Family, friends hopeful for answers, closure in mysterious 1987 disappearance of New York teen Joseph Helt

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Snow flurries had just begun to fall over the village of Ellenville, New York, on the evening of Saturday, January 17, 1987, in what would soon turn into a treacherous snowstorm.

It was around 5:30 p.m. when single mother of four Lee Ann Housman got a call that would change her life forever. Her son’s boss at the Napanoch Auction Barn called to ask why the teenager had not shown up for work. Lee Ann knew her son had been out the night before, but it was uncharacteristic for him to not show up for work.

Joseph “Joe” Helt, 17, a junior at Ellenville High, never missed a chance to make money. And that meant he never missed a chance to work at the auction barn, which only operated on the weekends. So when he hadn’t shown up that night, Joe’s family began to worry.

Joe’s aunt, Beth Churchill, told Dateline she remembers the night clearly, from the first snow flurries that pelted her skin moments before she stepped into her mother’s house, to the gnawing pain in the pit of her stomach when they told her about the call.

“They told me Joe hadn’t shown up for work that night and, well, I just got this sinking feeling,” Beth recalled. “At that moment I knew. I don’t know how, but I knew something bad had happened.”

Beth told Dateline that her sister knew Joe had been out Friday night and that he most likely didn’t come home. But that wasn’t unusual, she added, for the teenager to stay out late and end up crashing at a friend’s house for the night.

That Friday night, January 16, 1987, was one of those nights — or so it seemed.

According to witness statements provided to the New York State Police, Joe was partying with some friends at Mount Cathalia, an abandoned ski lodge turned popular hangout spot, just outside Ellenville.

Late into the night and into the early morning hours of Saturday, January 17, the partying continued. Joe and three of his friends — John LaForge, Wade Marks and Kelly Diaz — eventually left the lodge for a late-night drive in LaForge’s Subaru. At some point, the vehicle became stuck in the snow on the side of Sam’s Point Road, a road that winds through a preserve in the Shawangunk Ridge.

After multiple attempts to get the car out, a frustrated Joe walked down the mountain alone, in the dark, in an effort to find help, his friends told police. It was the last time Joe was ever seen.

“Did he get to the bottom, or didn’t he get to the bottom? We don’t know,” now-retired Captain Joseph Tripodo told the New York Times in 2011. “There’s no evidence. He disappeared without a trace.”

Joe’s family filed a missing persons report on January 17 with the Ellenville Police Department and a massive search was launched immediately that weekend. The small village department was soon joined by New York State Police (NYSP), forest rangers, family and friends. They utilized helicopters and tracking dogs and scoured miles of land that consisted of caves and deep crevices. But the snow kept falling, and was not letting up.

NYSP Investigator Holli Schoonmaker, the current investigator on the case, told Dateline that, “numerous search efforts were conducted over the days, weeks and months following the missing person report,” but added that “snowfall and ice that weekend made the search efforts extremely difficult.”

After several days of searching, their efforts were ultimately halted by the snowstorm which lasted long into the week.

“Those days… it was like a nightmare that would never end,” Joe’s aunt, Beth, told Dateline. “The storm just complicated a very stressful, and already sad situation.”

Searches resumed in the spring when the snow had melted and the frozen ground had thawed. But there was no trace of Joe, not even one of his shoes or a piece of clothing.

“It’s like he just disappeared into thin air,” Beth said. “But a person doesn’t just disappear. Something happened to him. I felt it that night and I still feel it.”

Beth is only a few years older than Joe, and told Dateline he was more of a brother than a nephew.

“We were very close,” she said. “Our family was close – this just devastated us.”

Beth described her nephew as a typical teenager of the 1980s who loved heavy-metal music, like KISS, AC/DC and Iron Maiden, and partying with his friends around a fire pit at the old ski lodge. He was also an artist who liked to practice his craft on anything he considered a blank canvas, like his friends’ hands and album covers.

“He wasn’t an angel,” Beth said with a small laugh. “But Joe, well, Joe was a sweetheart. And he was caring and was always there if you needed him. And he was smart and talented.”

A junior at Ellenville High School, Joe hadn’t yet started making plans for beyond the classroom, Beth said. But she knew one place that held a special place in his heart – the auction barn.

“He really looked up to Vic, his boss,” Beth said. “And he just loved being there. I think he would’ve taken over the business eventually.”

This weekend marks 34 years since Joe seemingly vanished off that mountain, and over the three decades, many have speculated as to what happened that night.

Had he fallen into a deep crevice, only to be eventually buried forever beneath years of snow and ice? Or had he been murdered that night following an argument over drugs?

In 2011, 24 years after Joe’s disappearance, some of his classmates were planning a class reunion when his name came up. They decided to take action. They created a Facebook page. Held vigils. Rallied for answers.

“People believe that he took off and never came back. People believe he fell into a crevice,“ Jackie Mennella, a high school classmate of Joe’s told NBC4 in 2011. “There are a million stories. What actually happened, I have no idea.”

Rumors and theories of Joe’s fate continued to swirl and began to cause tension on the Facebook page, with many pointing fingers at the three friends with whom Joe had last been seen. The page was ultimately shut down.

Captain Tripodo told the New York Times in 2011 that the New York State Police interviewed two of the friends, Diaz and Marks, both of whom were Joe’s classmates, as well as LaForge, who was 21. He added that the men abandoned LaForge’s car and walked home shortly after Joe left.

Though the authorities initially considered these three men persons of interest who “offered us information,” Captain Tripodo said, the police found no evidence of a crime. He added that efforts to interview the men again throughout the years were unsuccessful.

She would not comment on whether or not the men are considered suspects in Joe’s disappearance due to the ongoing investigation, but said foul play has not been ruled out.

“The NYSP treats all complaints of missing persons with a high priority,” Investigator Schoonmaker told Dateline. “People go missing for a wide variety of reasons, whether that be they are lost, have an accident, suicide or some other form of foul play. We do not rule anything out, including foul play, when it pertains to missing person investigations.”

Investigator Schoonmaker added that at this time, the New York State Police have no reason to reclassify this case as anything other than an “active missing persons investigation.” She said that she does believe there is “more information available out there” and encourages the public to come forward with any tips.

Beth told Dateline she wants to find out what happened to her nephew, but admits it’s hard to hold on to any hope after all these years.

“It’s awful not knowing,” she said. “But what I wanted more than anything was for my sister to get answers, to finally know what happened.

But Joe’s mother died without getting that chance.

Joe’s mother, Lee Ann, died in 2007, and his father, Christopher, who lived in Florida, passed away just months later, both of cancer. Beth, who took on the role of her sister’s caretaker, said they rarely talked of Joe’s disappearance, but that Lee Ann would often visit a gazebo in Sam’s Point near where Joe disappeared. The gazebo has since been torn down, but Lee Ann’s ashes were scattered in the same area, a last wish she made before she died.

“She died with a broken heart, not ever knowing what happened to her son,” Beth said. “But if you believe in the afterlife, then, well, he was up there, waiting for her, waiting with answers and open arms. And the idea that she got her answers, well, then that’s what gives me peace.”

Joe would be turning 53 this summer if he were still alive. At the time of his disappearance, he was described as being 5’9”, 150 lbs, with blonde hair and brown eyes. He was last seen wearing a camouflage jacket, t-shirt, long sleeve thermal shirt, grey hooded sweatshirt and white high-top tennis shoes.