ELLENVILLE – The flyers began appearing in Ellenville storefront windows shortly before the holidays. The flyers contain two faded images of a smiling teenager who went missing January 16, 1987, never to be found. But those who actually knew the missing teen, Joe Helt, haven't forgotten about him.
Helt's disappearance, in fact, remains an open wound for those relatives and friends of his still living in the Ellenville community — so much so that several of them have gotten together and started a Facebook group. The group, called "In Support of Joe Helt," now has more than 300 members, many of whom have posted messages remembering Joe. The group, in fact, is planning a candlelight vigil to be held at the Pioneer Fire Hall Sunday, January16, at 5 p.m., the twenty-foutrh anniversary of Joe's disappearance. And all of them appear to want only one thing: to know what, exactly, happened to Joe on Mount Cathalia that cold January night more than two decades ago. They hope to find something — anything — that would allow them to put to rest this sad episode of local history.
As it turns out, these Facebook friends are not alone. Ellenville Police Chief Phil Mattracion says that the investigation into Joe's disappearance is something that his office revisits several times each year, and that the Ellenville Police Department is working with the state police in order to retrace the steps of the 24-year-old investigation.
What is clear, however, is that Joe was partying that night with several friends at the derelict Mount Cathalia Lodge. In the wee hours of Saturday morning, Joe — with acquaintances John LaForge, Wade Marks and Kelly Diaz — went for a joyride in LaForge's Subaru in the area near the Sam's Point Ice Caves. The car apparently got stuck in a ditch, but the four young men were unable to push it out. After some minutes, Joe lost his patience and decided to walk the approximate five miles back down to the village. Shortly after this, according to reports, Marks and Diaz also left, leaving LaForge on his own. Shortly after this, LaForge, too, gave up and went home.
But Joe apparently never made it off the mountain, as this was the last time he was seen. LaForge and his companions that night said that they had expected to perhaps run into Joe on the way down the hill, but didn't really think anything of the fact that they didn't catch up with him, as he had a significant head start. It wasn't until after LaForge had retrieved his car from the mountain the following afternoon that he learned that Joe had never made it home.
Over the following days, searchers combed the area around Sam's Point. NY State Forest Rangers, state police helicopters, and tracking dogs were brought in — to no avail. In fact, no apparent trace of Joe has ever been found.
Beth Churchill, Joe's aunt, says that her memories of that weekend, and of Joe's disappearance, are quite good.
"I remember this as clear as day," Churchill says.
She says that her late sister Lee Helt, Joe's mother, was very upset because Joe didn't show up for his shift at the Auction Barn in Napanoch, where the two worked together. This was Saturday evening, according to Churchill, and it had just started flurrying. Later that night, Churchill says, the storm's fury came down upon the ridge.
"By the time the search party had made it up there, it had already started snowing," Churchill says.
The searchers did all they could, under the circumstances, but the conditions were terrible according to contemporaneous news accounts. Over the next several days the snow accumulated. Worse, high winds led to 10-foot high snow drifts that made even the best-maintained roads and trails virtually impassable.
Armando Rodriguez, now the owner and operator of A-Rod's Barber Shop, grew up with Joe. The two, in fact, were usually inseparable.
"We went to school together," Rodriguez says. "I knew him since we were probably about eight years old."
Rodriguez says that once he and his family moved to Napanoch, he and Joe became regular companions.
"We had the same interests. We both love the outdoors," Rodriguez says.
He says that one of the main reasons that he and Joe "clicked" is that the two, like many teenagers, were into the same bands.
"But what really brought us together was the love of music," Rodriguez says.
The two really hit it off when it came to their shared appreciation of the flamboyant rock band KISS.
"We were into KISS, AC/DC," Rodriguez says. "That's it. We just hit it off and were always hanging out."
Because of this, Rodriguez says that he has never been able to fully get over Joe's disappearance. Rodriguez was at the Mount Cathalia Lodge the night Joe disappeared, and says that Joe had approached him asking if the two could hang out together.
"[The lodge] had one of those old-fashioned fire pits," Rodriguez says. "We all used to sit around it."
Rodriguez says that there was a fairly good sized group at the lodge that night. However, he was driving a pickup truck that night, and didn't have room for Joe because he was with two other people.
"I remember that night, clearly, that he wanted to come with me," Rodriguez says. "But I couldn't take him. I was having such a good time, and I was with these [two other] guys, and I had no room in the truck."
The next day, when Rodriguez heard that Joe was missing, he joined the search for his missing friend.
"I remember it snowed like crazy," he says. "There were five-foot drifts; I was up to my waist."
The presence of so much snow, in addition to making the search so difficult, also would have impeded search dogs' ability to follow a trail, Rodriguez feels.
"Everything was covered up," he says.
As for what may have happened to Joe, Rodriguez says that he would prefer not to speculate. What he does know, however, is that he feels that he let his friend down.
"I feel like I wasn't much of a friend," he says. "I've lived with this now for 24 years, that I could have helped him out."
He also feels, rather strongly, that the local community didn't do enough to find out what happened to one of its own.
"All of you [guys] looked down your noses at me and him, because we didn't fit in with you guys at that time," he says. "And now you all want to lend your support. But, you know what? In school you weren't too nice to us."
Rodriguez says that he can't help but feel this way, given the circumstances. He just wants to know what happened to his friend all those years ago.
"Until the day when we find out what happened, I can't put this to rest," Rodriquez says.
THE CURRENT INVESTIGATION
Chief Mattracion says that he can't help but remember the Helt case, as it remains one of those mysteries that can really get under one's skin. The case, in fact, happened early in Mattracion's career when he was still a patrolman.
"It's a very tragic case," Mattracion says. "I've been here 25 years, and it happened in the first three months I was on the job."
Mattracion did want to clarify, however, that missing persons cases are never closed, at least until such time that evidence is produced that would indicate the person's fate. He says that he has revisited the case at least a couple of times each year, so the investigation remains ongoing.
Mattracion does admit that the case has gotten under his skin just a bit.
"What really bothers me is that his mother never found out what happened to her son," Mattracion says. "I knew Lee very well, and I know the Helt family. It's always a tragic thing when you can't put closure on something like this."
Churchill confirms Mattracion's assertion.
"Obviously, it's something you don't just forget," she says. "We all know he's not coming home; we know he's not going to come walking through the door. But it's really hard because my sister, she never found out the answers of what happened to her son."
Lee Helt passed away several years ago. Her final request was to have her ashes scattered on the mountain on which her son disappeared — a request her family and friends honored.
If you are interested in joining Joe's Facebook page, search on "In Support of Joe Helt." And if you think you may have information that can help police figure out what happened to Joe, contact Ellenville police at 845-647-4422.