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Goliad woman continues to search for missing husband in Colorado

By Bianca Montes
July 5, 2013 at 2:05 a.m.
Updated July 6, 2013 at 2:06 a.m.

Denean Stehling, of Goliad, holds photos of her husband, Mitchell Dale Stehling, who was last seen June 9 in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. She plans to return to the park this weekend to continue the search for him.

how you can help

Visitors in Colorado who hiked the Petroglyph Point Trail on June 9 or June 10 are asked to call park law enforcement at 970-529-4422.

"I just don't feel he's dead yet" - the tearful words of a Goliad woman whose husband disappeared about a month ago.

Denean Stehling came back home to Goliad last week and anxiously worked a seven-day shift as a pediatric nurse at a home in Live Oak County.

But her mind was still on her husband.

At 4 a.m. Friday, she placed her luggage back into her car and began a 16-hour drive to Colorado, where her husband, Mitchell Dale Stehling, was last seen.

It all began June 9.

It was Day Four of a vacation the couple took great joy in planning - Denean always wanted to visit Colorado.

About an hour into New Mexico, the RV they were traveling in needed servicing, so the couple and Dale's parents decided to make a day trip to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.

"When I look back, there were a lot of signs that we shouldn't have taken this trip," Denean said.

The family watched a 30-minute video at the park's museum about Spruce Tree House, a ruined dwelling built hundreds of years ago by the Southwest Puebloan people's ancestors.

Dale wanted to see it.

They planned to drive down to the lookout point and just take in the scenery, but once the dwelling was in sight, Dale wanted to see it closer.

Denean took a quick picture of her husband in front of the trail and watched him descend down the quarter-mile trail.

It was 4:08 p.m.

"I never saw him again," she said, holding her breath as tears began to form in her eyes. "He never came back."

Park rangers believed Dale had gotten off track, something that can happen. They told his wife to wait it out a couple of hours.

Hours passed. No Dale.

The rangers began to search the park about 7:20 p.m. and stopped when it became too dark to see.

They were going to continue in the morning.

The rangers told Denean that a partial ping from her husband's cellphone was retrieved.

About 7 p.m., his phone attempted to make a call to its voicemail.

Since then, the phone goes directly to voicemail, and no other GPS pings were shown.

Denean went to bed with peace in her heart that night because she thought they'd find her husband in the morning.

She didn't even call their children to tell them their father was missing.

She was that sure.

Mesa Verde National Park released a statement June 11 that Dale, 51, was missing in the park.

The release called it a hasty search: "Crews were out early Monday morning expanding the search area on foot, by horseback and by helicopter."

Two dog teams also assisted.

This was the first time someone was missing longer than a couple of hours, said Betty Lieurance, park public information officer.

"Typically, when people get lost in the park, we find them, or they resurface within a couple of hours," Lieurance said.

Expectations of finding Dale were high the first couple of days, and Denean patiently stood at the lookout point watching rescuers search for her husband.

By midweek, the extra power and helicopter were needed to respond to the Black Forest fire outside Colorado Springs.

The search was scaled back.

At the end of the week, the rangers took Denean and her family into a small room. There were two lists on the wall. One was filled with reasons to continue to search for Dale. There were only four reasons to stop.

She expected them to keep searching. "There were more reasons to continue," she said.

The chances of Dale's survivability were slim, park officials said.

The search was scaled back again.

"The search for Mitchell Stehling, which has been underway since last Sunday, has been scaled back due to lack of clues and new information," a third news release issued by the park stated.

There were no clues. No signs of life. No signs of death. No footprints to follow.

Temperatures in the park were over 100 degrees that week. Dale did not have water.

He was supposed to be gone only half an hour.

Park officials continue to search for Dale in a limited mode.

Denean does not want to give up. She's sure her husband is still out there.

"I know my husband," she said. "He's an outdoorsman. If he was physically capable of moving, he'd know how to find food and water."

After scaling back the search, rangers plastered posters all over the park with a photo of Dale, and they finally received their first tip.

A couple had seen Dale on June 9.

He was resting on Petroglyph Point Trail, a 2.4-mile route that splits off from the Spruce Tree House Trail.

How much farther is it, he asked the couple.

They told him he was about halfway there.

The couple saw Dale once more at another fork in the trail.

That was the last time they saw him.

Denean and Dale have been married 32 years. They celebrated their anniversary in March.

Together, they have four children and six grandchildren. Dale has an older son who spent weeks searching the park for his father.

He just returned home.

"If God said his number is up, I'd be OK with that," Denean said. "I know Dale was good with God."

Every night, she sends a text message to her husband, just like she would while she worked a seven-day shift.

She tells him she loves him and she misses him.

She doesn't believe he's dead.

"I don't feel that," she said. "If it was his day, I need to know that."

Right now, she has peace.

"A lot of people don't understand the peace of God," she said. "I have peace."

When Denean arrives in Colorado, she plans to take a picture of Dale with his family - he lived for his children and grandchildren - and tell his story.

"I just want Dale's face out there," she said.

She wants to keep the search alive.

"I'm not fooling myself," she said. "I know he can be dead, but I just don't have that feeling.

"My heart may forever be in Colorado."

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