Three buddies from Cleveland, Tenn. — college math whiz and gifted athlete Joe Keller, along with his pals Christian Fetzner and Collin Gwaltney — had paused on their cross-country trip to celebrate Keller's birthday at a Colorado dude ranch where his aunt and uncle live and work.
That celebration never happened. On July 23, the day before Keller turned 19, he disappeared during a run on a well-traveled ranch road.
The unexplained disappearance has pulled together officials in Colorado and Tennessee, although answers seem to be in short supply.
Bradley County Sheriff Eric Watson told the Times Free Press that Fetzner and Gwaltney both volunteered to take polygraphs and easily passed. Watson said texts and voicemails on their phones showed no hint of any disputes.
To help with the search, Gwaltney's brother set up a GoFundMe page that raised more than $16,000 to pay for a helicopter with infrared equipment to fly over the Rio Grande National Forest roads where Keller might have run.
The reward for information about Keller's disappearance has been increased from $10,000 to $50,000.
Keller, who wanted to use his math skills as a high school teacher, seems to have no known enemies. But more than a month after his disappearance and a massive search by the FBI, police from several Colorado counties, two Cleveland investigators and dozens of volunteers with drones and search dogs, not a trace of Keller has been found.
Watson is holding a press conference today to talk about the investigation.
The way his Conejos County, Colo., counterpart has handled the investigation is still stirring controversy among Coloradans and Tennesseans.
Sheriff Howard Galvez officially suspended the search on Aug. 4 after declining help from the Bradley County Sheriff's Office. On Aug. 7, Galvez told Watson he could send two members of his team — Lt. Brian Quinn and Detective Sgt. Kevin Chastain — to spend a couple of days in Conejos County at their own expense.
Some residents don't feel like enough was done early on to find Keller.
The Conejos County sheriff's Facebook page was bombarded with questions when it announced a search-and-rescue class. Many asked whether attendees would be searching for Keller.
One comment came from a guest at Rainbow Trout Ranch who listed her residence as Indiana. She said she was there at the time of Keller's disappearance.
"I'm sorry to say that I believe local law enforcement handled this rather casually for the first 24 hours," she wrote. "I was surprised there were no officials looking until after lunch on Friday and there were only a handful that whole first day. One of the local LEO told me rather casually, 'He just got turned around somewhere. We'll find him. He's young and strong.'
"The dogs didn't come until Saturday," the writer continued. "The heat-reading plane came later in the day Saturday."
Rebecca Kilbourne Bogan lives about a mile from where Keller went missing. She posted a comment on the Facebook page alleging deputies hung up on locals who tried to phone in leads and were, in some cases, told "never call their office again."
Galvez and his undersheriff, Chris Crown, did not respond to Times Free Press requests for interviews. Galvez has an eight-person staff — about one for every thousand residents there — in what is considered one of the state's poorest counties. FBI Special Agent Amy Sanders, who is based in Denver, said the FBI decided to assist in the investigation and has agents in the area.
But that is a lot of ground to cover.
"Rio Grande National Forest sprawls across 1.8 million acres, and no one is living there," said the national forest's spokesman, Mike Blakemore. "Then consider that the area the law enforcement agencies are searching is about the size of Massachusetts but has only 46,000 people in it. A colleague in law enforcement here said that we should be aware of anti-federalist, anti-Constitutional militants who want to be off the grid. But Joe wouldn't have stumbled across them if he was running on the main road. And if he was going to run for a half hour then turn around and meet his friend for supper on the ranch, he really didn't have time to go into the forest."
Contact Lynda Edwards at 423-757-6391 or firstname.lastname@example.org.