illustration of people digging
Hokyoung Kim

The Killing of a Colorado Rancher

When Jake Millison went missing, his family said he’d skipped town. But his friends knew him better than that, and they refused to let him simply disappear.

It was weird that no one had heard from Jake Millison in a few days.

Maybe someone who didn’t know him, an outsider to Gunnison, a small Colorado town on the western slope of the Rockies, might assume he was flaky or unreliable. At 29, Jake still lived with his mom and spent most nights at the local dive bar, the Alamo. But Jake’s friends knew he was deliberate, a creature of routine. If you had plans to go to the movies on Saturday, he’d text you on Wednesday: What time should I pick you up? And then again on Thursday and Friday just to confirm. On a motorcycle trip to California, Jake was the one who brought tarps and first-aid kits. He definitely wasn’t the fall-off-the-face-of-the-Earth type.

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Jake had spent most of his life on the 7-11 Ranch, his family’s property just outside Gunnison. He’d drive into town most evenings, work out at the gym, then stop by the Alamo. He always sat at the same table and always ordered the same drink: a Coke, because anything stronger made him nervous. His friends, a close-knit group of half a dozen guys, would show up after their shifts at the mechanic shop or the lumberyard. They’d shoot pool for a couple of hours, then Jake would head home to the ranch. “Everything was like clockwork with him,” his friend Antranik Ajarian told me.

On Wednesday, May 20, 2015—five days since anyone had heard from Jake—his friends Nate Lopez and Randy Martinez drove out to the 7-11 Ranch. They turned into the driveway, then drove past the barn decorated with the antlers of deer, elk, and moose, testaments to the property’s glory days as a hunting camp. They didn’t see Jake, although they did spy his truck, his motorcycles, and his dog, Elmo.

In the horse corral, they spotted Jake’s mother, Deb, a wiry woman whose frail frame belied her stubborn strength. Deb told Lopez and Martinez that Jake had gone to Reno, Nevada, to train at a mixed-martial-arts gym; he wasn’t responding to their texts because he’d dropped his phone in an irrigation ditch and left it behind to dry out in a bag of rice. Her explanation was logical enough. But the more they thought about it, the more it didn’t sit right with them.

Another few days passed, and still no word from Jake. His friends called and stopped by the ranch. They weren’t sure what else to do. I’ll let you know when he’s back, Deb would say. Were they paranoid, or did she seem annoyed to see them? The situation felt weird, they kept saying to one another. It just felt weird.

After about a week, a Gunnison County patrol sergeant named Mark Mykol, alerted to Jake’s sudden disappearance, called the ranch. Deb said her son had taken off with a friend whose name she didn’t know. She thought they were headed to Reno to go camping. He did this sometimes, just up and vanished, and she seemed less worried than irritated. Mykol marked the case status as “unfounded”—nothing to see here. But Jake’s friends kept insisting that something was wrong. A week later, Mykol called the ranch again. This time, Deb admitted that she and her son had been arguing; he was almost 30 and still living at home, after all. He’d grabbed some camping equipment, a gun, and a wad of cash, then gotten into a car with someone she didn’t recognize. She figured he was in Nevada looking for work, or in California with friends, or in New Mexico with his father; she’d stopped trying to keep tabs on him.

But Deb’s story only left Jake’s friends more confused. It was as if she were talking about an entirely different person from the Jake they knew.

Hokyoung Kim

In the ski mecca of Crested Butte, the median price for a house is $750,000; Gunnison is its more rugged, affordable neighbor 30 miles south, a windswept town of hunting outfitters and craft breweries, and the home of Western Colorado University (motto: “Learning, elevated”). Gunnison’s 6,500 inhabitants are an eclectic mix of hippies, hunters, college kids, ranchers, and professional mountain bikers. At the Trader’s Rendezvous, you can pick up an antique rifle or a taxidermied wildebeest; a few blocks down the street is Shamans Corner, a combination massage parlor, tattooist, and metaphysical gift shop.

