Sara Luster sees her father in her children’s faces and mannerisms — and that’s hard. Her father, Dale Duane Williams, is someone her children know only through photos and her stories, because he disappeared 20 years ago under suspicious circumstances.
“The thing that makes me saddest is, how do you measure the time?” Luster said Friday. Her father, a Nucla auto body shop owner, has been gone since May 27, 1999; now missing for more years than Luster had been alive at the time of his disappearance. And now, her children are coming to the age she was when she last saw her dad.
“It’s kind of that measurement of time that seems to hurt the worst. You want your kids to know how great he was. He was a fabulous dad, so funny and so silly, and you wish your kids could know that part, too,” said Luster.
Williams’ case is one of many designated “cold cases” with which the Colorado Bureau of Investigation assists local agencies. The CBI is actively seeking leads as the two-decade mark approaches.
“It seems like each year, there are new ones that come into the fold. We aren’t lucky enough to go a couple years without having cold cases,” said CBI Intelligence Analyst Audrey Simkins.
Missing persons or unsolved homicide cases are folded into the CBI’s cold case database after three years. The database serves as a repository of information as the agency partners with the original investigating entity, offering its agent and forensic resources, including reviews of a given case in light of what new forenisc technology might be helpful.
But there’s not much that kind of new tech can offer in a case like Williams’.
“Missing persons and unidentified remains are so difficult because there is no evidence to say what happened. That’s what makes it so difficult,” Simkins said.
The last known sighting of Williams was at about 6 p.m. May 27, 1999, at the Family Market in Naturita.
A bit earlier, Williams was playing darts with a friend when a caller phoned to ask for help with a stranded vehicle.
Williams gathered jumper cables and headed toward the caller’s location, thought to be the Paradox Valley area. He stopped at the market along the way to tell another friend about a job he was going to do for him.
“Then,” said his daughter, “nothing.”
Investigators have been searching for the caller ever since. The friend with whom Williams was playing darts had the impression the caller might have been female, Luster said.
“We believe learning more information about the motorist who called Mr. Williams is a critical part of this investigation, but we are looking for any details regarding his disappearance,” CBI Agent Brooks Bennett said in a provided statement.
“Although two decades have passed, we continue to actively work this case and hope that someone will come forward with that key piece of information that will help determine what happened to Mr. Williams.”
Bennett was not able to comment further on the case, or about past reports of what may have happened.
Luster, too, was not able to comment on some of the theories that have previously been publicized. The family maintains a Facebook page, Missing: Dale Williams, and website (www.whereisdalewilliams.net).
“Any tips they know of, any rumors they hear, the CBI will investigate,” Luster said, imploring people to phone in tips to the agency at 970-248-7500 or anonymously to Crime Stoppers at 970-249-8500.
“They have chased down a lot of leads. If you think you know something or may have heard something, it’s better to tell than not to tell.”
The last time Luster remembers seeing her dad, she was on her way to a friend’s house. In typical fashion, he teased her and her friend before letting her go and getting back to his own card game.
“When he didn’t come home, it was the last day of school for me. I was out running around with my friends. When I came home, my mom was very upset. My grandmother was there,” Luster said.
Williams’ failure to come home was completely out of character.
“We all thought it was very serious. It was out of character for my dad. I don’t think anyone else did (think it was serious) until his truck was found, but my mom really thought it was serious from the beginning because he didn’t take anything he needed.”
By the time the high school graduation ceremony got started that evening, Luster’s mother Diana already had missing fliers prepared to hand out.
“I remember a lot of people thinking it was a joke, that it couldn’t be real,” Luster said. “It is kind of almost unnerving to see a missing person flier at a graduation event for someone you know.”
But it was all too real. The Williams home flooded with people and Luster’s friends, who ordinarily would have been out celebrating the end of school, instead came over to check on the family.
On July 4, 1999, teenagers — including a friend of Luster’s — who were swimming and fishing near the confluence of the Dolores and San Miguel rivers found Williams’ vehicle underwater.
The white, F-250 long bed truck’s interior was filled to the dashboard with mud and one of its windows was partway down. Downstream, divers later located the lid of a metal tool box that had been in the back of the vehicle.
Then-Montrose County Undersheriff Dick Deines, since deceased, at the time told the Montrose Daily Press it did not appear the vehicle came to be in the river by accident. Investigators estimated by the amount of debris inside of the cab that the truck went into the water on or about the same day Williams was reported missing.
The discovery raised the family’s hopes, but as the years passed, hopes turned to resignation.
“When you’re young, you’re more optimistic. I just wanted to think it was possible he was going to come home, but as an adult, I do not think that whatsoever,” Luster said.
“I do think that he died, he was murdered. But when I was young, I was so holding out for hope. I’m certain that somebody knows. I think at this point, we can rule out accident, running away. He left under very suspicious circumstances. … You’re hurting and still wanting answers.”
As an adult, Luster is able to communicate directly with the CBI, as is her sister, Tonee Lawrence.
“I think it’s been kind of … healing to be the liaison with CBI, to talk to them, to know that somebody is doing something. When you’re young and not that person, it doesn’t feel that way,” Luster said.
“I think you just get to the point where you just want to know the answer, so you can put it to rest. The feelings dull over time, just like with any person you’ve lost.
“There’s just a little hole there where there should be someone. You know that he should be there.”
The Montrose County Sheriff’s Office continues to keep tabs on the Williams case, too. Since becoming sheriff in January, Gene Lillard has read over the file and has investigators keeping it and other cold cases on the radar.
“We haven’t forgotten Dale Williams. We understand what they’re going through and we wish for closure for them in finding out exactly what happened. We understand closure is very important to the family,” Lillard said.
Luster is haunted by the belief that someone in tiny Nucla knows what happened to her father, or at least, knows someone who knows. After 20 years, she’s left with hoping the matter weighs heavily enough on someone’s conscience that those with answers will step forward.
“Somebody knows something. It shouldn’t be the way it is,” she said.
“I hope that someone feels it heavy on their heart to come forward if they know something, or if they did it, it weighs on them and they would do the right thing. Twenty years is a long time to carry a burden. Older cases have been solved.”
Luster said she’s painfully aware of rumors about her father, but wants people to remember who he was. Her home was stable growing up; nothing strange was going on there, she said.
“It’s a small town and there are a lot of rumors. I would rather them focus on what an integral part of the community he was. He really did help a lot of people,” Luster said.
Williams was a prankster, who was enough of a kid at heart to jump with his daughters on their trampoline, tell them ghost stories, and take them exploring.
“He really was a fun person to be around,” his daughter said, recounting how Williams worked to make Christmas special for the family and others in Nucla.
“He did Santa Claus every year for the public library. He did a lot of charity works. He loved being Santa.”
Williams would even put red tape over the lens of his flashlight and go outside to shine it in the windows so his daughters would think Rudolph the Red-nose Reindeer had arrived.
Luster’s children and her sister’s will never experience that kind of special moment with their grandfather and although they enjoy the stories, they will never know their grandfather, either.
“My little one looks like my dad to me, and sometimes, she does funny things that reminds me of him. It’s strange for me to see that and for them not to know what I’m talking about. … They can’t connect that,” Luster said.
“I really want people to remember him for the person he was, and not what happened to him. He was a good community member. He was a neighbor. He was a friend.”
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.