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Natalee Holloway had her whole life ahead of her when she suddenly vanished on an unofficial school trip to Aruba in 2005. And, for years, her mom, Beth, searched desperately for any clues that might lead her to her daughter’s whereabouts. Then, nearly a decade and a half after the teenager disappeared, Beth returned to the Caribbean island for a very important reason.

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Natalee was the oldest of two children born to Dave and Beth Holloway, who at the time lived in Tennessee. Following the couple’s divorce in 1993, however, Beth wed successful Alabama-based businessman George “Jug” Twitty, and Natalee and her little brother, Matthew, would subsequently relocate with their mother to Mountain Brook – a well-to-do city near to Birmingham, AL.

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Natalee was a star student, too, as she graduated from Mountain Brook High School with honors. But the teen hadn’t always had her nose stuck in a book. You see, she had also packed her schedule with a number of extracurricular activities, including participating in the dance team and the National Honor Society. She was also due to start at the University of Alabama after having being awarded a scholarship to the prestigious school.

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Prior to starting college, however, Natalee and her classmates planned to celebrate their graduation in style. In May 2005 a group of 125 former students of Mountain Brook High School therefore jetted out to Aruba for a short vacation. At the time, Natalee was just 18, but seven chaperones were also there to watch over her and the other kids.

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Yet according to Natalee’s mom, her daughter was hardly a party animal. In a 2006 interview with Vanity Fair, Beth instead claimed that the teen was motivated and well behaved – and not typically one for boyfriends or raucous behavior. As a result, she had some worries about allowing Natalee to go on the hedonistic trip to Aruba.

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Beth would later tell the magazine, “Natalee was very smart, but very naïve.” Nevertheless, the Aruba vacation was seen as a right of passage for graduates of the school, and the teen’s stepbrother George had actually done the same years before. Ultimately, then, the mom of two gave permission for her daughter to go.

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So, in the early hours of May 26, 2005, Beth took Natalee over to a friend’s home ready for the trip to Aruba. And before leaving, the mom arranged to meet her daughter at the airport after her long weekend in the Caribbean. Tragically, though, the teenager would never return home, and her family would never see her again.

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In November 2019 Beth recalled her final moments with Natalee on ABC’s 20/20, explaining, “I helped her get her bag out of the car and just kissed her goodbye, said ‘I love you, have a great time.’ And then she entered the door, and the door closed. Never could I have imagined that would be the last time.”

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Then, once the Mountain Brook High students arrived in Aruba, they reportedly embraced the island’s famous party atmosphere. In fact, Police Commissioner Gerold Dompig would later tell Vanity Fair, “I don’t want to demonize them. But the group really went far – very far – in terms of having a good time.”

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Dompig – who was in charge of the investigation into Natalee’s subsequent disappearance until 2006 – claimed that the students had participated in “wild partying, a lot of drinking [and] lots of room switching every night.” He added, “We know the Holiday Inn told them they weren’t welcome next year.”

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And while Beth had asserted that partying was not in her daughter’s nature, the teenager reportedly let loose as well. In his Vanity Fair interview, Dompig added, “Natalee, we know – she drank all day, every day. We have statements she started every morning with cocktails – so much drinking that Natalee didn’t show up for breakfast two mornings.”

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Of course, it could be expected that teenagers on their first trip away from home would test the boundaries of their new-found freedom. That’s why the graduates had been accompanied to Aruba by a group of chaperones in the first place. And with responsible adults around, parents may have been satisfied that their kids would be kept safe.

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According to Mountain Brook High teacher Bob Plummer, who accompanied the graduates to Aruba, the adults checked in with the teens every day to ensure that everything was okay. That said, as trip organizer Jodi Bearman told Fox News in 2005, “The chaperones were not supposed to keep up with their every move.” The kids, then, were somewhat free to enjoy themselves.

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What’s more, Aruba was considered a safe, tranquil place where visitors could enjoy themselves. The island may not feel all that foreign to most Americans, either. It’s well developed, for one, and there are familiar food chains – including McDonald’s and Taco Bell – that give tourists a taste of home.