When I visited Gunnison in November 2018, the big news was a local ranch’s cattle relocation: “Cows will be walking down HWY 135 … between 9-noonish,” the Gunnison Regional 911 Center’s Facebook page warned. “With the snow please be safe and budget a few extra minutes as the girls make fast retreat down valley. Thanks for the patience.”

Jake’s parents split up when he was 6 and his sister, Stephaine, was 7. His father, Ray, whom Ajarian described as “an old crazy gun guy” (he meant this as a compliment), eventually moved to rural New Mexico. Deb got remarried, to Rudy Rudibaugh, a widowed rancher two decades her senior. When I stopped by Trader’s Rendezvous, everyone had a story about Rudy. He was a “tough little turd,” as one man put it, who had served as a frogman in World War II, lurking in rice paddies and breathing through a straw as he stalked the enemy. After the war, Rudy bought the 7-11 Ranch and based a successful hunting business there.

Rudy was known for doing things his own way. In the pre-cellphone era, he used carrier pigeons to send messages between hunting camps. When Jake and Steph were little, Rudy and Deb bought an African lion cub; they kept it chained in the horse corral and fed it a diet of roadkill. Neighbors complained that it frightened the livestock; eventually somebody shot and killed it from the highway—the Gunnison County equivalent of a drive-by shooting.

Jake and Stephaine were homeschooled by Deb, in part so they could help out on the ranch. There was always plenty of work on the 700 acres: branding calves, baling hay, repairing tractors, leading hunting trips, caring for the horses. As Rudy got older, he had a harder time keeping up—and Jake was expected to pick up the slack. The family was often the last to finish putting up their hay for the season, because Rudy and Jake handled all the work themselves, Jake’s friend and former neighbor Adam Katheiser told me. And when Rudy was no longer able, it was just Jake.

As a teenager, Jake began attending public school for the first time. Early on, he got in trouble for the rifle in the back of his truck; he hadn’t realized you weren’t supposed to bring firearms to school. After spending much of his youth isolated on the ranch, Jake began to amass a group of friends. He and Ajarian, both introverts, found it easy to be quiet around each other. Their crew grew to include other guys with similarly low-key temperaments. They went camping, fiddled with their motorcycles, and made fun of one another for all the project vehicles that never quite got all the way fixed.

After high school, Jake stayed at the ranch while most of the crew rented apartments in town. Jake could be standoffish with strangers, but he was inseparable from his friends. He seemed to have a boundless—occasionally exhausting—appetite for hanging out. He could be a know-it-all, and if he thought you were doing something stupid, he wouldn’t hesitate to tell you so. His friends sometimes rolled their eyes, but they appreciated that they always knew where they stood with him. “We used to say, ‘Yeah he’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole,’ ” Ajarian said.

Jake was 23 when Rudy died, in 2009. Stephaine had already received an inheritance of $30,000. Jake didn’t get any money; the assumption was that he and his stepbrother, Shane—Rudy’s son from his first marriage, who lived in Texas—would eventually inherit the ranch. Now the full burden of maintaining the property fell on Jake’s shoulders. If he thought about shirking his obligations, he never did. “Gunnison ranchers don’t move away,” Jake’s friend Tom Page told me. Jake was tied to the land, to his family—and to a dying way of life.

illustration of a building
Hokyoung Kim

Though the mythology of the American rancher looms large in our national imagination, economic pressures and climate change have made small-scale ranching ever more precarious. Since 2000, the Colorado River Basin has suffered an unprecedented period of drought, and low commodity prices and the rising cost of living haven’t helped matters. The suicide rate in Gunnison and other rural Colorado counties is more than twice the national average.

Faced with a deficit of water, Colorado’s booming cities have turned to a “buy and dry” policy, in which farmers agree to let their land lie fallow and lease their water rights to thirsty urban areas hundreds of miles away. By the time Jake took charge of the family ranch, the gulf between rural and urban Colorado was vast: the agricultural land of the Rockies’ western slope lying uncultivated and slowly drying up, while in Denver so many new buildings were being erected that there was a waiting list to rent a crane.

