By Alan Gionet

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. (CBS4)– The discovery of a body in Wyoming, consistent with the description of missing 22-year-old Gabby Petito, has investigators in Colorado thinking about those missing in our mountains. The case highlights how law enforcement tries to find them and solve crimes that can go with their disappearances, especially in the rugged mountains.

Gabby Petito

Gabby Petito (credit: Instagram/GabsPetito)

“Everybody has an open file someplace,” said Clear Creek County Undersheriff Bruce Snelling.

After decades of being involved with law enforcement searches, there are those that haunt law officers and communities. For Snelling, it’s the disappearance of 14-year-old Elizabeth Ann Miller, who went missing in 1983 while out jogging in Idaho Springs. He inherited the case when he began working in Clear Creek County. There’s not a lot of evidence of what happened to her.

“It’s been on the top of my list since I’ve been there… I don’t know the likelihood of the solvability of that case.”

Searching in the mountains is its own unique science and effort.

“We look for a beginning point. And technology is a big benefit. If that technology is available,” said Snelling.

In some areas of the mountains, it is not. But cell phones can be pinged, cars now have data that can help them be tracked. Grids or circular patterns are set up, if they can work.

“It takes a lot longer just to get those areas searched because literally somebody can fall 20 or 30 feet off the edge of a cliff and be wedged into a boulder field that you can almost walk right over the top of somebody,” explained Snelling.

But when it’s criminal, they might tape off areas in the grid where there may be evidence.

(credit: CBS)

“And then really it’s getting down on your hands and knees and search those areas specifically around a body or a victim. What you’re looking for is things that are broken off of a tree or bent high grasses, or something like that to kind of lead your search.”

Colorado still has at least many dozens of people missing and possibly in the mountains. And some seek out the mountains. In 2019, 18-year-old Floridian Sol Pais, on the run from the law and obsessed with the killings at Columbine High School, set off alarm around parts of the Front Range when she came to Colorado from Florida and bought a gun.

“We had half a million people locked down in the metro area, in the west end of town,” remembered Snelling. “We had kind of determined that, look, she’s made her final journey and she hasn’t left the mountains, because she’s an 18-year-old gal who’s on technology all the time and all of a sudden that’s ceased.”

Pais was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound near Echo Lake. Law officers were able to follow her tracks in the snow. Snow can make things easier or harder.

While it can make tracking a lot easier, “Once you hit inclement weather that’s a whole different beast for us. That will stall or stop a search completely and it could stop it months until the snow melts.”

That was the case in 2014, when Clear Creek County was looking for a father and son from Minnesota, Damien and Evan McManus. They went for a hike late in the day in April at over 10,000 feet, by Echo Lake. Heavy snow started and there were no tracks to follow. Then there was more snow and more after that. Their bodies were not found until July, miles away, by Vance Creek.

Damian and Evan McManus (credit: CBS)

While technology has helped in some ways, it has caused difficulty in others. When Gabby Petito went missing, a public appeal brought in a report of the van being near Jackson, Wyoming in the Grand Tetons. But on other occasions, people being to believe they can sleuth out an answer and spread rumors.

“Sometimes that’s of benefit, but other times instead of getting a handful of tips that maybe lead us down the path, we get inundated nowadays with social media or people trying to figure out things,” said Snelling.

The investigation into the disappearance of Suzanne Morphew has been affected by wild rumors online. Her body has yet to be found. Her husband Barry is out on bond and awaiting trial for first-degree murder.

Alan Gionet