Missing Person: Joseph Helt

We are happy to report that in our ongoing efforts to solve the Missing Person Case of Joseph Helt that the New York Times has published an article describing the facts surrounding the case. You can read the entire article right here. We hope this story will bring us closer to closing this case.

Tensions Persist Over a Man Long Missing (JOSEPH HELT, AGE 17, MISSING SINCE 1987)
Published: October 23, 2011

ELLENVILLE, N.Y. — The flier was bright red with a photograph and a few lines of text: “Candlelight Vigil For Joe Helt,” it read. “24 Years Is Too Long!”

A former classmate of Joseph Helt posted more than 15 of the fliers this year on a well-traveled street in this mountain-ringed village of 4,000; the vigil marked the 24th anniversary of Mr. Helt’s disappearance.

By the next morning, all but two had been torn down, said the classmate, Jackie Mennella.

It was unclear who removed the fliers, but they appeared targeted: Other posters attached to nearby poles were untouched; pointed at Ms. Mennella’s remaining fliers was a security camera from a nearby school, Ms. Mennella said.

“To put it mildly, we were angry,” said Gina Schuster, 41, another of Mr. Helt’s classmates who helped Ms. Mennella plan the vigil. “It just proved to us that somebody wants to hide something.”

Since 1987, she and others have quietly questioned the story of how Mr. Helt, an amiable teenager with a taste for Iron Maiden, became village folklore: After hanging out with a few friends one winter night, Mr. Helt, who was 17, vanished from one of the mountains perched above town.

Last year, as Ms. Mennella and Ms. Schuster were planning a high school reunion, Mr. Helt’s disappearance, on Jan. 16, 1987, came up. The two abandoned the reunion and teamed up with Beth Churchill, Mr. Helt’s aunt, who had begun posting missing persons fliers.

The women took up his case with zeal: They created a Facebook page. They made buttons. They organized the vigil. And they contacted a private investigator, Robert Rahn, a former New York Police Department homicide detective; he agreed to help the women pro bono.

But the flurry of activity has rekindled old tensions: Missing persons fliers posted elsewhere in Ellenville have continued to vanish, and bitter debate spilled onto the group’s Facebook page, called Justice for Joe, after comments focused on three friends of Mr. Helt’s. The friends were the last to see the teenager alive and were never suspects in his disappearance.

“They were the last people with him before he disappeared and vaporized,” Ms. Mennella, 42, said. “Unfortunately for them, it’s going to come back up whether we want it to or not.”

Mr. Helt began that night, a Friday, at Mount Cathalia, an abandoned ski lodge a few miles outside Ellenville, about 90 miles north of New York City. Once a well-known party spot, the lodge was a place to drink beer around a fireplace in the depths of winter, said Armando Rodriguez, a friend of Mr. Helt’s who was there that night.

Mr. Helt left the lodge with three friends — John LaForge, Wade Marks and Kelly Diaz — in Mr. LaForge’s Subaru and headed for Sam’s Point Road, said Capt. Joseph Tripodo of the State Police.

The car became stuck in snow on the side of the road, which winds through a preserve in the Shawangunk Ridge marked by caves and deep crevices. A frustrated Mr. Helt walked down the mountain alone, Captain Tripodo said.

It was the last time Mr. Helt’s friends saw him.

“Did he get to the bottom, or didn’t he get to the bottom? We don’t know,” Captain Tripodo said. “There’s no evidence. He disappeared without a trace.”

The police do not believe Mr. Helt was so intoxicated that he may have veered off the road and fallen into a crevice, as a former village police chief, George Sheeley, suggested in a recent interview.

Mr. Sheeley was among the first to go in search of Mr. Helt. State Police, forest rangers and friends followed, though their efforts were blunted by a snowstorm that descended on the area.

Searches have continued over the years, with some as recent as this summer and fall, all to no avail, Captain Tripodo said.

Because Mr. Helt’s case is active, Captain Tripodo offered few details of the investigation.

The tension that resurfaced last year was present in the days after Mr. Helt vanished.

German Florez, a close friend of Mr. Diaz’s, recalled how three friends of Mr. Helt’s visited Mr. Florez’s home in Ellenville. Mr. Diaz was there at the time, and the friends accused him of knowing what happened to Mr. Helt.

“They were pressing,” said Mr. Florez, who now lives in Greenville, N.Y. “They said, ‘We know you know something.’ One of them took a swing and he missed.”

Jay Greco, one of the men who confronted Mr. Diaz, recently recalled that he did not believe that Mr. Helt abandoned his friends.

“He didn’t get mad and walk away,” said Mr. Greco, 45, who now lives in Florida.

The State Police interviewed Mr. Diaz and Mr. Marks, both classmates of Mr. Helt’s, and Mr. LaForge, who was 21, Captain Tripodo said, adding that the men abandoned Mr. LaForge’s car and walked home shortly after Mr. Helt left.

Though the authorities considered the men persons of interest who “offered us information,” Captain Tripodo said, the police found no evidence of a crime.

Repeated efforts to interview the men were unsuccessful. A relative of Mr. LaForge’s who spoke to Mr. LaForge on behalf of a reporter and did not wish to be identified said Mr. LaForge refused to comment.

Mr. Florez said that Mr. Diaz was “so disgusted by everything” that he did not wish to discuss the matter. Mr. Marks, who a relative said does not live in New York, could not be reached.

Mr. Rahn, who has interviewed friends, relatives and others with information about Mr. Helt, said re-interviewing the men was critical. But because Mr. Helt’s case is open, a State Police investigator asked Mr. Rahn not to interview them, Mr. Rahn said. On the Facebook page, some commenters have focused on the men, saying they know more than they have revealed. Others have said the story of that January night makes little sense: If Mr. Helt left to walk home to Ellenville or to get help, such a walk would have required a long trek on a bitterly cold night.

“Why didn’t one of his so-called friends go with him while the others waited in the car?” one commenter wrote.

In response, someone wrote that such commenters were “big mouths” who were speculating.

To Mr. Florez, who defended Mr. Diaz on the Facebook page, the comments seemed like the grumblings of a frustrated mob.

Despite the recent friction, Ms. Mennella said she hoped the group’s efforts would help find Mr. Helt.

“We just want to know where he is,” she said. “At this point, he deserves to have a service.”



President/CEO and Director of Investigations for Management Resources Ltd of New York

Posted in Cold Cases
2 comments on “Missing Person: Joseph Helt
  1. gschust says:

    We are VERY excited about this article and hope that it helps us bring further attention to Joe’s case. THANK YOU Bob and Kim for ALL that you do!

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