BILLINGS – For 20 years, the disappearance of Jeff Jones’ father gnawed at him.
He was 12 when his dad, Raymond Jones, went bowhunting in Idaho’s Lemhi Mountains with his buddies. When Raymond didn’t return to camp one evening, his hunting partners informed the local sheriff’s department and a search was quickly launched.
Raymond went missing on Jeff’s 12th birthday, Sept. 7, 1968 – a birthday he shared with his father, who was born in 1929.
For days, men on foot scoured the rugged terrain near Hayden Creek where he was last seen. Airplanes, bloodhounds and helicopters were called in to assist a search that continued until bad weather shut efforts down.
Fifty-three years later, on Sept. 17, a bowhunter trekking through rocky terrain in the same region discovered two weathered black boots, the soles showing little wear, sticking out from under a boulder.
“He said when he found him he knew this was historic, someone who had been missing a long time,” the hunter told Jeff. “He’s not a religious person, but he said it felt like he was meant to be there.”
The remains were easily identified by the discovery of some of Raymond’s belongings, including a credit card with his name on it.
“I’m grateful for that little piece of plastic,” Jeff said.
Lemhi County Sheriff Steve Penner said the discovery was “unbelievable” given the time that had elapsed. “It’s kind of an amazing story.”
For years following Raymond’s disappearance, Jeff said he carried a “chip on his shoulder,” as if he had to prove his worth. His father and mother had been divorced for eight years when Raymond went missing. Jeff was living in Miles City, Montana, Raymond’s hometown, with his mother, Elizabeth, who everyone knew as Betty.
His parents were a tight couple when young, Jeff said, hunting, fishing, racing stock cars and dancing together.
“He was an outgoing person, he liked to have fun,” Jeff said. “When I was little, I remember he would let me steer the milk truck as he was making deliveries.”
Before Jeff was born, his mother severed her spine in a wreck after the steering went out while driving a new stock car, an accident that confined her to a wheelchair. Years later, the marriage went south and the couple divorced when Jeff was 2. Raymond remarried and moved to Salmon, Idaho, where he ran a Meadow Gold delivery route while also operating an Enco gas station. It was an Enco credit card that revealed Raymond’s identity.
After the divorce, Raymond would fly a plane he owned to pick up Jeff and bring him back to Salmon for a few weeks in the summer. They would often fish together, including one memorable trip when Jeff landed a 28-pound salmon.
Back in Miles City, Jeff was estranged from his father’s parents, siblings and cousins after the divorce. They may have grown up in the same small town, but the families ignored each other, divorce being more of a social stigma at the time, Jeff said. Betty married twice more and had one child with each husband, neither relationship lasting long.
“It was kind of us against the world back then,” he said of his siblings and mother. “We were very, very close.”
Despite her disability and because she had five children to raise, Betty started the Cottage Phone Answering Service, instilling in Jeff an entrepreneurial and independent spirit that his father also shared. She died of cancer in 1986.
“So I didn’t have either one of my parents for very long,” Jeff said.
Of his two sisters, only one is still alive. Terri Bleacher died at age 48 following a fall in which she accidentally cut her jugular vein. Peggy Lausche lives in Enderlin, North Dakota.
After their divorce, Raymond also remarried and with his new wife, Donna, adopted an infant son, Steven, just days before disappearing.
In 1970, two years after going missing, Raymond was officially declared deceased. Although no body was found to bury, a gravestone next to his parent’s plot – Clyde and Dora Jones – was erected in Miles City to memorialize his presumed death.
Raymond’s disappearance was also a blow to his siblings and parents.
“They were destroyed to lose a child,” said Virginia Streeper, Raymond’s 89-year-old sister who lives in Havre, Montana. “We waited and waited and hoped he would be found.”
Virginia remembers her brother as a “wonderful man, loving” who was also a “terrible tease” when it came to his younger sister. Virginia’s granddaughter alerted her that Raymond had been found.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I was very relieved and happy because it brought closure after all those years.”
As a child, Jeff heard about his father’s disappearance from his uncles, who helped pay for additional airplane searches after the official manhunt was called off.
“They did everything they could to find him,” Jeff said.
Three days after Raymond disappeared, Jeff received a “pretty spooky” birthday card his father had mailed before going hunting.
“I kept expecting him to come through the door, even 20 years later, because there were rumors, as there often is, that he had run off,” Jeff said. “I always felt, being his only son, that he would show up, that he would let me know if he had taken off.”
Eventually, Jeff was successful in burying the painful thoughts that haunted him. He worked as a welder and then started a business before selling it and starting another one. He never thought about his father much until he received an unusual message from his cousin, Brad Jones, who lives in Oak Harbor, Washington. Brad had seen an internet story about a hunter’s remains being discovered in Idaho after 53 years. He sent Jeff a Facebook message saying, “My prayers are with you.” Jeff had no idea what Brad was talking about, so Brad urged him to phone.
