Searching for the Missing People of Las Vegas - 8 News NOW

Online News Editor Stephen Jackson

Searching for the Missing People of Las Vegas

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Steven Koecher Steven Koecher
Opal Parsons Opal Parsons
Trevor Morse Trevor Morse
Steven Koecher and KC Naegle Steven Koecher and KC Naegle

LAS VEGAS -- One year ago, Steven Koecher pulled his car into a Sun City Anthem neighborhood and walked away. He has not been seen or heard from since.

Koecher, a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, came to Las Vegas from his St. George, Utah home on Sunday, December 13, 2009, unannounced to friends and family. His car was found abandoned days later, parked on a dead end street deep in the heart of southern Nevada suburbia. The last known images of Koecher were captured on a neighbor's home-surveillance camera. He is seen walking down a neighborhood sidewalk, crossing the street, and disappearing out of frame.

In the year since he disappeared, Koecher's family has spent countless hours looking for him. They have become amateur detectives, scouring Steven's life for the smallest anomaly. He has no criminal past, no connection to drugs or other elements that make people want to leave their lives behind. He is, quite literally, a boy scout who had been awarded the Eagle rank in his teens.

Koecher's younger brother, Dallin, says he found out about his brother's disappearance through a seemingly innocuous text message from his sister. On December 17, his sister asked if he had talked to Steven. He told her he had not and she said his car was found abandoned in Las Vegas. Dallin and his father, Rolf, were on the road from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas just hours later.

"It started with a text message and the next day I was down in Las Vegas trying to see what we could see," he said.

Steven's disappearance has hit his brother hard. The two were close, the result of going into the same job field of public relations and communications. They talked regularly, discussing life and their careers. He wonders why his brother did not call him.

"We talk all the time. I wish he had just said, ‘Hey, I'm going to Las Vegas for a job,' or to hang out or just say anything. We're so close. I wish he could have said something," he said.

Why Koecher would even come to Las Vegas is on the minds of everyone involved in the case. He had no connection to southern Nevada, other than looking for work in the southern Utah and Clark County area.

Bank records revealed Koecher spent the days leading up to his disappearance in his car. On December 10, Koecher arrived unannounced at the home of John and Kathy Neff, the parents of a girl he once dated, in Ruby Valley, Nevada. The route he likely used took him over 500 miles from home. Koecher and the Neff's had lunch before he hit the road again, heading back toward Salt Lake City. The Neff's say Koecher acted normal and mentioned a trip to Sacramento, California, but was discouraged because of the weather.

According to bank records, later that day Koecher headed back south, buying gasoline in Springville, Utah and eventually getting back to St. George. Two days later, he again bought gasoline, but this time in Mesquite, Nevada. His reasons for being in Mesquite have never been explained. Later that night, he is back in St. George, buying Christmas presents for family members at a K-Mart. The next day, he was captured in Sun City on the surveillance camera, walking away from his car for the last time.

Months earlier, Koecher moved from the Salt Lake area for the warmer climate of St. George. He worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in their online division, but headed south looking for something more. During the months he lived in St. George, jobs were scarce. He found a place to live and made friends at his local LDS singles ward. But the lack of steady work hurt his bank account.

Friends and family think employment may have been the reason for Koecher's trip south, but that remains speculation. He took a job handing out fliers for a St. George window washing business, but it hardly paid the bills. When Koecher disappeared, he was broke.

The Henderson Police Department is investigating Koecher's case, but say they have no new leads.

"It is still an open investigation. We are investigating it as a missing persons case and following all leads. At this point in time, we have found absolutely no evidence of foul play in this matter," Henderson Police spokesman Keith Paul said.

While Koecher's bank records showed little about his whereabouts, cell phone tower records lead investigators to believe the Sun City Anthem neighborhood was not his last location.

Nearly five hours after Koecher walked past that surveillance camera, his cell phone was picked up on a tower near Arroyo Grande Boulevard and American Pacific Drive, miles to the north of where his car was abandoned. Two hours later, it was picked up on a tower in Whitney Ranch, a Henderson subdivision near Sunset Drive and Stephanie Street. Early the next morning, Koecher's cell phone was used to check voicemail and picked up on a tower near US-95 and Russell Road. The phone apparently stayed at that location, communicating with that tower for more than two days before going dark. It is the last location Koecher can be connected to.

