Goliad woman retraces missing husband's path (w/video)

June 24, 2014 at 1:24 a.m.

Denean Stehling sits in the unfinished room that her husband, Dale Stehling, referred to as his music room in the fixer-upper project house.  One year ago, her husband of 32 years vanished while taking a walk on the trail leading to the "Spruce Tree House" cliff dwelling in Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park.

Denean Stehling sits in the unfinished room that her husband, Dale Stehling, referred to as his music room in the fixer-upper project house. One year ago, her husband of 32 years vanished while taking a walk on the trail leading to the "Spruce Tree House" cliff dwelling in Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park.   Frank Tilley for The Victoria Advocate

A pile of soot and ashes lay in the center of the floor in a small room in New Mexico. It was probably the last place Denean Stehling expected her travels to take her, but the ashes soon turned into a doorstep for the woman to lay down her sorrowed heart.

Stehling has been in a place of unknowing, a place of what if's and questioning since her husband, Dale Stehling, ventured off to explore ruined dwellings built hundreds of years ago at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.

He was never seen again.

Over the course of a year, Stehling returned to the national park three times with the hope for answers, a glimmer of insight into what happened to her husband of 32 years, but the short-lived search last June went cold.

All he saw was death

Inside the house, a man in his mid-to-late 60s - although he looked younger - prayed over the pile of ashes, chanting in his native tongue.

The previous night, Stehling stayed in a small New Mexico town between Flagstaff and Albuquerque, where a woman told her about a medicine man who may be able to give her the answers she wanted.

The lady didn't have an exact address for the medicine man, and she didn't know his name, but instead, she drew Stehling a map.

"I stopped at three different places to find him," Stehling recalled about the journey. "I got to the point that if I didn't find him at the third house, I was going to leave."

Stehling has a strong faith in her Christianity and said she wasn't even sure whether she believed in what this psychic would offer, but as soon as she knocked on that last door - a little trailer house in Window Rock - she was surrounded by a gust of wind that was somewhat calming.

The man knew Stehling was coming. He even told his wife earlier in the day that someone would be visiting, and as soon as she arrived, he took her to a ceremonial house for a blessing.

The man, whose American name is Justin, sat down on a mat, and in the ashes he saw visions, Stehling said, "and he would point at the coals and ask, 'Do you see this? Do you see that?'"

He saw Dale in a dwelling with a head injury.

The medicine man told Stehling he didn't see color in his visions, only black and white, and when it came to her husband, all he saw was death.

"The way he described it, he said there was unbroken pottery inside and broken pottery on the outside," Stehling said, thinking that maybe her husband was in an undiscovered dwelling. "To me, it just kind of confirmed some of the thoughts I had been having."

Mesa Verde National Park is perched high in southwestern Colorado where hundreds of miles of views of an ancient civilization remain etched on the cliffsides, many of those areas are unreachable.

Still missing

Stehling, her husband and her in-laws left Goliad last June in a camper trailer and drove west.

She had always wanted to see Colorado.

It was the fourth day of a vacation the couple took great joy planning, but about an hour into New Mexico, their RV needed servicing.

Dale Stehling was an outdoorsman, a camping man, a man who could spend hours tending to his garden. He knew exactly how to spend that down time, a day trip to Mesa Verde National Park.

Other than the main trails, a majority of Mesa Verde is unchartered territory that is off limits, Patrick O'Driscoll of National Park Services said. O'Driscoll oversees media relations for all national parks within the intermountain region.

According to its website, Mesa Verde was the first national park of its kind. It was established in 1906 by President Theodore Roosevelt to preserve archaeological sites built by the Puebloans, who inhabited the park for more than 700 years.

Originally, the Stehlings only planned to drive out to the lookout point and take in the scene from afar.

The quarter-mile trail was rugged, and the in-laws - because of age - and the wife - because of weight - never would've been able to make it. But being the rugged outdoorsman, Dale Stehling had to get a little closer.

It was 4:08 p.m.

It was hot, temperatures in the park were in the 90s, and the terrain consists of steep canyons and mesa tops at an elevation between 6,500 and 8,000 feet, according to statements released after the disappearance.

