When private investigator Amy Johnson’s phone rang one day not long ago from a Colorado number, she had one thought: “Spam.” But the message was from Montrose County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Ted Valerio and when she played it, Johnson’s hair stood on end.

Susan Elizabeth Hoppes, the missing woman for whom Johnson had been searching for 20 years, was Montrose County’s Windy Point Jane Doe.

Her bones were found in 1994 but rested unidentified until April, when forensic genetic genealogy provided a family link for investigators, who followed up and confirmed her identity.

“Bringing justice to Susan’s death was always my goal. The fact that she’s been found is the best outcome based on the circumstances,” Johnson said Friday, May 13. “I’ve never forgotten about her. Even 20 years later, she (her picture) hangs in a place where I see her. I always thought, ‘Where are you?’”

Johnson diligently followed lead upon lead trying to find Hoppes, after a request from family in 2004. She is now providing key information to local authorities to help learn about what happened to Hoppes and who is responsible.

Based on Johnson’s findings, Hoppes was probably last heard from in late May of 1993, when she was living in Washington.

The licensed practical nurse had lived in California since the age of 11, but moved to an apartment in Shelton, Washington, in late spring or early summer of 1991, at the request of a friend who might have been a roommate in California. Hoppes then bought a trailer in Spanaway and moved in with the same woman in September or October, 1992. In 1993, a male acquaintance joined the women at the home.

Johnson learned that Hoppes, then 45, kept in regular contact with her family through letters, expressing excitement about owning a home and sharing future-focused plans.

But when the landlord of Hoppes’ mobile home park came by at the start of June to collect rent, he found the door standing open, debris inside, and drawers pulled open.

Hoppes and the other two had up and left in the middle of the night, Johnson later learned.

Hoppes’ aunt and uncle, who also lived in Washington, knew something wasn’t right. Susan wasn’t the type to just leave and did not have a high-risk lifestyle. Where was she?

A scene on Windy Point

As investigators in Montrose and Washington now know, Hoppes was in Colorado, off Divide Road, where a hiker found her skull on July 7, 1994. Additional searches yielded more bones; a piece of a belt and some hair.

After spending almost 28 years in an evidence vault, Hoppes was officially identified on May 11, the result of “classic police work” and not giving up, said Dr. Thomas Canfield, Montrose County coroner, and Sheriff Gene Lillard. (See the May 12 Montrose Daily Press.)

Tom Chinn, who retired as chief of Montrose police in 2018, was part of some initial search efforts in 1994. At the time, he was a detective and the police department had an active missing persons case — unconnected, as it turned out.

Finding out who the “Jane Doe” really was is “wonderful,” he said on May 12.

“It was a major case. We worked it as much as we could and the last several administrations of the sheriff’s office also worked on it,” Chinn said. “I think it’s a good thing for Montrose County and a great thing for the family to at least have a little hope there’s a possibility we may find out who the suspects are.”

Chinn recalled going to Windy Point with a search team — a move that did not please the sheriff at the time, although Chinn said the agency had been neglectful in scene control.

“We did shoulder-to-shoulder, crawling through the timber and brush, looking for any type of evidence. We did find where the body was (initially) placed and all kinds of trails where the animals had taken the bones and basically scattered them,” he said.

Rick Dunlap, former Montrose County sheriff, also welcomed the news. (Dunlap was elected in 2006 and departed office at the start of 2018. He was not in office at the time the remains were found.)

“I am tickled to death that they were able to do that. We tried too. The sheriff before me tried. I’m just glad they didn’t give up on it and kept pursuing it,” Dunlap said.

“With technology today, I am glad they pursued that and were able to follow through on it,” he added, mentioning the work of now-retired investigator David Harrison.

“It’s kind of a bittersweet thing,” said Harrison, whose efforts included publicizing a 2012 facial reconstruction of the victim.

“I just knew in my heart that somewhere out there, she had a family and that family needed to know what happened to her,” Dunlap said.

Johnson gathered decades’ worth of information she hopes will answer that question.

She knows more than she can say publicly, because Montrose County is working the case as an active homicide. But Johnson can say Hoppes’ family didn’t just write her off — and that her side of the case revolves around just a few people.

“It was very strange that all of a sudden, things started to go a little bit sideways and she just dropped off the face of this earth. The family felt that,” Johnson said.

“This family scoured the area in which she was last seen. They knocked on doors. They got information that was concerning to them, really concerning.”

The family at one point placed a classified ad that Johnson said would have provoked a response from Hoppes, had she been around to see it. The ad stated her father was critically ill and asked her to “call collect.”

There was no phone call.

