Brussels woman helps solve decades-old missing person cold case in Wyoming
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
A cold missing person case in the State of Wyoming has been brought (mostly) to a close after receiving a massive assist from Brussels resident, genealogy enthusiast and amateur researcher Hilary Ibbotson-Machan.
Ibbotson-Machan made the discovery back in the fall, but, other parties involved, such as the family of the man in question and local authorities, wanted to wait until the information could be made public, which it was on Feb. 3 courtesy of a Cowboy State Daily article written by reporter Jen Kocher, whose articles tend to focus on missing persons cases.
The case in question is the 1985 disappearance of Roque “Rocky” Najera from Rawlins, Wyoming. Until late last year, Najera’s family had no idea what became of the man. According to Kocher’s article, the last time Najera’s family had seen him was in July of 1985, just one day before his 20th birthday, when he stopped by his parents’ home in Rawlins. He had been living in nearby Cheyenne, Wyoming and working as a cook at a local Holiday Inn restaurant.
In the article, Kocher quotes Najera’s younger sister, Michelle Jacobsen, as saying that she and her family always feared that her brother had been the victim of a crime in Cheyenne. The article states that Jacobsen and Najera’s elderly parents always assumed Najera had passed, otherwise he would have reached out to them, but they were still stunned to hear the news.
Where Ibbotson-Machan comes in is through a keen interest in genealogy, true crime and missing person cases. She is a member of several cold case and missing person social media groups and would put her research skills to use if she felt she could help or if the case interested her. With Najera, she said she was surprised to find how easily she discovered his death certificate, showing that he died in 1987, less than two years after he disappeared, in Seattle, Washington.
This information cannot be absolutely confirmed, Ibbotson-Machan said in an interview with The Citizen, due to a number of factors, but there are many coincidences that make it very likely that this death certificate was Najera’s.
According to her findings, Najera died of smoke inhalation in a fire in an abandoned building on April 9, 1987. He was 21 at the time, according to the death certificate.
The identification, according to the Cowboy State Daily article, was made due to a citation on the person in the fire issued from the King County Sheriff’s Office for a robbery with which Najera was reported to be involved. The birth dates match, but, no fingerprints were taken due to the degree of burns and decomposition of the body.
“Based on the information provided to us by the King County Sheriff’s Office and the Seattle Police Department, the deceased subject has been tentatively identified as Mr. Rocky Najera,” said Carbon County Sheriff Alex Bakken in an e-mail to Cowboy State Daily. He added that, further confirmation would not be possible and Najera would remain an active missing person case for now.
Najera’s family was not notified of his passing, however, Kocher notes that Najera’s address, parents’ names and Social Security number were all missing from the death certificate, so it may have been impossible to find a next of kin. Furthermore, his first name was even misspelled as “Rogue” on the document.
Ibbotson-Machan says her interest in genealogy and cold cases dates back to her late teens. She said she and her sister used to go to local cemeteries in Norfolk County, where she grew up, libraries and archives to do the tactile research that genealogy called for in the days before the internet and digitized records.
Their early interest was mostly familial, however, their next door neighbour went missing when she was young and living there, a case that has still yet to be solved, so there was always that seed of interest that had been planted so close to home.
The neighbour in question is William John Smith. Last seen in Rowan, Ontario, Smith has been missing since June 23, 1983. He was operating a boat on its way out of Port Rowan that day, heading out on the north channel leading to Lake Erie, and neither he nor the boat were ever seen again.
In the years that have followed, Ibbotson-Machan has maintained a keen interest in such matters, keeping up with them as well as she can. In fact, the Najera case isn’t even the first she helped to solve.
Years ago, when dial-up internet was the height of technology and ancestry.com was still in its infancy, she and her sister helped connect a New Hampshire woman with their grandmother.
The story went that the woman in question had two children and then abandoned them, leaving Virginia for what was rumoured to be California all those years ago.
The pair began looking into it and were able to find some leads in California, including a new marriage for the woman and a house that was still in the family. They connected the woman and her mother to the remaining family members out west (after waiting for documents to be mailed to them from California to confirm their findings - again this was before the internet reached its current form) and the two sides of the family were able to eventually connect.
At the time, the thrill of connecting people with one another took a back seat to the monetary reward offered up, which was $500 U.S. each, at the time, Ibbotson-Machan says with a smile.
In the time since, Ibbotson-Machan worked as a reporter and photographer for The Woodstock Sentinel Review for about four years before moving to Brussels in the late 1990s. And, since then, she’s kept her eyes open for interesting cases and matters in which she might be able to help. Of course, much of the research doesn’t necessarily lead to groundbreaking findings, but she’s always happy to help people when she can, though the experience can be bittersweet, she admits.
Cases like these are usually connected to tragedy, loss and unpleasant circumstances, so, while she’s happy to help provide closure for some people, it’s always sad to know that someone has died.
The dream, she said, in a missing person case is to, through your research, find an active phone number listed and be able to connect that long-lost person with their loved ones. However, that is often not the case. But, providing families with the closure they so desire can be satisfying in its own way, she said.
“I was really surprised and sad when I found it,” Ibbotson-Machan told Cowboy State Daily for Kocher’s story. “His family has been looking for him for so long.”
To read Kocher’s story in full, visit cowboystatedaily.com and find the story, published on Feb. 3, under the headline, “Nearly 40 Years After Wyoming Man Went Missing, Family Copes with Proof of his Death.”