After 25 years, parents still searching

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Mona Blee has a crisp, clear memory of Thanksgiving Day 25 years ago.

She remembers the light dusting of snow that fell the night before. She remembers waking up and starting to cook the holiday meal and peeking into her daughter's room. She recalls a sinking feeling when she didn't see her 15-year-old, Marie, in her bed and realized she had not come home from a dance the night before.

That moment, that day -- Nov. 22, 1979 -- continues to haunt Mona.

To outsiders, the disappearance of Marie Blee has become folklore. In the past 25 years, rumors about what happened to Marie that night, where her body is and even the places her ghost can be found have circulated steadily. Marie's disappearance has been featured in national magazines, and her picture has been printed on the back of milk cartons.

But for her parents, the past 25 years have been marked with the horror of a missing child, the hope that the next tip might be the clue to crack the case and the never-ending yearning for closure.

Paul and Mona Blee continue to grapple with the same question they asked when they first saw the empty bed so long ago.

"My major concern is where is she?" Mona said. "It is just devastating to not know where she is. We want to know. We want to know something, and there is nothing."

Not a day goes by without the Blees thinking of their missing daughter. Some memories are good -- the pretty blonde who did well in school, helped manage the Hayden High School wrestling team and participated in 4-H and Girl Scouts.

Other memories leave them raw.

"You just don't lose one and chalk it up to experience," Paul Blee said. "It is always with you."

The nightmare

On the night of Nov. 21, 1979, Marie went to a 4-H dance at the Pavilion in Craig. After the dance, she went with friends to a party at Shadow Mountain Village. What happened afterward is a mystery that law enforcement officials have been investigating since.

Mona and Paul have had to face horrors that parents never should. They have scoured the countryside of Northwest Colorado and searched through dumps for Marie's remains. Mona once took a phone call from someone asking for money in return for her daughter. It was later deemed to be a hoax, but still was crushing.

"I just about fell apart, and I don't fall apart easily," she said.

Years later, tears still spring to Mona's eyes when she talks about the first time she saw her daughter's picture on the back of a milk carton.

"It just stopped me. I picked up the carton of milk and there our daughter's picture is. I knew it was going to be there. It was just the shock of seeing it in real life," Mona said.

And still there is hope.

What they want more than anything, Mona said, is to find her body, have a place for a headstone and a chance for closure.

"It doesn't matter what happened anymore. I just want to know where she is. It's been hanging over our heads all these years," Paul said.

The Blees left Hayden in 1984, but they have never changed their phone number. Just in case someone wanted to call home, Paul said.

At 71 and 67, Mona and Paul are retired and living in Grand Junction. Paul, who used to be an electrician, now volunteers at the Veteran's Affairs hospital. They have a collage of pictures of Marie in their living room.

"It's nice to see that beautiful smile smiling at us every day," Mona said. "This is not something we think about once in a while. It is something that is there all the time and there every day."

Mona cannot hear the number 22 without thinking about the time she and Marie were in Germany, and a shopkeeper shouted out that they needed 22 francs.

She reminisced about Marie's ability to stack the dishes higher than anyone else in the family, the teenage embarrassment of wearing braces and how her cheeks swelled after having four wisdom teeth pulled.

The times that Mona does not expect to be reminded of Marie are the hardest. The times when she is walking down the street and sees a young girl who has the hair and build of her daughter.

"Always the feelings are there, and they are there all the time. Just some times are easier than other times," Mona said.

In memoriam

Each year, the Blees send out a notice to the local newspapers near the anniversary of Marie's disappearance, as a reminder and a plea for anyone who has information to come forward. For the first time this year, the notice was in the form of a memoriam, indicating a remembrance of someone now dead.

The Blees are not sure why they changed the notice but said they do think their daughter is dead. The questions of how and why she died live on.

"I always wonder if I could have done something else -- was it our fault, was it her fault, whose fault was it?" Paul said. "We are always looking for reasons why, and there are no reasons why."

The task force

Law enforcement officials have the same questions. In June 1999, the Moffat County Sheriff's Office, the Craig Police Department, the Hayden Police Department, the Routt County Sheriff's Office and the FBI formed a task force in hopes of solving the case.

The investigation was done poorly 20 years earlier, Moffat County Undersheriff Jerry Hoberg said. Marie's disappearance first was viewed as a runaway case, so crucial witnesses and suspects were not interviewed.