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Perhaps that’s why Natalee’s disappearance on the last day of her trip sent shockwaves through the United States and beyond. The last known sighting of the teenager took place at 1:30 a.m. on May 30. At that time, she was outside the Oranjestad venue known as Carlos ’N Charlie’s. Later that day, however, she didn’t turn up for her return flight home.

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That morning, the graduates all gathered in the hotel lobby in preparation for their flight. Then, when Natalee didn’t show, Bearman called Beth to make her aware of the worrying situation. Recalling this life-changing conversation, the mom of two later told 20/20, “They tell me that my daughter Natalee is missing and that no one has seen her.”

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Hours later – and still with no sign of Natalee – Beth boarded a private jet to Aruba alongside her husband, Jug, and two of his friends. The party then arrived on the island at about 10:00 p.m. that evening. But while it was late, the group hit the ground running with their search for the missing teenager. And to begin with, they traveled to the last place where she had been spotted.

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During the course of that first night in Aruba, Beth discovered that Natalee had last been seen in a car with Dutch teen Joran van der Sloot and his two friends Deepak and Satish Kalpoe. Van der Sloot – then 17 years old – was living on the island and studying at the International School of Aruba. And according to witnesses, he seemed like a fairly harmless character.

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However, when Beth mentioned van der Sloot to an employee at the Holiday Inn, she had a different opinion. The mom later explained to Vanity Fair magazine, “[The woman] knew exactly who he was: Joran van der Sloot. And then she said – these were her exact words – ‘He tends to prey upon young female tourists.’”

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It’s believed that Natalee met van der Sloot and the Kalpoe brothers at a hotel casino earlier on the evening of her disappearance. Surveillance footage also shows the young American woman sitting around a blackjack table with the Dutch teen. Then, later that evening, further CCTV captured her leaving Carlos ’N Charlie’s in a car with the three men.

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So, given that van der Sloot may have had vital information on her daughter’s whereabouts, Beth’s group went to visit him at home along with two local police officers. And while at first the student professed to have no knowledge of Natalee, he later admitted to spending time with the American teen on the night of her disappearance.

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Van der Sloot claimed that he and the Kalpoe brothers had driven Natalee to Arashi Beach because she had wished to look at the sharks there. He also claimed that he and Natalee had had sex in the back of Deepak’s car near a local lighthouse before the trio dropped the American off at the Holiday Inn at around 2:00 a.m.

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Van der Sloot also alleged that Natalee had tripped as she had left the car, although she didn’t allow him to help her. After that, he said that he had continued to watch Natalee as he and Deepak drove away – at which point he reportedly witnessed the teenager being approached by a man in a black shirt. And the Dutch student’s version of events was backed up by his friend Deepak, who was with him when police questioned him at his house.

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In the meantime, a search operation was underway on the island. Streams of local and international volunteers looked for Natalee, while civil servants numbering in the thousands were given time off by the island’s government to join the effort. Dutch Marines also carried out an in-depth examination of the island’s coastline.

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Then, in the days after Natalee had gone missing, initial arrests were made. The dark-shirted man that van der Sloot had claimed he had seen approaching the teen was believed to have been a security guard, leading police to subsequently detain two Aruban men who’d previously worked in hotel security.

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But even at this point in the investigation, Beth believed that the authorities had gone after the wrong suspects. In fact, she had been convinced from the outset that van der Sloot was involved in Natalee’s disappearance. When talking about the night when she had first met the Dutch national, Beth told 20/20, “I thought, ‘You’re it.’”

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And it soon emerged that the Aruban authorities shared Beth’s suspicions about van der Sloot. Yes, police ultimately released the two detained security guards without charge then arrested van der Sloot – along with both Kalpoes – on suspicion of Natalee’s kidnap and murder.

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While detained, however, all three suspects altered their versions of events; now, they claimed that they hadn’t left the American teen at the Holiday Inn. Instead, van der Sloot said that the Kalpoes had left him and Natalee at a beach near the Marriott Hotel. He apparently then parted ways from Natalee there – despite the fact that she was supposedly struggling to stay conscious.