In January, Steven's extended family took over the south wing of an IHOP on Boulder Highway near Flamingo. It was raining outside and cold, but the mood was light. A patron reported seeing Steven eating at the restaurant well after his trail had gone cold. When friends talked to the staff, many said his picture looked familiar. So a handful of family gathered at the 24-hour chain and waited.

Workers chatted about seeing Steven -- where he sat, what he was wearing, what he ordered. They described him as probably homeless, quiet, living off the charity of others. Koecher's parents asked them vague questions that might reveal the validity of the sighting: "Was he wearing glasses?" or "How tall was he?" Each time one person answered, the look of hope faded away ever so slightly. No one seemed to agree on what the mystery man looked like.

They went to the IHOP for several days, and stayed well into the night. But Steven never walked in.

For investigators, tracking missing adults is a challenge. It is not against the law to walk away from your home – to disappear and start a new life. Unless there is evidence of foul play, cases that are not quickly resolved go cold – shelved until a new development pops up.

"This case would be treated entirely differently if we had any evidence of foul play or a child was involved or an endangered person. At this point in time, we have an adult male declared missing, but we have no evidence of foul play," said Paul.

If Henderson detectives find Koecher and he does not want officers to notify his family, they won't. They will honor that request and remove him from the National Criminal Information Computer, also known as NCIC, as a missing person, just as they would with any other adult who walked away and wants to stay away. Case closed.

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"How do you hunt the most intelligent animal on earth?"

Detective Dan Holley has spent years chasing missing people. As the sole cold case detective assigned to Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's missing persons unit, he has a large caseload of people just waiting to be found. While he is not associated with the Steven Koecher case in any way, he is one of the best at finding the hidden.

Each year, about 6,000 to 10,000 people are reported missing in Las Vegas. Most turn up in a matter of hours. Others, like the French national who came to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker and hit a hot streak, just stop calling home. Then there are those few who end up on Detective Holley's desk, with all leads exhausted. Some have been gone for months. Others haven't been heard from in decades.

"Probably less than 2 percent of our cases go bad," he said.

Metro has 458 missing people entered into the NCIC system. According to Holley, another 100 people probably should be in the database. Once in the system, if the person comes into contact with police, they get flagged and Detective Holley gets a call. NCIC and other databases are essential tools for hunting missing people.

There are over 40,000 unidentified remains in the United States, and Holley is now working to enter the medical and DNA information of his cases into national databases with the hope of turning up quick matches, closing his cases and offering answers to the families of the missing.

Detective Holley can rattle off the details of most cases sitting on his desk. He is baffled wondering what happened to Opal Parsons, an 81-year-old grandmother who went missing in 2007. He has binders full of every detail relating to her case.

"Opal is a fascinating case. She's still in my queue and she'll be in my queue until I retire," he said.

The case of Trevor Morse is another one that bothers Holley. The last known images of Morse were captured on surveillance video. On the video, you see a taxi pull into the parking lot of the RC Willey near Town Center Drive and Flamingo Road. Morse steps out and the cab drives away. He then walks back in the direction he came, but just before he leaves the frame of the security camera, he stops, turns around and starts walking into the desert.

"Nothing says he's nuts. He's not suicidal. Yet there he is walking through the desert. It doesn't make sense," said Holley.

Morse has no history of mental illness. According to Holley, he had a job, a car, and was saving money in the bank. Until something new is found, Holley's case is at a dead end and Trevor Morse remains a tiny smudge on a surveillance camera walking into the desert.

Holley has also been tasked with identifying five people who are wards of Clark County. Either through mental incapacitation or injury, these five people have been unable to identify themselves and standard attempts at identification have failed. When Holley got his hands on their case files, he was able to identify three. Still, two remain a mystery.

"One guy got hit by a car a decade ago and has never recovered. They don't have a clue who he is," he said.

Being a missing persons detective is not for the weak of heart. Detective Holley calls it the most difficult assignment he's ever had – completely contrary to his previous police work, including seven years as a detective in the domestic violence unit.

"It's easy when you have a crime -- he did this, he did that, you track him down, you get statements -- you've got him because it is pretty black and white. But this isn't as easy," he said. "You could literally spend all day, every day to get to the end of one case."