Hoppes’ aunt and uncle filed a missing persons report on their niece in Washington on Aug. 9, 1993 — a report that was apparently cleared for unknown reasons in 1994, Lillard reported on May 11.

Fast forward from 1993 to early 2003. Johnson was freshly accredited as a licensed private investigator in the state of Washington and coincidentally in a relationship with a Hoppes relative. Hoppes’ aunt approached her.

“We sat down over her table. She presented me with these files and said, ‘This is our niece Susan and she disappeared into thin air in 1993.’ … They really entrusted me with every detail. They laid these files down in front of me,” Johnson said.

The extensive detail impressed her. “I thought I was reading an investigator’s file,” she said.

“It was exciting for me at the time to start my career off on a case like this and starting to use those freshly acquired skills and 20 years later, here we are. I’m still just in a little bit of awe.”

Johnson’s work was pro bono; Hoppes’ family did not pay her and she even traveled to other states at her own expense.

It was all for Susan.

“She was an amazing person. She got tangled up with the wrong people,” Johnson said.

“ … I did it for the family. It became something for me that felt so wrong and needed to be made so right. I could not let it go. I could not let her vanish off the face of this earth.”

Through her extensive work, Johnson learned about the man who had joined Hoppes and the other woman at the trailer in March of 1993.

“It just goes really crazy from there. Everything just goes down the strangest path. I had no doubt in my mind that she left there with them,” Johnson said.

That doesn’t make sense to her, given how enthusiastic Hoppes was at having her own home and how much she liked the area.

“ … There is nothing that made me believe she left on her own. No way.”

The lost and the found intersect

In the interests of the active investigation, Johnson could not publicly disclose all of the information she developed.

Some of her leads pointed to Oregon and indeed, human remains were located there, raising Johnson’s hopes for resolution, albeit a grim one.

But when the call finally came, it was from Colorado. Johnson was surprised to the point of disbelief.

“I felt like I knew, I was just waiting. And the call came, but it didn’t come from who I expected it to come from,” Johnson said.

Valerio was on the other end of that call with the news. Yes, Johnson said she was told, he was sure the remains in Montrose County were Susan’s.

Valerio had tracked Johnson through a police report she made as part of her own investigation.

As had Johnson, the Montrose County Sheriff’s Office spent years following crumbs of clues, in efforts to at least give Windy Point Jane a name.

In the years since the remains’ discovery, forensic technology advanced to the point that commercial DNA databases sprung up. These allow those who are searching for their own ancestral origins to submit DNA samples for testing and sometimes, familial connections are found.

This “forensic genetic genealogy” has also cracked criminal cases, including serial murder.

As previously reported, the MCSO submitted DNA from the Windy Point case in 2020 to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in hopes of familial DNA testing. In 2021, the CBI added the case to one of about 100 it intended to pursue through forensic genetic genealogy. Analysts there prepared the sample for certain commercial vendors.

The samples, though degraded, led to a familial match for Hoppes. Additional forensics by the CBI confirmed Hoppes’ identity.

The investigation also led Valerio to Johnson, who said she spoke to him in person on May 12 in Washington.

“Montrose County has this big piece. I have all the little pieces that make the big piece fit,” Johnson said.

“It is so complex and so twisted and it’s so kind of mind-blowing that just hearing me say it, sometimes, takes me aback a little bit about how big this is.”

Johnson provided her case file to Valerio, saying even though it was her work, the case, in the end, is not about her.

It is about Susan.

“Susan was described as sweet, kind, not a mean bone in her body. She was generous and caring, but she was naive, shy and introverted and did not make friends easily. She was this demure personality,” Johnson said.

“When I look in her eyes (photos), That’s what I see. She didn’t make it to tell her own story. That is sad for me.”

As had Harrison, Johnson said matching Hoppes to the remains in Montrose County was bittersweet.

“My goal was always to help find Susan any way I possibly could. I’ve known in my heart she probably didn’t come out of this on the better side. Just to have that be the reality is tough. You always hope,” Johnson said.

Hoppes’ cause and manner of death are undetermined; however, investigators here have from the beginning said the circumstances in which she was found point to homicide.

Pathology reports here estimated she had died about a year prior to discovery, which fits the general timeline of when Hoppes went missing versus when her bones were found.

Johnson takes a small measure of comfort in knowing Hoppes’ body didn’t lie out in the elements for years, even if it took almost three decades to identify her.

“Nobody wants their family members on the side of a hill. This woman was a kind, gentle soul,” said Johnson.

“She didn’t deserve it.”

Editor’s note: Former Daily Press writer Scott Schwebke located and provided a copy of the classified ad referenced in this story.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.

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