"If they had put a little more effort into the investigation, they could have solved the case from the information we have," Hoberg said.

Most of the leads in the case came in during the first two years of the now 5-year-old task force's existence. In the past five years, task force members have interviewed more than 50 people who were at the party the night Marie disappeared.

The interviews gave conflicting reports of what occurred that night and put Marie in different locations with different people.

The task force members suspect that Marie went to the dance at the Craig Pavilion and then to the party at Shadow Mountain Village, which is close to Moffat County High School. Even at the party, witnesses gave different accounts of where Marie was and what she was doing.

One witness said she was in the bathroom doing drugs. Another witness said she never went inside the house.

From the party, witnesses said Marie was spotted back at the Pavilion and at the Circle K, a nearby convenience store. Some say she left the Circle K with one man and returned to the party. Witnesses said she left the Shadow Mountain Village party with three men, and others say she showed up at a party in Hayden later that night.

One theory the task force formulated was that Marie could have overdosed on drugs that night, and her body was buried.

"It is really frustrating to wade through all that and figure out the truth," Hoberg said.

The search, the suspects

During the spring and summer of 2000, the task force looked in dumps in Craig and Milner, dug up a yard in Hayden, investigated a well north of Hayden and even enlisted a psychic to help identify locations where Marie's body could be. The task force uncovered two sets of remains at possible burial sites, but both sets were identified as animal bones.

"It is frustrating to put in that much time and effort and not get the results you want, and that is to find the body," Hoberg said.

The task force did pinpoint three suspects or crucial witnesses in the case: Monty Doolin of Grand Junction, Steve Skufca of Craig and Max Abel Garcia of Portland, Ore. Some witnesses put Blee with the men the night she disappeared.

However, interviews with those people never resulted in a location of Marie's body or a reason for her disappearance, Hoberg said.

Doolin took Marie to the dance that night and was later seen with her at the party at Shadow Mountain Village. Doolin told authorities that she got a ride home from an unknown person at about 2 a.m.

A week after Blee's disappearance, Doolin called her family and demanded $5,000 in ransom for their daughter. He was arrested and given a suspended sentence for extortion. Twenty years later, the task force visited Doolin in Grand Junction, and he continued to maintain he had no involvement in Blee's disappearance.

The task force also identified Skufca as a suspect after people interviewed mentioned he had made comments about being involved in Marie's disappearance, Hoberg said. A year after the task force formed, Skufca, who had an extensive criminal record, was arrested on charges of menacing.

While in the Moffat County Jail, Skufca went through two days of interrogation related to the Blee case and denied knowing anything. Hoberg said the task force was willing to cut Skufca a deal with a pending prison sentence if he agreed to talk. Skufca did not talk and took the full prison sentence.

Garcia never was considered a suspect, but Hoberg said the task force thinks he was a witness to what happened that night. The task force traveled to Oregon to interview him and he, too, denied having any involvement.

The years have made it harder to get the information, Hoberg said.

"Back then, they were kids that were 19 and 20 years old. A cop worth any salt could have gotten the information. Now, 20 years later, why would they tell you anything?" he said.

Someone knows

Countless times, Hoberg said he has thought authorities were about to get the tip that would break the case open or felt sure they were digging in the spot where Marie was buried

"Anytime you have an open case like this in a relatively small town, you want to get it done, you want to complete it," Hoberg said.

The task force will be successful if it finds the body, even if it never uncovers what happened that night, Hoberg said. Even if more details about the events do become clear, he said it would be hard to get a conviction 25 years after the disappearance.

In the past few years, tips have continued to filter in to the task force, but Hoberg said there has not been a lot of new information. He has gotten calls that Marie's ghost is thought to haunt buildings in Craig and a tip that her body was buried in the concrete foundation of the Craig City Market, which was being built at the time she disappeared.

Hoberg and the Blees continue to be sure that someone knows what happen to Marie and is refusing to talk.

"Someone knows what happened to her," Hoberg said. "There is always the possibility that one person did it, and that person is going to take that information to the grave with them. Then you really have nothing."

As guilt grows with years, or as people move back into the area, the Blees hope new information will come, and their questions will be answered.

"We are trying to remind people that something happened up there. It might cause someone to come forward," Paul said. "This could be the solution. We are still digging for clues."

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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