What happened to Joe Keller, who vanished without trace the day before his 19th birthday and whose body lay undiscovered for nearly a year? Many theories have been offered by family, friends, the local sheriff’s department, would-be sleuths sitting behind the comfort of their computers, and concerned members of the public.
Joe was born on 24 July 1986 and lived in Cleveland, Tennessee, not to be confused with the city of Cleveland, Ohio.
23 July 2015: He has now left Bradley Central High School where he excelled at track and swimming, and is attending Cleveland State Community College. He is 5’7” (1.74m) tall and weighs 180 pounds (82 kg).
Joe is on a fifteen day road trip with two of his closest childhood friends, Collin Gwaltney and Christian Fetzner from the small Tennessee town where they now attend college together.
Despite having asthma, Joe is super fit. They have been touring for ten days and have just arrived at the Rainbow Trout Ranch in the Rio Grande National Forest of Colorado, in sparsely populated Conejos County.
Feeling cramped from the long trip Joe and Collin decide to stretch their legs by going for an hour’s cross-country run in the pleasant summer afternoon sunshine. They are young, healthy, enjoying the change of scenery at the beginning of their summer holidays and are in high spirits.
Circumstances of his Disappearance
They set off in a westerly direction from the Trout Ranch along a gravel road called FDR250. After about ten minutes they decide to split up as Collin Gwaltney wants to run at a faster pace than Joe, who is taking it a little easier. Perhaps he is a little tired from the long car trip.
They should be able to meet up at about the same time and in good time for supper at the ranch. But Collin waits for two hours at the rendezvous point with no sign of his friend. Maybe Joe had slowed to a walk, had tummy issues, or found some interesting creature to observe and forgot all about the time. He’s young and strong and unlikely to develop a major health issue during the run. So Collin isn’t too concerned yet.
By now the time is about 7:30 pm. It will soon be dark and Joe didn’t take his cell phone on the run. He has yet to unpack his bags which are still in the car. Runners don’t like to be weighed down and it was only supposed to be an hour’s run.
Worry now begins to set in with the increasing darkness. Joe is out there without food, drink or shelter and lightly dressed in a t-shirt, red shorts and running shoes. Even in summer, night temperatures in the mountains plummet quickly.
The Fruitless Search
Collin gives the alarm. The search begins in earnest the next morning.
Joe’s parents and five other close family members fly out from Tennessee that day (25 July – Joe’s birthday) to stand by and offer their assistance.
Despite the fact that Conejos County is one of the poorest counties in the US and the Sheriff’s department is low on resources, eager local volunteers and organizations bring in or hire helicopters, drones, dogs and infrared equipment to assist in the search. People on foot, horseback and in four wheelers scour the countryside for clues. Police dogs fail to pick up his scent on the trail.
Sheriff Howard Galvez refused the initial assistance of Bradley County sheriff’s department in Tennessee. Possibly he felt that his own men know the area best and that Tennesseans don’t know their way around real mountains. But some locals also complained that the sheriff spurned their help.
A Conejos county officer is reported to have told one resident that Joe was young and strong and they were thus confident they would find him alive.
4 August – Sheriff Galvez calls off the search. Without citing any evidence for his viewpoint he expresses the opinion that Joe’s parents should face the possibility that Joe simply ran away from home.
August: Bradley County sends a search team to assist, but it is in vain.
Apparently the FBI and other specialist organizations were also involved at a later date, but they also failed to find Joe before calling off their searches.
A reputed psychic offered her opinion that Joe was in the Sedona area of western Arizona. Flyers with his description were even circulated there with no result.
October: Joe’s father again flies to Colorado where he pleads with Conejos County commissioners to persuade the sheriff to call in the CBI (Colorado Bureau of Investigation).
His parents establish a Facebook page seeking to find answers, and later a website.
They offer a reward of $50 000 for information. Many well meaning people placed needless suspicion on his friends, or tried to damage Joe’s fine reputation with outlandish but unprovable theories.
Despite many fundraisers for more effective searches, and numerous prayer vigils arranged by friends and family, the trail remained cold until recently.
January 2016: some bones are found about 100 miles from where Joe vanished. They were buried between Highways 17 and 285 in Saguache County. These bones were identified as belonging to Michael Rust (see below).
6 July 2016: A body is found by a hiker crossing Conejos Canyon. In August it is confirmed as Joe’s. The body had a broken skull from apparently falling off a cliff.
The Rio Grande National Forest is enormous: covering 1.8 million acres spread across several counties. The pictures below give an indication of the terrain:
Theories which were proposed during Joe’s disappearance
Foul Play: His best friend believed foul play was involved and that someone in a truck may have picked Joe up for some unknown reason. But why would anyone have wanted to take the risk of abducting or murdering Joe? He was out on a run, minding his own business and the idea that he may have witnessed a drug deal of similar act in the middle of a national forest reserve seems far-fetched. This is a well travelled route at the height of the summer hiking and camping season, and Joe is young and strong.
The Rainbow Trout Lodge is almost always fully booked for fishing, horseback riding and other outdoor pursuits during the summer, and so far no one seems to have noticed anything out of the ordinary.
Murdered by his friends: He and Collin Gwaltney had been friends since kindergarten. Collin and Christian underwent a voluntary lie detector test and passed. There is no evidence of any quarrel nor any reason his friends would want him out of the way. They all got on very well and were in the middle of a road trip they’d been looking forward to for months.
