On July 9, a hiker came across a decomposed body at a remote campsite high in the mountains of Colorado’s Gunnison National Forest near the Fossil Ridge Wilderness Area. His grim discovery eventually led investigators to the bodies of two more individuals who were zipped up inside a nearby tent. This week, a Colorado coroner identified the trio as three family members from Colorado Springs.
The bodies of sisters Rebecca and Christine Vance, and a 14-year-old boy identified only as Rebecca Vance’s son, were located 1,000 feet above the Gold Creek Campground, which lies about 27 miles northeast of the town of Gunnison. According to an initial statement from Gunnison County Sheriff Adam Murdie, they were tucked far back in the hills in dark timber. “It does not appear there was trauma to the bodies, other than what looked like mummification,” Murdie said. “They had been there probably at least throughout the winter.”
In a July 26 interview, a stepsister of one of the women said that Rebecca Vance had been disheartened by the state of the world in recent years, and she hoped to escape society by establishing permanent residence inside the Gunnison National Forest. “She didn’t like the way the world was going, and she thought it would be better if her and her son and Christine were alone, away from everybody,” 39-year-old Trevala Jara told the Washington Post . “She didn’t want the influences of the world to get to them. She really thought she was protecting her family.”
According to an early report published by the Montrose Press, the Vances were not in a developed or formal campground but an individual campsite within the National Forest. Local authorities now believe they’d been living there full-time since July of 2022.
Investigators told the Associated Press that the group had begun construction of a lean-to shelter above a campfire ring, but they were unable to complete the structure before a particularly harsh winter set it. The bodies were found at an elevation of approximately 11,000 feet above sea level—a location that’s typically buried under several feet of snow in winter.
“Whether they froze to death in the winter or the combination of starved or froze, that’s what it sure seems like,” Murdie said in a press conference earlier this month, adding that, “this is not a typical occurrence anywhere, by any means.”
Earlier this week, Gunnison County Coroner Micheal Barnes told the AP that the bodies all showed signs of malnourishment, but he stopped short of declaring an official cause of death pending a toxicology report. He’s not ruling out carbon monoxide poisoning as the culprit, he said, which could have been brought about by campfire smoke as the family tried to stay warm while winter weather set in.
In her interview with The Washington Post, Jara called the Vance sisters “wonderful and outstanding people” and said they believed they were doing the right thing. “I don’t want people to assume or think that they were crazy, because they weren’t,” she told The Post. “If I can reach anybody who thinks they can go off the grid by watching YouTube or going on the internet, I would tell them to please think twice. You need experience to do this.”