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And while the Kalpoes initially backed up van der Sloot’s new account, the brothers later started pointing the finger toward their friend. In turn, van der Sloot changed his story for a second time – now claiming that Natalee had been escorted away by the siblings.

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All three men appeared in front of a judge on July 4, 2005, although the Kalpoe brothers were subsequently released. Van der Sloot, on the other hand, was held for another 60 days before finally being let go. And while the trio were all later rearrested – twice for the Kalpoes – a dearth of supporting evidence meant that none were ever formally charged.

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Then in 2007 the Aruban authorities decided to close the case – thus leaving Natalee’s disappearance unsolved. Her family had no remains to lay to rest, either, nor anyone to blame. That being said, Beth was convinced that van der Sloot was involved. She would tell 20/20, “He’s a monster. I know that he was responsible for the demise of Natalee, and I’ll never, never not believe that.”

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So, while it appeared that police were no longer on van der Sloot’s tail, Beth made it her mission to prove that he was involved with Natalee’s disappearance. As she told 20/20, “Did I know what was to come? No. But I knew that I was gonna hang onto him ’til my last breath.”

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And over the years, van der Sloot gave conflicting accounts about what had happened to Natalee. In 2008 he suggested, for instance, that she had died on the morning of her disappearance and that a friend had subsequently gotten rid of her body. In addition, he claimed that he’d sold the American teen as a sex slave. The Dutch student later retracted both of these stories, however.

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Yet Beth was still determined to prove van der Sloot’s involvement in her daughter’s disappearance. In one desperate last-ditch effort, then, she sent the Dutch student $25,000. The money acted as a initial payment, as Beth had pledged van der Sloot a total sum of $250,000 if he gave any details regarding the whereabouts of Natalee’s remains.

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After Beth sent van der Sloot the cash, however, he left the country. In an email, he told the mom’s lawyer John Q. Kelly, “I did not tell you the truth, so the information you have is worthless… I’m sorry for making a fool out of you, if that is why [sic] you think. I think you are a nice man and a man of your word, and I am most definitely not.”

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That could have very well been the end of the story. Then, exactly five years after Natalee disappeared on May 30, 2010, a 21-year-old woman was deemed to be missing in the Peruvian capital of Lima. That woman was Stephany Flores Ramírez. And like Natalie, Ramírez had been captured on CCTV at the same casino as van der Sloot in the hours before she had vanished.

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Lima authorities subsequently raided a hotel room booked under van der Sloot’s name, where, tragically, they found Ramirez’s dead body. The Dutchman had already escaped to Chile at that point, but he later returned to Peru to face questions over the young woman’s murder. And on June 7 he confessed to the killing, receiving a 28-year sentence for the crime in January 2012.

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Beth has since been haunted by the idea that van der Sloot may have traveled to Peru with the money she had sent him in exchange for information about Natalee. However, the mom of two refutes the suggestion that she’s in any way to blame for Ramírez’s death. As she told 20/20, “Whoever was responsible for letting Joran leave that island, Aruba – they are the ones that have to [lose] sleep at night over Stephany Flores’ death. Not me.”

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Currently, van der Sloot’s prison term is scheduled to come to an end in 2038, after which there’s a chance that he could be extradited to America on extortion charges. For now, though, Beth and her family are attempting to piece their lives together in the wake of Natalee’s disappearance. And in 2019 Natalee’s mother returned to Aruba to make peace with the island.

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Speaking on 20/20, Beth explained, “14 years later, Aruba has become a lot less significant to me. It’s interesting how all these landmarks that were such a driving force in our search for Natalee are just — I mean, they’re gone. Carlos ’N Charlie’s is gone. This whole area is gone. This place doesn’t control me anymore.”

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Meanwhile, another case that gripped America for decades is the disappearance of Jonelle Matthews. The 12-year-old girl from Colorado vanished days before Christmas in 1984 – and never came home. But in 2019 an unlikely discovery finally solved the mystery.

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Out of all the states in the U.S., Colorado is the fifth-largest producer of natural gas. So, for the crew digging a pipeline in Weld County, the job seems like nothing out of the ordinary. But as they continue to move earth at the rural location, they spot something alarming underneath. And it’s not a leak. At first glance, in fact, it appears to be human remains.