"The one thing we learn is we don't know people. You think you know people? You don't," he said. Holley has one wish for most people reported missing -- call your mom.

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On a windy Saturday in April, volunteers gathered in a desert area south of the Henderson Executive Airport. A retired Las Vegas Metro detective turned private investigator working pro-bono for the Koecher family got a tip he thought would lead to Koecher's final location. The family and members of Steven's church in St. George gathered to search the area.

The group was cheerful, and tried not to think about what brought them to the desert that day. Steven's mom, Deanne, was at the site, but decided to avoid walking through the scrub, opting instead for providing assistance at the makeshift command post. Rolf Koecher, on the other hand, wanted to help find his son. He spent the day taking photos and helping searchers with anything they needed. He rode around on an ATV, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

The group scoured the area for several hours. Bones were found, but they later turned out to be from a dead animal. Clothes and other trash littered the area. Anything that seemed relevant was taken for testing, but no new clues were found.

Koecher's case has received little media attention. But on the Internet, chatter and speculation about his disappearance continues.

On WebSleuths, an Internet message board where members dissect criminal cases, there are thousands of posts relating to Steven's case. A member of WebSleuths named Laytonian has invested months compiling a detailed timeline of Steven's whereabouts in the time surrounding his disappearance and the history of his case.

A member of WebSleuths named Jan, who requested her last name not be used, has found particular interest in Steven's case because she lives in Las Vegas.

"It's local to me. There are a lot of missing persons cases, which most people don't understand, but since Steven went missing here in Vegas, it was easier for me to work on his case," she said.

Jan jumped on the case early on and has been looking for him ever since. She says the search has become distracting – she now habitually stares at the face of people she passes on the street.

"I look for him everywhere I go. I look (at) everyone walking down the street and there have been many times I have thought, ‘Oh, that's him,' but it's too young or too old or too short," she said.

In one case, a person she saw resembling Steven matched his description perfectly. The man was standing at a bus stop on Flamingo Road and Koval Lane. Jan drove by that bus stop every day for months after her sighting, but never saw the man again.

On a hot weekend in July, the Koecher family and Steven's close friends came back to Las Vegas and boarded CAT buses. The plan was to ride Las Vegas' mass transit system in areas where sightings of Steven have been reported.

The theory was simple: if Steven is still alive and in Las Vegas, he had to be getting around town somehow. Multiple sightings placed him at bus stops, so his family took to the buses to talk to the people who may have come in contact with him. They talked to riders and drivers and distributed missing persons fliers. It was a long shot, and they knew it.

"(When) we decided to do the bus search, we decided that was our last time in Vegas without a solid tip," said Steven's cousin KC Naegle.

Like previous searches, several people reported seeing Steven, but no solid leads were ever uncovered. Over two days, they handed out dozens of fliers and talked to riders on several buses. But the family has not been back to Las Vegas since.

Surreal -- this the one word Steven's family uses most to describe his disappearance. He was with them at Thanksgiving dinner, just weeks before coming to Las Vegas, and everything seemed normal.

"It's been a crazy year. We've been up and down to Las Vegas about a dozen times and it wears on you. Steven's birthday was the first of November and that was odd," said Dallin Koecher. "I kind of have to separate myself and not focus or dwell on it too much or I'll get depressed."

It is the unknown that keeps the Koecher family up at night. Where is Steven? His brother describes it as a never-ending chapter of a book. "Do you have a funeral? Do you have a gravestone? Is that appropriate?" he said. "You don't know if he's dead. You don't know if he's still out there. In my mind, that has been the absolute worst for me."

Shortly after he went missing, KC Naegle started a Facebook page called Help Us Find Steven Koecher. Membership quickly ballooned to thousands of people. Naegle has led the effort to find her cousin, and in recent months, started a webpage, ForSteven.

"I've found my little website helps me, and I have a date every month on the 13th and I write something on my website," she said.

Her notes are short, little messages to the people still thinking of her cousin. There's a quote from German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "In all things it is better to hope than to despair."

The website, and her faith, carry Naegle and the rest of the family through the pain of losing a loved one, something they hope other families never have to experience.

"From what I've learned in church, I know where he is if he is dead. If he is not dead, I know Christ is there if we can't be. Some days that helps, some days it is not enough," she said. "You just have to trust."

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