Ranch life was becoming the purview of wealthy hobbyists who could afford to indulge in cowboy fantasies. In Gunnison County, not far from the 7-11 Ranch, the billionaire businessman Bill Koch built his own private replica of an Old West town, complete with a saloon, church, jail, and train station; the property’s 21,000-square-foot mansion is stocked with memorabilia, including firearms that belonged to Jesse James and Sitting Bull.

News accounts would later refer to 7-11 as a “$3 million ranch,” but when Jake disappeared, “it was kind of a junkyard,” Lopez told me. Jake lived in the lodge, a building that had been intended for big gatherings and camp suppers; now it was so cluttered with Deb and Rudy’s collections—stuffed rattlesnakes, old bits and bridles, ancient guns, antique machines with unclear uses—that it barely had enough room for his bed.

Jake once asked Katheiser to help brand calves. Katheiser had helped friends out before, and knew that typically a calf was herded into a mechanical chute, where a clamp closed around the animal’s neck, immobilizing it and then flipping it on its side. Katheiser was surprised to see that the 7-11 Ranch had no such equipment. It was a day of rough, physical work—snagging the calves with a rope, wrestling them to the ground, then holding them down to be branded. The corral itself needed maintenance. But Jake could never get to it, “because the fences need fixing, the truck needs fixing, and we’ve got to brand all these cows now,” Katheiser said.

Faced with more than they could handle, the family sold off much of their livestock and stopped hosting hunting trips. Money became a source of tension between Deb and her son. Jake didn’t receive a paycheck for the hours he put in at the ranch; his eventual inheritance of the property was supposed to be payment enough. In the meantime, if he wanted to go to the movies or the Alamo, he’d have to ask Deb for cash.

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Frustrated, Jake found other ways to scrounge up money. He cut and sold firewood. He worked part-time for a landscaping company. He came up with a scheme to grow marijuana to sell to college students, which his friends found hilarious: Dude, you don’t smoke weed—how are you going to test your product? He cultivated psychedelic mushrooms and looked into starting a chimney-sweeping business.

One summer, Jake made good money working on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska—but when he returned home, he ended up giving Deb $15,000 to help keep the ranch afloat. “He was always pissed off about that,” Ajarian told me. “He always said he should’ve just said Fuck the ranch and kept it.” But while Jake may have talked about the property as if it were an anchor dragging him down, he was unwilling to walk away. What if the ranch was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? What if he could restore it to greatness?

However much Jake worked, it wasn’t enough for his mother. If the ranch wasn’t thriving the way it had under Rudy, it wasn’t due to the drought or the economy or any of the other forces that plagued ranchers across the western states. The problem was that her son wasn’t trying hard enough. She complained that he slept too late and left jobs unfinished. “Whenever you were out there,” Ajarian said, “they’d be at each other’s throats.”

When Jake vanished, some of his friends hoped that he’d finally reached his limit and taken off: Fine, you guys deal with this place. It was nice to imagine him somewhere sunny, California maybe, free to do as he pleased. But that daydream never quite felt plausible. Maybe he would’ve abandoned his family, Jake’s friends thought, but he never would’ve abandoned them.

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Hokyoung Kim

In June, Jake’s friend Max Matheny and his sister, Molly, met with Mykol at the sheriff’s-department headquarters. Molly had called Ray, Jake’s dad; he said he hadn’t heard from his son in weeks, and suggested that she file a missing-person report.

Mykol didn’t think that was necessary. Everything Deb had said had checked out so far: It seemed that Jake had just taken off. But the sheriff’s office did reopen the case, and alerted law enforcement in Reno to be on the lookout for Jake.

Ajarian, too, says he tried to file a missing-person report. The sheriff’s department, Ajarian told me, “kept saying the family doesn’t want it.” Several of Jake’s friends said they were told that only family members could file such reports, although according to Colorado law “any person with relevant, credible information suggesting that a person is missing may make a missing person report to a law enforcement agency.”

Nate Lopez spent “a lot of time” talking with local law enforcement. “They just told me that the only people they can really believe is the family. If they say that Jake went on a trip, and they’re the last people to see him, that’s what you have to go by until there’s evidence that shows otherwise,” Lopez told me.