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What’s more, that fateful discovery would ultimately prove significant for the relatives of missing Jonelle Matthews. Jonelle had entered the world on February 9, 1972, when Terri Vierra-Martinez delivered her daughter at the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital in California. Terri had been just 13 years old at the time, and after just a month of caring for the baby she apparently realized that she couldn’t carry on. Perhaps inevitably, then, Terri put her child up for adoption in March of the same year.

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But a good family from a couple of states over would heed Vierra-Martinez’s call for adoptive parents. Yes, Jim and Gloria Matthews, based in Greeley, Colorado, had decided to add the baby girl to their family of three. Actually, they took in the little one, whom they named Jonelle, through Sunny View Church of Nazarene – their chosen place of worship. And with that, Jonelle joined big sister Jennifer to complete the Matthews family.

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In July 2019 Jennifer described Jonelle to the Associated Press, revealing that her pre-teen sibling had already become “a strong, independent, opinionated 12-year-old.” She added of her sister, “She knew what she wanted and how things should be done.” Old photos of the grinning, sassy Jonelle appear to corroborate Jennifer’s account, too.

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And on Friday, December 20, 1984, the ever-lively Jonelle had big plans – at least, for a 12-year-old schoolgirl. That day, you see, the Coloradoan was scheduled to perform at a nursing home alongside her choir mates from Franklin Middle School. Intrawest Bank – a financial institution of the time – had sponsored the show.

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Unfortunately, Jonelle’s dad, Jim, wouldn’t be in the audience that night; instead, he had gone to watch Jennifer’s basketball game. And Gloria couldn’t make her daughter’s choir performance, either. The Matthews family matriarch’s own mother had fallen ill, so she had flown across the country to be with her.

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Fortunately, Jonelle didn’t have to completely fend for herself that night. After the concert, she approached her friend Deanna Ross and asked for a ride home. Deanna’s father, Russell, duly obliged and waited until the pre-teen had made it into the house before driving off. In fact, Jonelle even flashed the lights inside to show that she had entered her home without any problems.

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So, the Ross family left in their vehicle, while Jonelle remained at home alone. The 12-year-old is then said to have answered a phone call at around 8:30 p.m., taking a message from a caller who wanted to speak to her father. Her dad was the principal of Platte Valley Elementary School, and a teacher had gotten in touch to say that she couldn’t make it to work the next day.

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Then it seemed that Jonelle had cozied up in the living room of her family’s home, which was situated within a safe neighborhood called Pheasant Run. Touchingly, she had even flipped on a space heater and slid into her mother’s slippers. She would have been sitting near the Christmas tree, too, which had been set up in preparation for the celebrations just five days away. But Christmas would be a completely different holiday for the Matthews family in 1984 and beyond.

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You see, after Jonelle’s father, Jim, had returned home at 9:30 p.m., it quickly became clear that something out of the ordinary had happened. While he noticed that his younger daughter’s shoes and shawl were sitting close to the heater in the family room, he couldn’t actually find Jonelle anywhere.

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And as the night progressed, Jonelle never came back to claim her favorite spot in the living room. Then Jennifer returned home at 10:00 p.m., after which she reported that she hadn’t seen her sister, either. At this point, Jim naturally became concerned, leading him to ring the police to tell them that his daughter seemed to have vanished.

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Then, 15 minutes later, the cops arrived at the Matthews family’s home. Astonishingly, perhaps, they couldn’t find any evidence of a struggle, nor did they notice any signs of forced entry. But law enforcement did discern a set of footprints in the Colorado snow outside, with the pattern making it seem as though someone had looked in through the windows of the house.

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Investigators thus initially honed in on the possibility that Jonelle had run away. Jim never believed this theory, however, as his daughter had left her shoes in the living room. The father reckoned, you see, that it would be tough for the 12-year-old to run off into the snow-covered landscape without any footwear.

