Searching

Parents still looking for daughter who disappeared 25 years ago

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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

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.

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