Jake’s friends refused to let the matter go. Steph messaged one of her brother’s friends—“do you have any idea who keeps reporting jake missing? I would really like [if they] could just call mom instead,” she wrote. But Jake’s friends called the ranch so often that the sheriff told them to knock it off.

It was dismaying, if not surprising, that law enforcement seemed slow to wonder whether Jake Millison had been the victim of a crime. Most murder victims in the U.S. are male—typically young men of color—but you wouldn’t know that from watching TV, where the victims who get the most airtime tend to be young, attractive white women. As a culture, we’re not as attuned to young men’s vulnerability to violence.

While law enforcement seemed to accept Jake’s family’s story, his friends found themselves bumping up against an uncomfortable possibility: that one of his family members was complicit in his disappearance.

Three years before Jake went missing, Steph, who had been living in Denver, moved back to Gunnison with her husband and son. She earned money taking tourists on horseback rides, and dreamed of giving her son a country upbringing—crisp mountain mornings; lying in the tall grass, aiming a rifle at soda cans. Though Steph described herself as “not good with backhoe things,” she was a skilled horsewoman who identified as a country girl.

Despite their shared upbringing, Steph and Jake never got along. “Yes hes mellow with his friends but with family he is a complete dick most of the time,” Steph texted a friend around the time she moved back to Gunnison. Jake made it clear he was unhappy that his sister was back in town. Steph had already used her inheritance to put a down payment on her house in Denver; now he worried she was trying to stake a claim on the ranch, too.

Steph and Jake had worked out a kind of sibling détente, which is to say that they mostly avoided each other. But things were different with Steph’s husband, Dave. Where Jake was reserved, Dave was cocky. Everything about him seemed to grate on Jake, including Dave’s car—a white Ford station wagon with flames painted on it. Jake’s friends say his annoyance was undergirded with fear; he saw Dave as unpredictable, potentially violent. He made awkward half-jokes about keeping a gun nearby in case Dave attacked him.

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Hokyoung Kim

Jake began training at a jiu-jitsu gym in Gunnison. He took to it right away; the tactics and technicalities and focus on self-mastery suited his temperament. “Jiu-jitsu translates as ‘gentle art,’ ” Page, who trained at the same gym, told me. “There’s no striking—it’s all about distance management, leverage, control. It’s like playing chess with the human body.” Jake had always been chubby and withdrawn; jiu-jitsu helped him grow more comfortable in his body, more used to asserting himself.

Jiu-jitsu emphasizes personal development in all areas of life, and Jake became preoccupied with bettering himself. He adopted a strict diet and chided his friends when they ate at Taco Bell. He chugged a gallon of water a day for a few weeks, briefly convinced that hydration was the secret to health. His mania for improvement extended to the ranch, which he periodically tried to clean up, whether his mother liked it or not. He told Ajarian he was bringing junk into town on the sly and tossing it into Dumpsters.

With Dave and Steph back on the ranch, things could get heated. One day, Jake plowed snow into huge banks that blocked Dave’s car; in the argument that ensued, Dave took off his jacket, revealing a gun. (Dave later claimed that he was planning to set the gun aside so they could fight with their fists.) That afternoon, Jake filed for an order of protection against his brother-in-law. Had it gone into effect, it would have essentially banned Dave from the ranch. Jake withdrew his complaint a few days later, but the animosity between the two men remained so strong that Deb declared they couldn’t be on the property at the same time.

Steph was furious when she and Dave had to move to an apartment in town. “My younger brother is trying to ruin my life,” she wrote on the website in 2014. “How can I make [my mom] see that it is unhealthy for him to be there controlling her and her property like he owns it?”

By the following year, Deb seemed to have taken her daughter’s advice. “My mom might be kicking my brother out soon,” Steph messaged a friend on Wednesday, May 13. That Friday night was the last time anyone saw Jake. A few days after that, Steph posted on Facebook: “Have you ever been woken up with such awesome news you wanted to run outside screaming?”

“No more jake????” a friend replied.

“Apparently Reno,” Steph wrote. “Long story tell you soon.”

