formation called “Faith” towering above the valley. By 9:30 p.m., there were 35 people out searching for Joe.
Sheriff Howard Galvez of the Conejos County Sheriff Department, along with two deputies, arrived about midnight and began assisting the other searchers.
Joe’s parents were notified, leaving their home in Tennessee, along with their 17-year old daughter to travel to the ranch; they were there in less than 24 hours. It was now Joe’s birthday.
Search efforts were upgraded with about 200 people on foot, horseback and ATVs and about 15 canines. The family posted a $10,000 reward for information. Dressed only in shorts, Joe was not prepared for the evenings in the San Juan Mountains, where it is about 62 degrees during the day, down to only 30 degrees at night.
Helicopters and even an infrared-equipped plane was used to search for Joe.
The response to Joe’s disappearance was swift, the resources used in the search for Joe are unmatched by most searches for missing persons, but after a week most volunteers had gone home and after 13 days, the official search stopped. The family left with questions and desperation.
Following is a roller-coaster of emotions, anger, and theories.
May 2016, the search resumed with approximately 30 volunteers, drones and 11 dogs from Colorado Forensic Canines. The search was organized by the Jon Francis Foundation, a Minnesota nonprofit specializing in wilderness search and support. Still no sign of Joe.
The Keller family hired two private investigators whose efforts were fruitless.
Nearly a year later, Neal Keller was traveling back and forth from Tennessee to Conejos County, searching for his son every minute he could.
On July 6th, John Reinstra, 54, a former offensive lineman for the Pittsburgh Steelers, an endurance runner and search and rescue hobbyist, located Joe’s body in a boulder field below a cliff. His body 1.7 miles northwest of the ranch.
Rio Grande and Rainbow Trout area of Colorado. Courtesy Jon Billman Outside Online.
Soon after Joe’s disappearance, Gwaltney told Tennessee’s WTVC-TV , “We went running on a forestry road that was pretty well maintained,” he said. “It was gravel and pretty flat, with a few curves. But if you ran off the road, there were pretty steep places.”
Joe is found, and his family now has answers. He is no longer a missing person in a gray area of estimates with limited resources and minimal government attention.
Extensive searches failed to find him 1.7 miles away. The initial search didn’t last long enough.
Government doesn’t keep track of missing on federalland
Experts believe the public would be concerned and alarmed if they knew how many people simply vanish, never to be seen again, while visiting national parks.
The federal government does not track the number of missing persons in national parks, but experts believe about 1,600 individuals mysteriously vanish each year while visiting parks throughout the United States. While many reported missing are found, it is estimated hundreds remain missing.
Many are found, but many are never to be seen again, leaving families suffering the trauma of ambiguous loss – not knowing. Families who have experienced this say knowing your loved one is dead is easier than the “not knowing” what happened.
Missing persons and runaway cases are among the most challenging issues facing law enforcement today. A detective must consider a number of variables when there is no explanation for a person’s disappearance. Was the missing person a victim of foul play? Did they suffer an accident? Was a child kidnapped by another parent and in danger? Do they have diminished mental capacity or other high-risk health risks? Was a child abducted by a stranger? Has the runaway been lured into sex-trafficking?
According the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), National Crime Information Center (NCIC), on average, more than 800,000 people are reported missing each year. Though many of the cases are resolved, approximately 85-90% of those cases are children under the age of eighteen.
As of January 31, 2018, there were 86,664 active missing persons cases in NCIC, with nearly 40,000 active juvenile missing person cases. This number is an average daily total of active missing person cases on any given day. Additionally, there were 8,645 active unidentified persons cases in the national database referred to as the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) at the FBI.
Large computer database systems are used by federal agencies.
What is NCIC?
NCIC is a database system accessible to all law enforcement, medical examiners and coroners in the United States. When law enforcement takes a missing person report, or an unidentified living or deceased person is found, the person’s descriptive information and other pertinent data, photograph and property information is entered in NCIC.
The NCIC system regularly cross-references missing person data (files) with unidentified person’s data to find potential matches.
Ideally, every missing person’s data would be entered in NCIC; however, the issue of missing persons is quite complex.
Missing Person Laws
When a child under the age of eighteen is reported missing, police are required by a 1982 congressional mandate to immediately take a report and enter the child’s information into NCIC.
In 2003, Suzanne’s Law was passed for persons between 18 and 21 reported missing, as part of the national “Amber Alert” bill. Previously, police were only required to report missing persons under the age of 18. With Suzanne’s Law enacted, any person under the age of 21 is considered a missing child and law enforcement is now required to also take an immediate missing person report and enter the person’s information into NCIC. One drawback, many law enforcement agencies are still unaware the law exists.
