Jeff Jardine

Relatives of the long-missing grieve – and cling to hope

A flyer on a tree at Donnell’s Vista Point in Tuolumne County seeks clues to the fate of Nita Mayo, whose car was found at the site’s parking lot in 2005.
A flyer on a tree at Donnell’s Vista Point in Tuolumne County seeks clues to the fate of Nita Mayo, whose car was found at the site’s parking lot in 2005. Modesto Bee

Such a beautiful place, such horrible feelings.

The Sierra and the foothills of Tuolumne County hold fond memories for most who live, grew up or visit there. For others, though, the area simply haunts them. It brings back tremendous sadness and the pain of the unknown. Their loved ones disappeared there never to be found, and from terrain that can be unforgiving and unrevealing.

“We have friends who live in Twain Harte,” said Brandi Elgen of Modesto, whose brother-in-law, 31-year-old Willie Elgen, vanished from Mount Provo northeast of Tuolumne City in December 2010. Searches turned up no traces of him. “We haven’t been back since Willie went missing. My husband (AT&T technician Chris Elgen) gets sent up there to work, and it’s hard to do.”

It’s no different when Linda Hatter of Modesto passes by the Chicken Ranch Bingo Parlor near Jamestown, where her son Allen C. Martin was last seen in February.

“I was raised here in the Valley, but my family always loved the outdoors,” Hatter said. “We spent a lot of time camping and fishing and I always dreamed of living in a peaceful area like that. Now, it brings a sense of doom and panic. Someone there has answers.”

For the family of Michael Madden, who vanished 20 years ago Friday, it would be Beardsley Reservoir, where Madden’s campsite and dog were found, but never the 40-year-old Modesto man.

For the families and friends of 67-year-old Nita Mayo of Nevada and 46-year-old Columbia cafe owner Patricia Tolhurst, that dreaded spot is the Donnell’s Vista Point 42 miles east of Sonora where Mayo’s car was found in August 2005 and Tolhurst’s at the same place two years ago.

In fact, at least 17 people remain missing and still unaccounted for in Tuolumne County dating back to 1980, when Dennis Silva, 71, and his brother Timothy Silva, 68, disappeared three days before Christmas.

The families of these victims share this: Most hold out faint hope that their loved one might someday come walking back into their lives. But mostly, they mourn the presumed loss and are tormented by not knowing what really happened.

Many of them will meet at Columbia State Park on Sept. 10 to share stories, memories, a meal and support in what organizers – Hatter and Modesto’s Andrea Jones – are calling “Tuolumne County Missing Persons’ Awareness Day.” The hope is that they will keep the memories of their lost family members alive, and perhaps jog a memory or spur a clue that might lead to the answers that have eluded them for, in some cases, decades. It will be a support session and a picnic from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the state park’s picnic area.

Jones became involved because her husband, retired police officer Chuck Jones, is investigating Martin’s disappearance from the bingo parlor for the Hatter family. The security video shows him walking away from the building, across the parking area and eventually out of the camera’s eye, and he hasn’t been seen since.

“We want to support the families and get people to learn about these cases,” Jones said.

The gathering will be similar to the annual Vigil of Hope, said Kim Petersen, who organized such events during her time as executive director of the Carole Sund-Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation.

“It is about awareness and working to show support,” Petersen said.

They are still trying to locate family members of the missing to inform them of the event, which is open to the public. Tracy Mayo will travel from North Dakota to attend, as will kin of Troy Galloway, who disappeared in January, and Sandy Lee, whose son Darvis Lee died in 2010. A piece of Lee’s jawbone was found a few months later and a few miles from where his car was found near Columbia. She still doesn’t know the events that led to his death.

The family of Carl Knight also will be there. He was beaten to death by two brothers from Jamestown in April 2008. They told authorities they threw his body into Lake Don Pedro, but Knight’s remains were never recovered. The brothers pleaded guilty to manslaughter counts later that same year, getting 11 years apiece in state prison.

The survivors all will have stories to tell. By sharing them and supporting one another in Columbia, with some hugs and tears, perhaps the mountains and foothills won’t seem quite so haunting to them anymore.