Planned Disappearance to start a New Life, or Suicide: Joe wasn’t at all the type to even consider doing such a thing to his family and friends. He had grown up on a farm in Bradley County and had a healthy attitude and keen to look after his body and mind. He had absolutely nothing with him when he disappeared. No evidence of depression was to be found on his computer or phone records.
He would never have run away, as alleged by the Conejos County sheriff. Had he committed suicide his body would have been located. I cannot imagine Joe putting his loving family through such trauma on purpose. A guy who is runs and swims regularly won’t experiment with hard drugs. He didn’t even smoke or use alcohol.
Altitude Sickness: The area is about 2438m (8000 ft) above sea level and it’s been suggested that altitude sickness could have made him feel disoriented. But people very seldom get altitude sickness below at least 3000m (9800 feet). I have been higher than this without any hassles. It’s usually a major problem over 5000m (16000 ft).
WHY did Joe leave the trail? My theory plus some alternative ones
He shouldn’t have been anywhere near a cliff had he stuck to the road. There must have been a very compelling reason for him to leave it.
My theory is that he had a close encounter with a bear. Whether it was a brown bear (grizzly) or a much more common black bear of which about 20 000 are known to exist in Colorado, I am not certain but my theory is this:
Joe has been running for some twenty minutes or half hour when he suddenly freezes: a huge bear is just ahead on or near the track on which he’s running. If he was downwind he may have surprised the bear. His adrenalin peaks and his heart begins to thump. He jumps off the road and stumbles blindly through the rough undergrowth between the path and the river. The bear gives chase. Thoroughly frightened and lost, Joe slips on loose scree and falls down a cliff.
I once encountered a wild pig during a country run along the beach and got a fright seeing its impressive tusks at such close range. I thought it was a big dog and was puzzled as the beach seemed so quiet and deserted. I rounded a large bush and the wild pig was tight in front of me and rather belligerently facing me! In a panic I barrelled along the rocks lining the sea and luckily he didn’t follow. But imagine what a more fearsome sight a bear is, as it grunts and stands up on its powerful hind legs to tower above you with its massive claws.
Even a tough teen like Joe would instantly turn to run blindly into the woods in a desperate effort at self-preservation.
Black bears are numerous in Colorado.
Officially there are no grizzlies as far south as Colorado but they can be quite elusive!
It may even have been a coyote but my money would be on a huge, mean bear. I visualized this scenario as I sat back to contemplate the case, even before the update came through that Joe’s body had been found.
The bear theory would explain why the search dogs couldn’t pick up Joe’s scent. Mixed with bear scent this would confuse them.
An unexpected obstruction on the trail…
The ruggedness of the terrain explains why it was a whole year before his body is found.
Alternative number 2: Joe slows down because he has stomach trouble and leaves the path to attend to the urgent call of nature. While squatting by some rocks he is bitten by a venomous snake (perhaps a Massasauga). The neurotoxins work quickly, and his mind and body cease to function effectively. He wanders around in a daze and stumbles over the cliff to his death.
I don’t think Joe would have left the track for any other reason. If he had an asthma attack, or felt unwell, he would have remained on the road where he would sooner or later be found by his friends, or a passer-by who can give him a lift back to the Ranch.
It should not have been too difficult for him to find the road again even if he got lost. His best shot at rescue would be on that well traversed route. Thus he is probably seriously injured or already dead by the time darkness falls. Running from a bear explains everything.
Other disappearances in this part of Colorado:
- Casey Berry, 25 – vanished on Valentine’s Day 2007 on his way to visit a friend in the small town of Blanca;
- Jack Gordon, 77 – retired pastor, who disappeared from his backyard about 57 miles from Conejos County in 2008 and has never been seen again;
- Michael Rust disappeared from near his isolated home in Saguache County, also within the Rio Grande National Forest in 2009. The sheriff of Saguache immediately asked the FBI for assistance in the search. The diligent search for him and his distinctive red and white motorcycle was conducted by men on foot and horseback, private helicopters including two Blackhawk choppers and planes, all to no avail. (The search for Rust seems to have been much more intense that the one for Keller. His remains were found in January and foul play seems indicated in his case.
- Jason Pede, 31 – A cellphone tower picked up his signal as he was driving near the town of Center, 48 miles from Conejos County, but this was the last anyone heard from him (2011);
- Angelica Sandoval – Also in 2011. After carrying her clean laundry and baby daughter from her car to her home, she ran back to her car to retrieve her purse but vanished. She was due to be the key witness against a man accused of a brutal housebreaking, so there could be a link there but not necessarily. Her home is 28 miles from Conejos County.
So are there any likely links between these disappearances? They don’t seem to have much in common: the retired pastor was much older than the other men who vanished. One was a woman. The fact that she was to give evidence in a trial could be coincidental.
These disappearances are merely mentioned in passing and have no bearing on Joe’s fate. Perhaps they too will be found one day.
Celebrating Joe’s Life: He lived it to the full
Joe was a children’s swim coach at his local YMCA and assisted the Salvation Army most Saturdays in feeding the homeless. His dream was to become a maths teacher as figures of the arithmetical kind were what floated his boat. He would have been a very popular teacher – everyone liked him. His happy, outgoing personality and desire to help others will be sorely missed by his family and friends in Tennessee.
All we can do is pray for those close to him at this incredibly tough time. At least the discovery of Joe’s body means his family and friends can finally say goodbye and seek closure. He died in the open air, doing what he loved.