The hike to the top of the trail should've taken about an hour to make, but Dale Stehling never returned. At first, rangers thought he had gotten off track, and they told his wife to give him a couple more hours.

"The park never had a person go missing for more than a couple of hours," said Betty Lieurance, park public information officer.

In 2013, of the 91 parks in the Intermountain Region, which covers eight states, 420 people disappeared, according to park statistics. Of those people, 390 were found within 24 hours, 10 between 24 and 48 hours, four between 48 hours and one week, seven after a week, and nine are considered still missing. The number of still missing may have changed since the statistics were submitted.

Dale Stehling was and continues to be one of those never recovered.

Mounting anger

The park never closed the case on Stehling and still continues to look for him in a limited continued mode, meaning, if a ranger is in the park, he or she will keep in mind that there is an unfound body in the park and be aware of any evidence that may lead to his recovery.

Chief Ranger Jessie Farias said a photo of Dale Stehling and notes about his disappearance remain on his wall.

On average, about five to 10 people go missing in the park yearly, Farias said, but Dale Stehling sticks with him.

Farias said the park extended efforts for months to find Stehling, which included calling in close to 100 people at time to search, scaling cliffs and searching in areas of the park closed to guests.

There are a lot of cliff areas in the park that extend down to the Ute Mountain reservation that are filled with rocks, and Farias said if Stehling fell down a cliff, it would be almost impossible to see him from above or below it.

"If he fell off a cliff, if he fell in between a rock area - unless you are looking straight down, even helicopters would not see him," he said.

Denean Stehling, however, doesn't think the rangers did enough to search for her husband.

In total, rangers spent two days searching for Stehling before scaling back, she said. A news release cited lack of evidence as the reason.

"Now that it's been a year, and the more I reflect on it, honestly, I'm just pissed off," Denean Stehling said. "Their attitude was: He was there, he was lost and what are they supposed to do about it?"

Farias said rangers at the park searched for Stehling about three months, mostly in a scaled back mode, and continue to keep his disappearance on their radar.

Their searches, he said, have and continue to cover a 3- to 5-mile radius around the trail he was last seen on.

Stehling, however, wants the search to extend out of the small area; she told them her husband - despite his age - could put more miles in a day than they thought, but nothing came of it.

Over the course of the next year, Denean Stehling returned to the park three times, expecting answers, expecting to find her husband, expecting some sort of closure, but each time she returned, nothing changed. She believes her husband went off the trail because of confusing signs in the park.

Because she was unable to walk the trail, she fed her interest by the account of a family who'd last seen her husband on the trail.

"I better get going. I'm not supposed to be gone this long," were the last words he spoke, the family said.

They had crossed his path several times that day, noting Dale Stehling asked them, "How much farther to the top?" the last time they saw him.

Phone records show that he tried to access his voicemail about 7 p.m. that night and then disappeared.

'I still want Dale found'

As the anniversary of her husband's disappearance neared, Stehling knew she needed to walk that trail.

She had to lose weight, and in the course of the next few months, she shed 60 pounds and readied herself for the journey.

"It's not closure," Stehling said days before her trip.

"I hope it puts me in Dale's mindset, just to see what he saw, what caught his eye, to just see how the Puebloans built the dwellings - I'll just be in awe of the beauty."

After visiting the medicine man on her way back to Mesa Verde, Stehling said she was ready to let go of her anger.

"I didn't think I was holding on to so much, but when he cleansed me, I got light headed," she said. "When it was over, I could finally breathe. I didn't realize I was holding my breath all this time."

Sitting in the shade, taking a break during the hike, Stehling said she could just imagine her husband sitting there taking in the beauty.

"There were places that were just emotional in a 'Wow, I can see the beauty in all this,'" she said. "And then there were places that were emotional because I could imagine Dale caught up in all the beauty.

"I don't know if there will ever be closure for me, but after the trip, after the hike, I feel that my thoughts and feelings were more finalized. I still want Dale found, and it would be wonderful if he was found alive, but I feel like if there was never anything found, I would be OK."



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