Joseph Balderas’ death remains a mystery
A jury of six came to the unanimous conclusion that Joseph Balderas, who went missing almost a year ago, is dead. A driver had seen Balderas, 36, on Saturday, June 25, last summer at Mile 44 on the Nome-Council Hwy, standing by his truck, pulled off the road. Someone saw Balderas driving on the same road on Sunday. On Monday, June 27, Balderas failed to come to work.
The area of Balderas’ last sighting is heavily populated by bears. Despite extensive ground and aerial searches in June and July, and again in October, neither Balderas’ remains nor clues to his disappearance have been found by multiple search groups and search professionals, including professionally trained search dogs.
Magistrate Judge Heidi K. Ivanoff signed a presumptive death order June 7, based on the granting of a petition for presumptive death following a presumptive death hearing with the jury trial.
Jurors found reason to agree unanimously, as the law requires, on presumptive death, but added that they were unsure how his death occurred. Approval of the presumptive death petition will become effective after six months; a death certificate will not be issued until Dec. 7.
Upon the entry of the order and the recording and filing of the Presumptive Death Certificate, the missing person is presumed to be dead. Then the person's estate may be administered in accordance to the law covering the estates of deceased persons.
Selena Hargis, Balderas’ sister and a witness in the hearing, suspects foul play.
“I do [think Joseph is deceased]. I believe he was murdered,” Hargas told the court by phone from Hawaii. “Alaska was his home. He planned on being there the rest of his life.”
Andy Klamser, private investigator retained by Katherine Summers Davies, an attorney hired by the Balderas family, said essentially the same.
“Some type of criminal offense explains his disappearance. It is less animal predation or an accident —less likely that something happened when he was out hiking,” Klamser said, speaking as one of the witnesses at the hearing.
Tracie Buie, Balderas’ coworker at the courthouse, found Balderas very dependable, always giving explanations when he missed work.
Buie said pilots’ reports of bear sightings in the area made her worry for the safety of hundreds of volunteers looking for Balderas. She believed something happened to Balderas near his vehicle found at Mile 44 on Nome Council Highway.
“I can’t wrap my head around something happened and he wouldn’t be found,” Buie said from the witness stand.
Balderas’ mother, Nelda Balderas, filed the petition on Aug. 26, two months after her son’s disappearance last year. Should Balderas be found alive or his remains discovered or new facts emerge concerning his disappearance, the case will come back to court, according to Ivanoff, who explained the provisions of the law and the purpose of the hearing for the jurors.
Balderas, known as physically fit and an outdoorsy recreationist who liked hiking, fishing, biking, running and kayaking, told a friend, Christine Piscoya, on Saturday June 25 that he was going fishing. She tried to call him Sunday, Piscoya told the court, but got Balderas’ voice mail.
The missing person report filed June 27 launched a large scale search over some weeks, Ivanoff noted, in setting the background for the six jurors.
When he did not report to his work as a law clerk Monday, employees at Nome Second District Court became worried. Alaska State Trooper Timothy Smith received a call from Buie around 9:30 a.m. on June 27 when Balderas did not show up for work at the courthouse. Smith drove out to Mile 43-44 where AST Sgt. Charlie Cross and people going to Council had spotted Balderas’ vehicle.
“I started yelling by megaphone by the truck and by the river, looking for clues,” Smith said. “We really needed to get assets out there quickly. Something wrong raised the hair on my neck.”
Smith got on his SAT phone and summoned Search and Rescue and NVFD for more resources. Bering Air sent a helicopter. ATVs came. Civil Air Patrol came from Fairbanks with a fixed wing aircraft. Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game, National Park Service, AST and Bering Air provided personnel and resources to the all-day searches from June 27 to July 3, according to Smith. A large group of family and community folk continued to search, according to Smith, who pointed out that the Solomon River was running too shallow for Balderas to be fishing salmon, but could be fishing for trout. The search dogs left. They had been on the road at Mile 43, found a scent on the road and soon lost it. Pilots had spotted bears.
Smith pointed out that a hunter would often have trouble finding a large moose in such willows; imagine how difficult to find a man six feet tall.
The search by emergency agencies including the Nome Volunteer Fire Dept., Nome Search and Rescue, Nome Volunteer Ambulance Dept., helicopters, a K-9 (dog) unit from Matanuska-Susitna Valley, Alaska State Troopers yielded no result.
The aerial and ground search officially ended July 5. However, many volunteers continued. Community and friends donated around $30,000, along with food and other supplies.
Searchers had consulted Balderas’ bank—no activity, had informally called airlines with no result. Maternal DNA was still on file in Anchorage.
That data base never goes away, Smith said.
“I don’t speculate. If Joseph is out there, I feel like he is in that area; I think he drove out there, no evidence he came back to town, no evidence of foul play, no evidence he just left town without telling anyone,” Smith theorized.
In October, volunteers resumed a search for Balderas after the fall season had cleared away foliage allowing more visibility in an area covered by thickets of willow bushes and dense ground cover when he disappeared in summertime. The City of Nome donated $10,000. Tom Moran, city manager, staged the search. Volunteers covered a broad area on ATV, on foot and from the air with helicopters. Prop wash from the helicopters flattened the willow branches for a better look. Nothing.
In court, the six jurors heard detailed testimony from five witnesses—Hargas, Balderas’ sister, Klasmer, the private investigator Buie, Piscoya, and a trooper. Witnesses talked about events before and after Balderas disappearance. Both Ivanoff and Katherine Summers Davies, an Anchorage attorney retained by the family, questioned the witnesses to draw out details to help the jury to decide whether they could come to unanimous conclusion required to grant a presumptive death petition. The procedure allows jurors to question the witnesses, but they generally did not pose questions.
Davies, representing the Balderas family, led witnesses through how they met and knew Joseph Balderas, their interactions with him, what kind of guy he was, and their opinion on what had happened to him.
Witnesses told the court they did not think Balderas showed signs of intending to commit suicide or walk away onto the tundra.
Balderas had seemed happy and full of plans to move to Juneau in August and to marry his fiancé, Megan Rider. He had planned to open a law practice.
Klamser is a private investigator by training and experience, he said. A police officer in Homer, Klamser investigated missing person’s cases—“20 to 40 during my career, as a PI, perhaps 12 to 15.” These cases had included about 10 cases far out in the country, Klamser said.
Klamser initially reviewed information gathered by others, then performed a victimology, and interviewed 42-45 of Balderas’ friends and family members.
Victimology? A victimology, Klamser explained to the court, involves exploring a victim’s background , what was going on in their life around the time of their disappearance or something going on in his life to put him at risk of attack or violence.
Klamser did not find anything to show Balderas was suicidal or similarly would leave without telling somebody. It was opposite to that, Klamser said—Balderas had close and lasting friendships, was close to his family, had short- and long-range plans; his girlfriend was coming to visit in the next week. Texts between Balderas and his girlfriend were consistent with a couple planning to get married—“loving, romantic text messages.” The last message between the two occurred on Saturday, June 25, Klamser said. Megan Rider’s phone provided most of the text messages; phone records from Balderas’ phone carrier showed no calls or texts after June 25.
The trial from beginning to end lasted about four hours. The verdict came after the jury deliberated for just under an hour, consistent with Ivanoff’s prediction that the trial would be short.
After reviewing facts and opinions surrounding Balderas’ disappearance almost without a trace, the Presumptive Death Hearing has officially declared Balderas’ dead. But the examination of events of June 25 through 27 and fruitless searches lead nowhere except to continuing speculation concerning Balderas disappearance.