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Hokyoung Kim

As the weeks ticked by, Jake’s friends grew more and more frustrated. No one seemed to be treating Jake’s absence as the emergency they felt it was. Steph and Dave moved back to the 7-11 Ranch and were acting like nothing was wrong. If the sheriff’s own son had vanished, Ajarian couldn’t help thinking, the deputies would certainly be doing more than they were. Finally, the friends decided they couldn’t rely on official channels for help.

Ajarian was in the hardware-store parking lot when he spotted the first significant clue: Jake’s beloved 1976 Harley Sportster, albeit with a new, slapdash paint job and a modified gas tank. Dave was riding it. “If Jake ever saw Dave Jackson breathing on his motorcycle, it would’ve been the end of the world,” Ajarian told me. “And this guy is riding around on it. And why is it spray-painted all these shitty different colors?”

Two other friends were shopping for used bikes when they discovered a couple more of Jake’s motorcycles for sale in a local shop. They obtained a copy of the title to one, a Honda, which had both Jake’s and Deb’s signatures on it. To Ajarian’s eye, Jake’s looked like a blatant forgery. “You could see Deb’s signature and you could see Jake’s signature underneath it, and it’s the same fricking handwriting,” he said. To Jake’s friends, these motorcycle clues were a blatant sign that Deb’s story didn’t make sense. If Jake’s family expected him to return, why were they selling his stuff?

One day, Ajarian ran into Deb at the grocery store. He barraged her with questions: Where was Jake? And if she didn’t know, why hadn’t she filed a missing-person report? She muttered something about not wanting to get in trouble for filing a false report if Jake turned up.

Finally, three months after Jake was last seen, Deb Rudibaugh officially reported her son missing, claiming that his interest in martial arts had brought him into contact with a bad crowd. “I figure he got in over his head with something and is either in witness protection or in hiding or dead,” she later told investigators.

Ajarian created a Facebook page called “Where is Jake Millison.” He posted photos from their motorcycle trip out West—Jake posing next to a giant redwood; Jake wearing a helmet, making goofy faces—and asked people to share any information that might be useful. Someone reported seeing Deb, Steph, and Dave burning Jake’s mattress days after he vanished. Someone else pointed out that shortly after Jake disappeared, Dave had changed his Facebook profile picture; in the new photo, he was posed on one of Jake’s motorcycles—another thing Jake never would have tolerated. The tips that came in to the Facebook group were shared with law enforcement. The accumulation of facts, plus Jake’s friends’ persistence, began to convince the department “that this was a serious matter here,” Mykol said.

Winter brought “bad times” out at the 7-11 Ranch, Dave texted a friend. With Jake gone, much of the work fell to him. “I’m sick of being a slave for [Steph] and her mother on this ranch while she is in the lodge warm cozy f****** around on her phone,” he wrote. When he threatened to leave, Steph brandished a gun and fired a bullet at the floor. Around the same time, Deb’s health began to deteriorate. Within a year, she was admitted to the hospital for a collapsed lung; a biopsy revealed that she had Stage 4 breast cancer.

Despite Jake’s friends’ attempts to keep the investigation energized, months passed without much development. A year went by, and then another. Ajarian was alarmed to realize that he’d gotten used to Jake being gone. He and his friends sometimes joked about a gray-haired Jake popping up in 50 years, cackling about the epic prank he’d played on them, but the unspoken truth was that they all assumed he was dead. Not knowing why or how, or where his body was, was maddening. There had been no funeral where they could make speeches about how much he’d mattered to them and cry together for his loss. His family continued to live as if he’d never existed. With no official action, it was hard not to feel as though Jake’s disappearance—and his life—didn’t matter. The friend group slowly began to disperse: Lopez moved to Texas; Katheiser was in Colorado Springs. Sometimes Ajarian thought of Jake almost as a ghost—there and not there at the same time.

Although the investigation stalled for years, the Gunnison County sheriff’s department disputes the idea that it didn’t take Jake’s friends’ concerns seriously. “We were working pretty hard,” Mykol told me. “It just takes a really long time. You can’t just show up somewhere and search—there’s a thing called the Fourth Amendment, you know what I mean?” Mykol also pointed out that the department had only one investigator for the entire county.