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Plus, as Jim later told a reporter from The Denver Post, Jonelle had a lot to look forward to. He went on to explain, “There were too many neat things happening to her. She had a girlfriend coming to sleep over [the day after she disappeared], she was going to be in the Christmas presentation at church – she’s such a ham – plus with Christmas…”

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But investigators still had to follow through on the theory, leading them to open Jonelle’s school locker to see if they could find any evidence of her plans to skip town. The authorities discovered nothing out of the ordinary, however, and they also knew that Jonelle had a happy family life with her parents and sister. It had seemed, too, that the girl had snuggled up in the living room to wait for her relatives to get home. All in all, then, the police had to think fast.

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And debunking the possibility that Jonelle had run away proved an important step for the team. In fact, Tom Welde, chief investigator at the Weld County District Attorney’s office, told Colorado State University, “Runaways usually come home after a couple of days.” So, without Jonelle back in Greeley, Welde and his colleagues had to consider other possibilities.

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This meant looking for Jonelle herself, of course. And investigators also came up with a pool of potential suspects whom they considered may have wanted to kidnap or hurt the missing 12-year-old. Law enforcement hypothesized, for example, that the pre-teen’s birth mother may have had something to do with her daughter’s disappearance, and this avenue of inquiry led them to stake out Vierra-Martinez for weeks on end.

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Yet even though the cops followed Vierra-Martinez, she never knew that her biological daughter had gone missing. In fact, she would only find out what had actually happened to Jonelle years after the fact. Furthermore, while Vierra-Martinez never got the chance to know Jonelle, she did eventually grow close to the girl’s adoptive parents after she sent them a letter requesting a meeting with their daughter. But let’s get back to the police search for now.

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And, naturally, the cops did explore other potential leads. They met with Jonelle’s teachers, for example, and asked neighbors if they had seen or knew anything. The investigators even spoke to the 12-year-old’s friends, who reported that she had given them Christmas presents on December 19. The search appeared to be heating up at this time; even the FBI became involved.

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Meanwhile, those who knew Jonelle could only emphasize that the bubbly girl wouldn’t have run off on her family. Lieutenant Paul Branham told The Denver Post, “Everybody we have talked to says that Jonelle wouldn’t just walk away and disappear – that it would be out of character for her.” In 1984 he also said, “We are regarding this as a possible kidnapping.”

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At the time, cases of missing kids had begun to grab the national headlines. And this wasn’t just for the alarming nature of their stories, but because there were so many tales that had similar circumstances to those of the missing Matthews girl. From the late 1970s until the late 1980s, a staggering number of children disappeared each year: more than one million annually. People had gotten so concerned, in fact, that the president, of all people, decided to get involved.

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That’s right: in March 1985 – just a few months after Jonelle disappeared – Ronald Reagan made an appeal to journalists nationwide. The president implored the media to do its part to help locate missing kids, while he also hoped that publications would start printing photos of the children who had vanished from their circulation areas.

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At one point in his speech, Reagan even mentioned Jonelle. He said, “Well, over a million American children disappear from their homes or neighborhoods every year causing, as we can all understand, heartbreaking anguish… For example, I learned about Jonelle Matthews of Greeley, Colorado, who would have celebrated a happy 13th birthday with her family just last month. But five days before Christmas, Jonelle disappeared from her home.”

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Heartbreakingly, though, the president’s plea wouldn’t spark any leads, nor would a $5,000 reward for any information on Jonelle’s kidnapper. In lieu of answers, then, volunteers continued to look for the girl. On what would have been her 13th birthday, hundreds combed more than 4,000 square miles of land in Weld County. There was still hope, it seemed.

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But once again the searchers found nothing, and Jonelle’s family continued to suffer. And her father, Jim, would try to verbalize what it felt like to have a missing daughter. He told The Denver Post, “It’s not a death. Death is final – a closure you can put behind you. But this is constant, it’s unique [and] you can’t work through this.” In May 1985, though, it looked as though there might be a potentially huge break in the case.

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At that time, a farmer made a gruesome discovery on his land in Weld County’s southwestern pocket. Disturbingly, he had found a piece of a person’s scalp – a chunk of skin with hair still attached. And the Matthews family had to identify the item in question, too. Had Jonelle somehow been attacked?

