ALAMOSA — As autumn descends on the Valley with falling leaves beginning to leave trees bare for winter, criminal investigators hope the change of the season will also lay bare answers to mysteries new and old in this usually peaceful place.
Within just a few weeks, two sets of human remains have been discovered; one set smoldering in a barrel on a rural Saguache County road and the other at the base of the Blanca massif in Alamosa County.
These discoveries have led longtime residents of the Valley to remember and speculate on active missing persons cases.
The names of Danice Day who went missing Jan. 9, 2001 in Rio Grande County, and that of Jack Springer of Costilla County come to mind to lawmen and some longtime residents alike.
Springer disappeared about 20-years ago when Alamosa County Sheriff Dave Stong was an investigator at the district attorney’s office. The case has grown colder over the years but recent events, not related to the human remains discoveries, may begin to shed light onto secrets long-held by some in the Valley.
According to various Valley investigators, a person of interest in Springer’s disappearance, Bonafacio Lobato, 40, was arrested Sept. 24, 2008 in connection with the shooting death of his son, Dominic Lobato, 20, on the night of Sept. 23.
Lobato faces a first degree homicide charge in the case which was investigated primarily by Shawn Woods of the DA’s office.
First degree murder is a crime punishable by death in Colorado.
Springer was married to Londi Espinoza Stong said. He described the relationship as volatile and said Espinoza was the victim of repeated domestic violence at the hands of Springer. Two men close to Espinoza during that period, Lobato and John Doe Placek, also of Costilla County, have long been considered by lawmen as ‘persons of interest’ in his disappearance.
Stong has made repeated trips to the jail in San Luis to talk with Lobato since his arrest last week.
Unfortunately, lawmen in the Valley do not believe either sets of remains discovered recently are connected to the disappearance of Day, the mother of two small children and only 19-years old at the time she went missing.
In another strange coincidence, Vernon Braun, 67, of Monte Vista, was recently arrested as the result of a joint Colorado State Patrol-Rio Grande County Sheriff’s Office investigation concerning suspect automobile transactions. Braun, along with his son Victor, the former companion of Day, have been called ‘persons of interest’ in her disappearance for years.
One suspected human bone and other evidence investigators thought might be linked to Day’s disappearance were found two years ago on a vacant Monte Vista lot once home to a gas station owned by Braun. Testing by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation forensic scientists on those items did not yield conclusive results.
Braun has been released from custody after posting a $100,000 bond after his original bond of $200,000 was reduced by Rio Grande County Judge Michael Trujillo.
The sheriffs of both Saguache and Alamosa counties continue to investigate the discoveries on their respective patches and both await forensic laboratory results to give them even the slightest clues as to the identities of those who were found.
“Every effort has been made to identify the remains, since the Saguache County Coroner, El Paso County Coroner’s Office and a forensic pathologist identified the remains as human. As of today, the remains have not been identified. It is not known when an identification of the remains may be made,” Saguache Sheriff Mike Norris said Wednesday. “This is a single incident and has no connection to any other investigation currently in progress in the San Luis Valley,” he added.
The El Paso County Medical Examiner has not reported to Norris any findings that have immediately lead to the identity of the person in the barrel but enough information has been collected at the scene and in the lab for the sheriff to announce late last week that the case is officially a homicide investigation.
Alamosa County Sheriff Dave Stong isn’t prepared to make that announcement yet regarding human remains found Sept. 10 on a parcel of private land near the base of Blanca massif. Stong said a Valley resident was walking their dog in the area and the dog, running ahead, returned to its master with an unmistakable human bone in its mouth. The sheriff’s office was notified and a team found the shallow burial site and began collecting evidence along with the human remains.
The material collected was sent to the CBI and the El Paso County ME’s office on Thur., Sept. 11.
There in those laboratories and offices lay sealed bags containing clothing, bones and other evidence collected from both recent Valley cases.
Both sheriffs await word from state criminalists and forensic pathologists that may help lead the direction of their separate investigations. “The identification of a victim is key,” Stong said midweek. He said his office hopes to have some information by the end of this week that will aid in the identification of the remains found at the base of the mountain. While Stong isn’t prepared to call the discovery a homicide investigation he believes the evidence collected will aid in the identification and carry the case in a criminal investigation direction. “I believe once the evidence our people secured is analyzed, an identification may be able to be made,” Stong said.
As for the terrestrial mysteries of the Valley, Stong said, “now is the time for those who know something to come forward and tell their stories. Some people have carried secrets with them for years, decades, and now is the time for the truth to come out.”
Both the Saguache and Alamosa county investigations are being conducted by the respective sheriff’s offices, the offices of the county coroners and the state bureau of investigation. Residents with any information that maybe helpful in the investigations are urged to call the Saguache County Sheriff’s Office (719) 655-2525; the Alamosa County Sheriff’s Office at 589-6575, the coroner’s office in the respective counties or Valley Crimestoppers at 589-4111.