Searching for answers from near and far
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – When a Garfield County sheriff’s investigator released clues in April related to an unidentified man whose body was found in the Flat Tops in 2004, media as far away as Grand Junction and Denver reported the story.That’s all well and good if the man is from Colorado. But it’s of limited value if he’s from another state where people don’t watch the Denver news on television.To Pat Champeau, a semiretired Wisconsin private investigator who specializes in looking for missing persons, it points to a glaring gap. If someone from her state is killed, and the body is dropped off in Colorado, it can be hard for investigators, possibly with the help of the public, to make the connection.”My state has a missing story, your state has a found story, the twain never meet,” Champeau said.Champeau is one of thousands of people around the country who try to connect the dots between missing cases and found bodies, such as that of the man discovered in the Flat Tops near Glenwood Springs.”Your guy is one of over 5,000 unidentified human beings in this country. It’s more prevalent actually than I think you’re aware of,” Champeau said.Local investigators dealing with unidentified remains are getting an increased amount of help these days from faraway places, thanks to the Internet. Both the Flat Tops case and that of remains found on Red Mountain near Glenwood Springs in 2003 are now listed on the Doe Network. The site is an international information center on missing persons and unidentified remains. It includes indexes to both categories, often including photos.A picture of a facial reconstruction done on the Red Mountain skull is on the site, as are images of a notebook, boots and other items found with the body in the Flat Tops.The Flat Tops case also was mentioned in Yahoo’s Cold Cases discussion group. All the attention has resulted in people such as Champeau pondering what evidence found with the remains might mean. For example, Champeau is particularly intrigued by the reference in the notebook to “Lib,” which may be a nickname for Libby, and which Champeau thinks could be a crucial clue to solving the case.Champeau, a former Doe Network member, now operates her own blog that she said is devoted to the “lost but not forgotten.”She remains frustrated by the challenge of linking missing persons and found remains. Even the Internet is of limited value in getting information out in a more widespread manner to the general public.”You have a lot of people with very good intentions, but there are limitations. There’s no national way to get these faces out currently,” she said.Television shows such as “Unsolved Mysteries” and “America’s Most Wanted” have been helpful, she said. While the Doe Network website has been valuable, Champeau said the site only publishes pictures of people who have been missing at least seven years.Todd Matthews, a Doe Network spokesman and the man who solved what is known as the “Tent Girl” case, pointed to the volume of missing people – more than 100,000 nationally. He believes the Doe Network is most effective by focusing on older cases that police haven’t solved. With more than 1,400 cybersleuths as members, the Doe Network has solved or helped solve nearly three dozen cases.Matthews said that beyond websites, chat rooms and blogs, the Internet is helping end mysteries because people can investigate cases more easily. The technology allows people to track the names of sheriffs in other states, check the archives of distant newspapers, or compare notes on cases with people around the world.”It just seems like now there’s so many resources out there that weren’t there years ago. If I had those, the ‘Tent Girl’ might not have taken 10 years” to solve, Matthews said.Some people get involved in organizations such as the Doe Network because they have a missing family member. Others, like Matthews, have a specific case that has haunted and driven them – sometimes known by a name drawn from its circumstances.For Matthews, that case was the “Tent Girl.” Matthews’ father-in-law, a water well driller named Wilbur Riddle, found her body wrapped in a green tarp, near a creek off a dirt road in Kentucky in 1968, before Matthews was born. In 1987, while working as a quality auditor at a Tennessee auto plant and dating his future wife, he became intrigued by Riddle’s discovery.Hounded by the thought that some family was missing a loved one, Matthews worked the case diligently over the next decade. He finally solved it in 1998 when he came across a missing persons website that mentioned a Lexington woman who seemed to match the description of the “Tent Girl.” DNA tests confirmed his suspicions.The case that has possessed Champeau is still unsolved. After reading a newspaper story, she became interested in identifying a woman whose remains were found in Wisconsin in 1999. X-rays show the woman, who had been developmentally disabled, was tortured for four weeks before her death, Champeau said.Somebody “has gotten away with it for seven years” because about the only people to see a facial reconstruction of the woman live in southeast Wisconsin, Champeau said.Some people follow missing and unidentified persons cases for other reasons.Jack Sweeney, who lives in China, e-mailed the Post Independent about the Flat Tops case, wanting to know what time of day the remains were found. He researches, practices and teaches an ancient Chinese astronomical science that is sometimes used by police there. Knowing the timing of certain events can yield clues such as the circumstances of a death, the year the deceased was born, and clues to the killer’s identity if someone was killed, Sweeney said via e-mail.”I have e-mailed Garfield Sheriff Lou Vallario, but he chose not to respond, which is not surprising, since most police don’t like to reveal anything about murder investigations beyond what has already appeared in the press,” Sweeney said.Sheriff detective Don Breier, the investigator on the case, said he hadn’t heard about Sweeney, and added that his approach sounds “kind of curious.”Though Breier said he tries to generally keep an open mind, both he and Vallario tend to be skeptical about some things, such as the use of psychics on cases.”When they start telling me what the winning lottery numbers are and who killed Jimmy Hoffa I’ll become a believer,” Breier said.Breier said the Doe Network is “a legitimate organization” he has worked with in the past. He and Vallario believe the Doe Network and similar groups can help make connections between missing people and found remains.Said Vallario: “There’s really no good sort of central registry of missing adults and yet these groups kind of keep track and keep an eye on these things.”Champeau said she has found some law enforcement agencies are more appreciative of outsiders’ help than others.Breier and Vallario said they appreciate the public’s interest in cold cases.”We encourage any information,” Vallario said. “We encourage anybody who has even any experience in these matters who wants to step out and … lend us a hand.”
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