“I hate to be the one to tell you like this, but they found your dad,” Brad told his cousin. At the time, Jeff was stunned but grateful.
“That’s great news, don’t be sorry,” he said. “I’d been waiting for that news since I was 12.”
Since she was the spouse of record when the hunter went missing, the sheriff’s office had contacted Raymond’s widow, Donna, who was in a memory care facility.
“She had a hard time separating 1968 from now,” Jeff said, asking if Raymond had been found alive.
For days after learning the news, Jeff said he was in a fog. Grief he had suppressed for years overwhelmed him. With the help of his son he spent days tracking down relatives to let them know that a 53-year-old mystery had been solved.
A day after his discovery, the Idaho hunter led deputies from the Lemhi County Sheriff’s Office and a Forest Service law enforcement officer back to the site where he had stumbled upon Raymond’s remains, a remote area at an elevation of about 9,000 feet.
“Your dad had to be a (tough) bowhunter to be up where he was,” the discoverer of Raymond’s remains told Jeff. The hunter has asked authorities and Jeff to keep him anonymous.
It was 4 miles in to the bottom of the slope and then a rugged climb up the mountain to the accident site. The bowhunter speculated Raymond might have been attempting to scale a cliff when a piece of rock broke off and crushed him.
“You know, it’s hard to say what happened,” Sheriff Penner said. “It was a cliffy area. He most likely fell. Things move around a lot, so it’s just speculation.”
It took four men to lift the 18-inch thick rock that measured about 5-feet square. Underneath there was little of Raymond left – a few skull fragments, some leg bones and one foot – as well as the remains of what looked like a backpack, a piece of a wooden arrow shaft, a gnarled leather knife scabbard and rusted hunting knife, a homemade elk bugle crafted from plastic, a coiled piece of cotton rope, a plastic sheath holding a hunting license and of course the all-important credit card. Never found was Raymond’s bow.
“Most of his bones were gone, I expect animals carried them off,” Jeff said.
After receiving permission from Steven Jones, Raymond’s adopted son, Jeff made the “surreal” trip to Salmon to retrieve his father’s remains, taking his two sons, Scott and Ryan Jones. In Salmon, the four children of his father’s friend and hunting partner, Ralph Pehrson, gathered from across the country to meet them. They revisited the creek they had played in as children, as well as their parents’ former homes. Ralph, they confided, had packed away his own bow, never to use it again, after Raymond went missing.
Despite the somber reason for the gathering, “It was really like a happy reunion, a celebration,” Jeff said. They vowed to never let the Jones-Pehrson connection die again.
Picking up the few boxes that contained his father’s remains and weathered belongings proved more emotional for Jeff than he had anticipated, despite 53 years to reconcile the tragedy. It’s still difficult for him to change a story he has told for all of that time. Now instead of saying his father disappeared when he was only 12 years old, Jeff has reframed it as his father was found after missing for 53 years. Jeff is now 65. His father, had he survived, would be 92.
“I find myself having to readjust my thinking. It’s a surreal kind of feeling,” Jeff said.
“I can say he was killed by a rock slide.”
In the spring, Jeff is planning a graveside service to have his father’s remains interred at the Miles City cemetery under the stone that long marked his life. Next summer, he intends to return to the site of his father’s death with his sons and maybe place a marker at the site.
Jeff hopes the story of his father’s discovery, after so many years, will let other families of missing people know there is a possibility, however slim, that their loved ones may eventually be found.
“I really feel blessed that I know in my lifetime what happened to him,” he said. “I’d given up hope of ever finding out.”
Jeff carries reminders of his mother and father everywhere he goes. Tattooed on his right upper arm is a portrait of his father with the Green Day song title, “Wake Me Up When September Ends” arcing above and below. The song was written by musician Billie Joe Armstrong following his father’s September death when he was 10 years old.
Below the portrait are the dates Raymond disappeared, his birthday and Jeff’s birthday. Jeff’s son, Ryan, of Bombshell Tattoo, inked the memorial. On Jeff’s left upper arm is a portrait of his mother, Betty. Together the parents frame their son, a survivor of heartbreak, a man who has risen above troublesome circumstances.
Loss of a loved one affects everyone differently. For Jeff, one thing his father’s disappearance underscored for him was safety in the outdoors.
“When I grew up, I hunted quite a bit,” he said. “And I was always super careful, made sure of my bearings, because I knew something happened to him that he couldn’t control.
“So I taught my boys don’t take any risks, don’t take any chances.”
In the back of his mind, as Jeff hiked in the Gravelly Mountains while elk hunting, his father’s disappearance unconsciously nagged at him. He didn’t want to vanish and leave his sons with unanswered questions.
“That was foremost in my mind, to not repeat history for my kids.”
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