Finally, the sheriff’s department asked the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for help on the case. Two years after Jake’s disappearance, Ajarian met with a CBI agent who told him they were making progress. “She said, ‘I can’t tell you anything—but things are in the works for you guys.’ ”

On July 17, 2017, official vehicles crowded the county highway by the 7-11 Ranch. As ambulances and fire trucks waited, search teams and dogs spread out over the 700 acres. “Later on that day there are reports that they’ve found a body, and you just know,” Katheiser recalled. “There’s not another reason for a body to be out there.”

The news spread fast across the small town. While Jake’s friends had been calling the sheriff, visiting the ranch, posting on Facebook—for nearly all of that time, his body had been wrapped in a tarp and buried in a manure pile in the corral.

illustration of a courtroom
Hokyoung Kim

The fact that Jake’s body was found on the 7-11 Ranch seemed to confirm that at least one member of his family had played a role in his death. But which one? There were almost too many potential motives: Steph’s lifetime of animosity toward her brother, plus the tension over who would inherit the ranch; the constant clashes between Deb and her son. And then, of course, there was Dave. In the weeks before he vanished, Jake had told friends that if anything ever happened to him, Dave would be responsible.

Investigators questioned Deb, Steph, and Dave separately many times. Their stories were contradictory, confusing, and self-serving. Everyone agreed that Jake had once been his mother’s favorite, but that in the years before his death, the dynamics in the family had shifted; Deb began complaining to Steph about Jake, and Steph was happy to egg her on. As Deb told investigators, Steph was insistent that her mother evict Jake. He was a freeloader, she argued. Without tough love, he’d never become independent. Sometimes she hinted that more drastic measures might be necessary. “The only way that he’s going to leave here voluntarily,” Deb claimed Steph had said, “is if he’s in a body bag.”

Steph’s efforts at persuasion seemed to work. Investigators found an amended version of Deb’s will, dated three weeks before Jake vanished. Instead of leaving the ranch to Jake and Shane, the property—and everything else she owned—would now go to Steph. Jake would get nothing.

Deb told investigators that the week Jake went missing, she had been exhausted from working the night shift at a nursing home. She’d asked Jake to take care of an errand; he’d left the job half finished, then gone into town. This, she said, was the last straw. She waited until he fell asleep that night and shot him in the head. She claimed that she disposed of his body on her own. The investigators pressed her on this point. How was this possible, considering how small and frail she was? “Yankee ingenuity,” Deb said. She had rolled his body in a plastic sheet, then used tow straps and a winch to maneuver it out of the lodge and onto an ATV. She insisted that Steph and Dave had known nothing.

When investigators told Steph that her mother had confessed to murdering Jake, she broke down. “Oh my God,” she said, sobbing. “Are you fucking serious? I can’t breathe.”

But the officers suspected that she knew more than she was letting on. There was that Facebook post about “awesome news” once Jake was gone, and her apparent lack of concern for her brother. They kept pressing her.

“Okay,” Steph said eventually. “Honestly I didn’t know anything until a couple months ago.” Dave had been digging in the manure pile when he’d uncovered the body of what looked at first like a large animal, she said. It was partially mummified, and wrapped in plastic. Dave had encountered plenty of carcasses while living on the ranch, but this one unnerved him. He could see parts of a rib cage poking out. He’d called Steph over. “Is that what you think it is?” he asked.

“Maybe,” Steph replied. “I’m going to call Mom.”

Deb told her daughter to stay away from the body, Steph said, claiming that it was a mountain lion or a bear Jake had shot. “It’s illegal game; that’s all I’m going to say,” Deb said. She told her daughter to cover it back up with manure and leave it alone.

In the ensuing weeks, Steph and Dave made awkward jokes about what they’d found. They said they talked about calling the police but never did. Then the investigation ramped up again. With officers sniffing around the ranch, Steph insisted that the remains be reburied somewhere more secure. The family avoided articulating what they were really discussing. Sometimes they called the body “it”; sometimes they referred to it as “the bear.” But Steph eventually admitted that was a ruse. “I knew in my heart it was Jake,” she said. One afternoon, Dave used the backhoe to dig a hole inside the corral. A couple of days later, the “bear” was gone from the manure pile, and the hole was packed with fresh dirt.