For missing individuals over the age of 21; however, the determination to accept a missing person report is left up to the discretion of each law enforcement agency based upon protocol. Due to the difference existing for missing adults vs. missing children cases, resources for a missing adult can be minimal at times.
There are approximately 17,000 law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. and many do not have the time or resources to allocate to missing person cases. According to the national Unified Crime Report during 2016, police made 10,662,252 arrests while protecting our communities and leaving police departments throughout the country stretched.
This can be frustrating for families who are concerned for the safety of their loved one.
Many times, police are reluctant to respond with searches for people who may have left of their own accord, or someone who may be living on the street. In many cases where a search response is required, due to suspicious circumstances or threat to life, an actual search can only be prolonged for so long.
Police conducting a ground search for a high-risk missing person.
In addition, there could be jurisdictional issues complicating a search for a missing person where a person goes missing in one law enforcement agency’s jurisdiction; however, their car is found in another, causing complications in search efforts.
Many times, when an adult goes missing, there is not even a starting place or evidence left behind, and the person simply vanishes with no explanation.
Or, a loved one may go missing while visiting another country which can also tie U.S. law enforcement’s hands and causing virtually no effort to be made to find the missing person.
When a loved one is missing, it is necessary to act in a swift, efficient, and organized manner.
Hiring a Licensed Private Investigator
Often, it is necessary to hire a licensed private investigator with experience working with missing person investigations. One who will work cooperatively with law enforcement can be an asset to an investigation.
With a private investigator, there is a pre-determined time-frame to search for the missing person that can be extended until family of a missing person is satisfied all leads have been exhausted. There are no jurisdictions holding a case back when a private investigator is involved. Private investigators can travel state to state and even out of the country if warranted.
There are many different situations where a private investigator can be of assistance in a case, such as:
Searching for loved ones who have voluntarily disappeared.
Long-term missing persons/cold cases.
Minors who may be been victims of human trafficking or kidnapping.
Missing persons with diminished mental capacity.
Individuals missing due to suspicious circumstances.
Individuals missing with domestic abuse history.
Private Investigator’s Tools of the Trade
When we talk tools of the trade, it is important to note, nothing can take the place of good old fashion “Sherlock Holmes” investigative techniques and pounding the pavement. Private investigators have the benefit of working independently and making rapid decisions benefiting an individual case, sometimes operating outside of the boundaries of what law enforcement’s capabilities. Such as, tracking a potential suspect without requiring a warrant, questioning witnesses, interviewing suspects, and even paying informants when necessary.
Surveillance photographs of a suspect in a sexual assault case in Boulder, Colorado.
Private investigators can conduct background checks, court and other records searches, financial records, work and employment information, identify coworkers, business associates, and friends, analyze computers and social networking information, conduct surveillance and search facilities such as jails, mortuaries, and hospitals.
In cases where an individual is missing in another country, a private investigator can travel to identify and interview potential witnesses or suspects and work with the American consulate to better effect an investigation.
Private investigators will work in cooperation with a law enforcement agency.
A missing persons investigation is a thorough examination of circumstances involving a missing person’s disappearance and every stone must be turned when time is of the essence.
Because private investigators are not limited to one jurisdiction, they often have a network of other private investigators, law enforcement, and nonprofits to assist if necessary, ensuring all resources are being utilized.
Many private investigators have previous criminal investigation experience and worked for local, state and federal agencies throughout their career, expanding their knowledge base and skills.
If a family of a missing person is unable to get law enforcement to take a missing person report or believe they have not been properly categorized as a “high risk” missing person, private investigators can investigate and present information to the law enforcement agency to reevaluate their initial determination and effect a missing person report.
Following are investigative activities licensed private investigators may assist with:
Identify circumstances of the missing person’s disappearance
Determine where the person was last seen
Investigate potential crime scene and photograph documentation
Interview the reporting party
Interview potential witnesses and/or suspects
Develop list of all known associates
Communicate with law enforcement details of the case that can assist in making a missing person report or assist an existing police investigation
Ensure missing persons information has been properly documented and entered into NCIC and other databases
Systematically canvas area, question local community members, businesses, etc.
Identify personal belongings that should be saved and can be turned over to law enforcement authorities for DNA testing, if necessary
Work with media when necessary
Identify additional resources
When a loved one is missing, time is of the essence and it is critical to identify the circumstances of the person’s disappearance. When considering hiring a private investigator, it is important to remain cognizant there is only so much that can be done by law enforcement; whereas, a private investigator can devote full attention to a case ensuring the proper steps are taken to search for a loved one.