Unit at CSPD finds answers for families of missing persons

January 29, 2012
photo - Deborah Heriford, 51, was last seen on March 31. Photo by
Deborah Heriford, 51, was last seen on March 31. Photo by  

On July 15, 1986, 15-year-old Denise Alves was having a happy summer night with her family and friends.

Her baby brother Christopher Abeyta, just 7 months old, was the star of the gathering.

“He laughed really hard, he laughed with all his gut,” she said. “He was the youngest and was the focus of attention for the whole family.”

Her mom let her give him his bottle and he fell asleep in her arms. She and her mom Bernice Abeyta put him in the crib together.

About 6 a.m. Alves woke up to her mom’s screams.

“She was screaming, ‘Christopher, Christopher, he’s not here, where is he?’” Alves said.

After more than 26 years, Christopher has not been found.

Police have investigated and family members have worked to solve the case. They’ve hired detectives, made a website and have fought to make sure that Christopher’s case isn’t forgotten.

They’ve been contacted by psychics and even map dowsers — people who swing pendulums over maps to help them find a specific location.

“We listen to everyone, because we really don’t know what happened,” Alves said. “Also, someone could be trying to give us the information in a roundabout way.” 

While Christopher’s case is perhaps the most well-known missing person’s case in Colorado Springs, there are dozens of others that have been solved, mostly involving adults.

The missing person’s unit of the Colorado Springs Police department has solved about 75 percent of the city’s missing adult cold cases.

The unit was started at the urging of Detective Ron Lopez,who tracked down criminals as part of the fugitive unit before transferring to the homicide unit. He quickly noticed that the department had a detective dedicated specifically to homicide cases that went cold, but there was no one assigned to find missing people.

When he did the research, he learned there were more than 100 unsolved adult missing person cases. Children’s cases are covered by a different unit.

“We had no idea what happened to these people,” he said. “They could have left on their own or something criminal could have happened to them. Until we could find them, we would never know.”

Lopez started the missing person’s unit in 2009 and, after seeing how much work there was, recruited four computer-savvy volunteers who started helping him in 2011. By this month their 100-plus case load was whittled down to 25 missing people. They tracked down people in Germany and Mexico.

One man, a transient, had been missing for 20 years before Lopez found he had moved to Tennessee, where he died in an accident. The man wasn’t identified in Tennessee, but the fingerprints were a match.

Most of those tracked down were adults who, for whatever reason, decided to walk away from their lives in Colorado Springs without telling loved ones. In most cases, once they were found, they didn’t want to communicate with their families, Lopez said.

“And that’s ok, it’s not a crime for them to leave,” Lopez said. “But at least the members of their family who never knew what happened received some closure.”

He attributed part of the group’s success to a new federal database, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System or NamUS. The nationwide database lets detectives put in the information on people who are missing and lets them search for cases where unidentified bodies have been found.

Anyone can search the database, and Lopez said that just by putting the cases in the database leads were generated for cases that had been cold for years.

“These were cases just sitting on a desk,” he said. “Then, once they were in the database, we were getting calls on them.”

Silvia Pettem, who wrote the book “Cold Case Research: Resources for Unidentified, Missing and Cold Homicide Cases,” which will be released in July, profiled Lopez in one of her chapters. They both encourage law enforcement agencies and coroners to put information into the database.

“For Detective Lopez, finding missing persons and solving cold missing persons cases is not just a job for him, it’s a passion,” Pettem said.

In the NamUs database, a picture of doe-eyed Christopher Abeyta is one of the oldest Colorado Springs cases listed.

Alves used the database once to try to track down Christopher. Once, she saw that a baby’s body was found in Texas and sent an e-mail to site managers. Her e-mail was quickly returned and she was told that the baby was a newborn, so it couldn’t be Christopher.

Just searching the site was hard, she said, because finding his body on it would mean that he was dead and her mom insists he’s alive.

“I checked, because I had to,” she said. “I don’t know the answer if he’s alive or not.”

One of the newest Colorado Springs cases in the database is Deborah Heriford. She was last seen on March 31.  Soon after she went missing, police announced that they were investigating her case as a homicide and homicide detectives remain assigned, said her daughter Chrissy Mazzarelli.

Waiting without answers for almost nine months has been tough, Mazzarelli said. She wants to believe her mom is alive, but can’t believe her mom would go so long without calling.

A few weeks ago, her brothers and sisters sorted through their mother’s things that were locked in a storage unit. They shared a lot of tears as they uncovered items they had forgotten.

“How do you sit here and hold out hope while you are trying to decide what to do with her things,” she asked. “It’s an oxymoron. But it’s our reality.”

She said she’s glad the police work to find missing people, but doesn’t think it pertains to her.

In her heart, she doesn’t think her mother’s body will be found.

Lopez hopes that since the caseload in his unit has gone down, he’ll now have more time to focus on the tougher missing person cases – the homicides – that have never been solved.
Alves hopes that the department is successful.

“We need peace. He needs peace. The community needs peace,” she said. “We need answers.”

Contact Maria St. Louis-Sanchez: 636-0274
Twitter @mariastlouis
 Facebook Gazette Maria St. Louis-Sanchez

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