There were reasons to doubt each of these accounts. According to Deb’s medical records, she weighed 97 pounds at the time of Jake’s murder, and was still weak from the gallbladder surgery she’d had nine days before. At work, she’d been assigned to “light duty”; at the ranch, she wasn’t able to lift a bale of hay. When her doctor examined her a few days after the murder, none of her stitches had torn. Jake had weighed at least 170 pounds. Would it have been physically possible for her to drag his body from the second story of the lodge all the way to the manure pile, even with a winch and straps?

Many of Jake’s friends assumed that Deb, dying of cancer, was covering for her daughter, and perhaps also her son-in-law. Ray, Jake and Steph’s dad, also resisted the idea that Deb had murdered Jake. “No matter how bad it was, I just can’t see her shooting her own boy,” he told investigators. Cellphone records showed that Steph had been awake in the early-morning hours when Jake was killed. “Deborah didn’t gain anything by killing Jacob,” a CBI agent later testified in a court hearing. But Steph, who would gain “sole ownership of the ranch after Deborah passes,” did have a motive.

One thing was clear. Whoever pulled the trigger, whoever helped bury the body, they were banking on the idea that everyone else would see Jake the way they did—as insignificant, even disposable. That no one would raise a fuss over the disappearance of a quiet, working-class guy who lived with his mother off a rural county highway.

illustration of a storefront
Hokyoung Kim

Our families are supposed to be the people who know us best, but that often isn’t the case. Sometimes the hardest people to see clearly are the ones we’re closest to.

After the discovery of Jake’s body, and the multiple and confusing confessions from his family members, what seemed to upset his friends most was how they mischaracterized Jake. According to Deb, her son was a drug addict and a drunk, a violent MMA fighter, someone who physically assaulted her and threatened to kill his sister and her family. According to Steph, Jake was a worthless waste of space, lazy and useless. No wonder Jake clung so strongly to his friends. His chosen family was perfectly aware of his flaws—his stubbornness, his arrogance—but equally attuned to his loyalty, generosity, and dedication.

On May 13, 2019, almost four years after her son’s death, Deb pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and received a 40-year sentence. Dave Jackson had already been sentenced to a decade in prison for his role in moving Jake’s body. When I visited Gunnison last fall, the question on everyone’s mind was what would happen to Stephaine. She was scheduled to go on trial for first-degree murder the next fall, but Ajarian worried that she, like her mother, would end up getting a plea deal. The official version of Jake’s death, codified in plea agreements and court filings, didn’t strike him as the full story; without a trial, he feared he’d never know what had really happened to his friend, or why. Sure enough, several months after my visit, Steph pleaded guilty to tampering with a dead body. In November, Deb Rudibaugh died in jail; two days later, Steph was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

Ultimately the system had worked: Law enforcement had located the body, elicited a confession, and secured convictions. But even after the case was legally closed, it still felt unsettled, incomplete.

One evening, I met Ajarian at a pizza place. Under his mechanic’s uniform, he wore a T-shirt that said punker than you, and his dark hair was styled in messy spikes. His grief over his friend’s death expressed itself as a kind of grasping for purpose. When Jake had first disappeared, when his friends were searching for clues and urging the sheriff’s department to act, they’d been of use. Now there was nothing left to do—except maybe hold a memorial service for Jake. Perhaps that would help him feel as though his friend had finally been put to rest. But where would he host such an event? Gunnison was too full of bitter memories—but it was also Jake’s only home.

The next day, I met Katheiser in his tidy basement apartment in Colorado Springs. He, too, was plagued with thoughts of what might have been. “A lot of mornings when I wake up, I think about Jake, what his life would have been,” he told me. “I like to think that he could’ve sold the ranch for quite a bit of money and maybe just gone and worked a regular job somewhere. Bought a house. Maybe he would’ve met a girl and whatever. And he doesn’t get that opportunity. That’s what I would have hoped for him. Just that he could’ve gotten into a life that he wasn’t frustrated at every day.”

This article appears in the April 2020 print edition with the headline “What Happened to Jake Millison?”