Bones found in Colorado could be Joe Keller's, but concerned citizens getting few answers about case

Family photo of Joe Keller taken before he went missing in Colorado last year.
photo Family photo of Joe Keller taken before he went missing in Colorado last year.

When human remains were found in the first week of 2016 near Colorado's remote and beautiful Rio Grande National Forest, people concerned about missing loved ones flooded the Colorado Bureau of Investigation with calls.

Some were from people concerned about Cleveland, Tenn., native Joe Keller, who vanished in Conejos County, Colo., on July 23, 2015, the day before his 19th birthday.

Several men and a woman have vanished from that area in the past eight years and remain cold cases - but a few months from now, the bones may reveal the fate of one of them.

"The remains have been sent to the El Paso County lab for identification and, if necessary, DNA analysis," CBI spokeswoman Susan Medina told the Times Free Press by phone from Denver.

She said the lab's response time is about 90 days and added, "We're hoping this identification will be made within that time frame."

A champion swimmer who grew up on a Bradley County farm, Keller was traveling cross-country with his two best friends and had stopped to visit family at the Rainbow Trout Ranch, nestled within the national forest's 1.9 million acres. He was a children's swim coach at the YMCA who helped the Salvation Army feed the homeless and a math whiz who dreamed of being a high school teacher rather than a Wall Street wolf.

Keller went out for what was supposed to be a one-hour run and never returned. He was last seen on CR 250, a relatively well-traveled road in sparsely populated Conejos County. Six months later, not a single clue to Keller's disappearance has been found.

The small Conejos County Sheriff Department's investigation became controversial in Colorado and Tennessee when Sheriff Howard Galvez refused to ask the CBI or FBI for help. Colorado media describe Galvez's office as small, with seven staffers including his office manager and a limited budget.

Conejos County is poor, but its residents responded gallantly to Keller's disappearance, volunteering to search on foot and horseback, loaning drones and search dogs to the effort. Soon the locals began to complain on the sheriff's Facebook page that he and his deputies hung up on them when they phoned in tips or leads, and to say the FBI's and CBI's help was needed.

In August, the Bradley County Sheriff's Office sent a team to Colorado for several days to help in the search, to no avail.

In October Keller's father, Neal, flew to Colorado to plead with Conejos County commissioners to persuade Galvez to call the CBI.

"I, as the father of a missing boy - my only son, actually - would like to have as much resources as could possibly be made available," Keller told commissioners.

Joe Keller

Joe Keller, 19, from Cleveland, Tenn., went missing while running on CR 250 near Antonito, Colo., on July 23, 2015. There is a $50,000 reward for information leading to his discovery. Call 1-844-FindJoe, or 423-650-4924, or Crimestoppers at 719-589-4111.

Galvez attended the commission meeting and told commissioners the CBI had been contacted.

Medina refuted that. She said the only way CBI could become involved was if the lead law enforcement agency in the jurisdiction asked for help.

"We were never invited by [Galvez], and we were not involved in his investigation - and we are not involved now," Medina said.

Galvez also told commissioners the FBI had assisted the investigation at his request. Denver FBI spokeswoman Deborah Sherman denied this, saying Galvez had not asked for FBI help "and we're not involved now."

Galvez has never returned the Times Free Press' requests for comments.

The Kellers posted a description of the Oct. 15, 2015, meeting on their Find Joe Keller Facebook page.

"Sheriff Galvez asserted that he would have no direct communication with the Kellers in the future," the post reads. "For most of the last three months, the Kellers say they have seen no active searching going on except for what has been done by themselves and locals."

Galvez said the Kellers refused to consider that Keller may have run away from home.

The family doesn't think that's likely. They say he was wearing only a T-shirt, shorts and running shoes and left behind his debit and credit cards, cash, phone, clothing and computer. The Bradley County Sheriff's office told the Times Free Press it had examined voicemails and texts on all the devices belonging to Joe and his friends and found no hints of depression or discord.

The Find Joe Keller Facebook posts stopped in November, then resumed Saturday with a prayer marking the six-month anniversary of Keller's disappearance. A message addressed to Keller said, in part: "If someone has you against your will, keep the strength that God has given you. We look forward to the day when we see you again and get to enjoy your loving, giving, adventurous spirit."

The public was asked to share the post in hopes of sparking anyone with knowledge of the case to call law enforcement. Within an hour, 212 shares popped up from El Centro, Calif., to Santa Fe, N.M., and all over Colorado.

Keller is not the only one to disappear mysteriously from the Conejos County area in the last eight years.

Sixty miles from where Keller was last seen, Casey Berry, 25, vanished on Valentine's Day 2007 on his way to visit a friend near the tiny town of Blanca. Police have leads, but his remains have not been found.

Retired pastor Jack Gordon, 77, vanished from his backyard, 57 miles from Conejos County, in 2008, leaving his wife and seven children stunned.

In 2011, Jason Pede, 31, was driving near the small town of Center, 48 miles from Conejos County, where a cellular tower picked up his cellphone before he vanished.

Also in 2011, just 28 miles from Conejos County, Angelica Sandoval carried her clean laundry and baby girl from her car to her family's bungalow. She ran back to the car to get her purse and vanished between the house and the car. She was to be the star witness against a man accused of a brutal home invasion.

A 2009 disappearance appears to have been handled in the way the Keller family sought.

Michael Rust vanished from his isolated home in the Rio Grande National Forest. According to the Valley Courier newspaper, the Saguache County sheriff immediately asked the CBI for assistance.

That first weekend, "hundreds of acres [were] crisscrossed by searchers on foot, on horseback and on motorcycles, looking for Rust or the bright red and white motorcycle [he rode]," the Valley Courier reported. "Private helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft were used, including two military Blackhawk choppers and a C-130 multi-engine USAF aircraft."

The human remains found this year were buried between Highways 17 and 285 in Saguache County, near the northern side of the national forest. That's about 100 miles away from where Keller was last seen - much closer to where Rust disappeared.

The Denver Post recently quoted a Rust family member as saying a belt buckle found with the bones probably belonged to Rust.

If that is true, an agonizing mystery will be solved for one missing man's family.

The Kellers will be left to grieve and wonder.

Contact Lynda Edwards at (423) 757-6391 or