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The Matthews were able to rest a little easier, however, when they realized that Jonelle had different colored hair to that fixed to the scalp. At the time, Gloria said, “I wasn’t really prepared emotionally to look at the scalp, but it was a job that had to be done. I felt a great sense of relief when I realized it wasn’t Jonelle.”

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Yet the family still feared that they wouldn’t find Jonelle alive, and that possibility grew stronger as time went on. Almost a year after the 12-year-old’s disappearance, then, the Matthews promoted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children alongside a food initiative. Dole Foods planned to reach 43 million U.S. citizens by featuring the images of those missing on their packaging.

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But in December 1985, Jonelle’s family decided that it was time to let go of the Christmas presents they’d saved. They donated the gifts, then, and shared their grim outlook with the public. That month, you see, Gloria admitted to a reporter that her youngest daughter may have died. Worse still, the thought of Jonelle having being kidnapped and tortured had left her parents distraught.

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And such a horrifying scenario was a possibility considering the number of tips that had come in from people who thought they had spotted Jonelle. Someone phoned police, for instance, to tell the cops that they reckoned they had seen her in Aurora. That girl, the witness said, had come into an area salon wearing a Harley-Davidson-branded leather jacket.

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But sadly none of these tips came to fruition. Instead, Jonelle’s case went cold for a decade. And on the tenth anniversary of the girl’s disappearance in 1994, the Matthews therefore made a step toward closure. Regrettably, as Jonelle had been gone for so long, Jim and Gloria had their daughter declared legally dead.

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Still, the family understandably wanted to know what had actually happened to Jonelle. For more than three decades, then, they may have held their breath when police found unidentified remains that could be the 12-year-old’s. And in July 2019 a new piece of potential evidence would actually come to light – although it wasn’t good news.

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That month, construction workers gathered to dig a pipeline through a rural area that sits on Greeley’s southeastern side. And as Jennifer later told the Associated Press, she considers what happened next to be “a miracle.” As the team moved the earth, they uncovered a set of human remains – ones that DNA evidence later proved had once belonged to Jonelle. The mystery of the 12-year-old’s whereabouts was finally over, and now she could come home to rest at last.

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Yet a slight change in the location of the pipe would have left Jonelle’s body undiscovered. Jennifer explained, “If it would have been dug one foot to the left or to the right, she would not have been found.” But while the pipeline dig left the Matthews with some resolution, the harrowing find posed new questions, too.

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You see, investigators didn’t just match the remains to Jonelle’s DNA; upon finding her body, they could also confirm that her cause of death hadn’t been a natural one. Tragically, it appeared then that the schoolgirl had been murdered after her disappearance in December 1984. And this new information would give Jennifer a newfound focus.

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As Jennifer went on to tell the Associated Press, “Somebody is responsible for doing this to her.” And Jonelle’s sister hoped that investigators could use modern technology – namely DNA testing – to link someone to the crime. “This is meant to happen,” Jennifer added. “And if there’s any DNA… it’s showtime.”

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Such an outcome would likely be of great consolation to the Greeley Police Department after years of heartbreak over Jonelle’s case. In 2018 – the 34th anniversary of her disappearance – officers had even spoken about how they planned to finally unearth the truth about what had happened to the pre-teen. And following the 2019 emergence of Jonelle’s remains, the authorities naturally received a big lead.

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“Given the significant recent advances in forensic and scientific testing methods, Greeley Police will be examining every possible forensic option available to us,” a 2018 statement from the department read. And upon the new break in 2019, the local officers admitted that they felt relief in finding at least some answers in Jonelle’s case.

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In some ways, however, the story has just begun. Finding Jonelle’s killer will be the next step, and such an investigation could be tough. But police have plenty of motivation to solve the case once and for all. In a 2019 statement announcing the discovery of the girl’s remains, law enforcement said, “This case has weighed on the hearts of the Greeley Police Department, the family and the entire city.”

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In the meantime, the Matthews have gotten some of the closure they need. And while Jennifer has since moved to Washington and Jim and Gloria have retired to Costa Rica, they all came back to Greeley to put Jonelle to rest in the place she called home. The family have also planned a celebration of their daughter and sister’s life – a fitting tribute to the vivacious 12-year-old.

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