A 51-year-old man long considered a suspect in the death of a 15-year-old Craig girl in 1979 fell down a set of basement steps and died Thursday, his mother confirmed.
Stephen Skufca was on parole for a drug dealing and harassment conviction and was engaged to be married, his mother Ruth Skufca said Saturday.
"We're just devastated," Ruth Skufca said. "He was just getting his life together."
Ruth Skufca, 76, expressed bitterness that her son had been hounded for years about a crime she said she is confident he didn't commit.
"They made him the worst criminal that ever hit Craig," she said of authorities who investigated her son for the death of Marie Blee.
Blee had gone to a 4-H dance at the Moffat County Fairgrounds Pavilion in Craig the night of Nov. 22, 1979, the day before Thanksgiving.
She then went to a party at a mobile home just outside of Craig with Monte Doolin, then 18. Then she vanished.
A thorough investigation didn't begin until 20 years later, when Frontier Magazine publisher Jenny Johnson, then 31, wrote a story with a headline blaring: "Obstruction of justice."
A task force was formed and eventually everyone at the party was tracked down and interviewed, at least 25 of them for the first time. But none of the leads generated the kind of evidence authorities needed to file charges.
Moffat County Sheriff Tim Jantz previously identified three persons of interest that may know details that could help solve the case: Doolin, Skufca, and Max Abel Garcia, 51. All denied involvement in her disappearance. No arrests have ever been made in the Blee case.
The allegations destroyed Stephen Skufca's life, and the lives of his entire family as well, Ruth Skufca said.
"They never let him have a life," she said. "They thought Steve would make a good patsy. It's haunted us. It's ruined our lives."
She said that, shortly after her son was named as a suspect, she told her husband she couldn't tolerate living in Craig any more. They moved to Lakewood.
Three years after the task force formed, Stephen Skufca was convicted of drug and menacing charges and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was released on parole three years ago and has been living with his mother ever since.
On Thursday, Stephen Skufca returned home just before 6 p.m. just as his mother was coming in the door with groceries. He said he would take something downstairs and come back upstairs to help her.
Ruth Skufca said she heard a loud noise and called to see if he was OK but his face had turned blue and his skull was cracked. She said she is going to have his remains cremated.
"I know Steve was home that night," she said. "He was a good kid doing stupid things. He's the kindest person you would ever meet."
Family members have complained that because the real investigation didn't start until 20 years too late, the chances of ever solving the case are slim.