Searching for Breezy and Riley: Nearly two months after the young couple disappeared in Utah’s West Desert, family and friends just want answers

(Paighten Harkins | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bill Powell (left) looks out across the hills outside Eureka during his search for Riley Powell and Breezy Otteson on Feb. 10, 2018. The two have been missing since Dec. 30, 2017.

Eureka • Amanda Hunt hopped out of her fiancé’s silver pickup truck and walked tentatively toward a broken-down backhoe left — or dumped — in rocky, sagebrush-covered hills.

It was midafternoon in early February. The day started stormy, with fast-falling snow that assailed Hunt and the nearly 30 others who gathered that morning at Tintic High School to receive their marching orders. Later, though, the clouds cleared to make room for the sun.

“It’s so desolate,” Hunt said, as she walked around parts of Juab County. “It’s so much ground. You just don’t know, you know?”

Hunt looped back to the truck empty-handed. That Saturday’s search party was relatively small compared with earlier crowds. At one time, more than 100 people had come out to look for Hunt’s niece, Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson, and her boyfriend, Riley Powell. Police have also gone out several times to look for the teens.

Since the two disappeared in the final days of 2017 — they were last seen leaving Eureka — groups have traversed parts of Tooele, Juab and Utah counties searching for them.

Recently, their family and friends, coming up with their own theories as to what happened, have switched their focus to the mines that dot the hills just outside Eureka. Some weekends they check old cemeteries for the kids’ bodies, in case whoever hurt them (if the teens were hurt) feels remorse and wants to drop the bodies somewhere more appropriate than the backcountry.

“And just nothing,” Hunt said, before climbing back inside the truck and shutting the door.

(Paighten Harkins | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vickie Johnson (left) and her to-be daughter-in-law Amanda Hunt walk through the hills outside Eureka on Feb. 10, 2018, while searching for Breezy Otteson and Riley Powell, who went missing Dec. 30, 2017.

The last time anyone heard from Breezy and Riley was Dec. 30.

After that? Nothing. It could be a painful and protracted murder mystery, which is what the police seem to think, or they could be trapped somewhere, hurt. It might be neither. Bill Powell, Riley’s adoptive father, and others close to Breezy and Riley believe somebody out there must have a clue, but so far nobody is talking.

The Juab County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment or give updates on the case, because investigators didn’t want to compromise the ongoing investigation.

The search

Nearly two months ago, search efforts focused on finding the blue Jeep Grand Cherokee that the two — now both 18 if Breezy survived past her birthday Jan. 27 — were driving the night they disappeared.

When a helicopter pilot spotted the Jeep on Jan. 11, Powell said he thought they would finally have some answers.

The Jeep had been partially concealed beneath cedar trees near Cherry Creek Reservoir, a few miles southwest of Eureka. It was towed there and left with two slashed tires, according to a search warrant executed by the Juab County Sheriff’s Office.

A neighbor told police he’d seen a blue Chevrolet pickup pulling the Jeep “Riley is always driving” south out of Tooele County, according to a search warrant affidavit. The truck, the neighbor said, belongs to Lee Shepherd, Riley’s mother’s boyfriend.

The search for Breezy and Riley

Breezy Otteson and Riley Powell were last seen in the final days of 2017 traveling west out of Eureka, where they'd arrived earlier that day from Tooele. In the weeks since their disappearance, law enforcement have narrowed the search area to a 15-mile radius around Eureka, and groups have looked for them in parts of Tooele, Juab and Utah counties. Although police found the Jeep the two were driving the night of their disappearance, the pair are seemingly gone without a trace. Nearly two months later, their family and friends want answers.

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In mid-January, when police went to the home Shepherd shares with Riley’s mom, Mistie Carlson, and Riley’s grandmother, Linda Powell, they found a tie-down strap in the back of Shepherd’s truck that was “identical” to the one fastened to his abandoned Jeep.

Shepherd refused to talk to police, but they did question Riley’s mom, grandmother and William “Clubby” Larson (who is Linda Powell’s boyfriend), according to a search warrant affidavit unsealed Feb. 7.

By this point, investigators “strongly” suspected foul play. A search warrant affidavit says police believed they had found evidence of homicide, desecration of a dead body and obstruction of justice.

The Salt Lake Tribune reached out to Carlson, who did not respond.

After they found the Jeep, police officers stopped randomly searching the desert for the teens. Now, they send police out only to investigate new leads. They also submitted affidavits to search phone records and Facebook pages connected to Breezy and Riley.

As the police investigation progresses slowly, family and friends are struggling with a series of questions: What happened to the kids? Who did it? And why? But mostly, they wonder: Where are they?

The kids

Riley and Breezy grew up with their share of hardship. Riley and his two sisters were taken away from Carlson soon after he was born because, as Powell, his adoptive father, puts it, she and others “wouldn’t stop their drugs and their drinking.”

Riley was expelled from school in Eureka and spent time at a boys’ home in Fairview. He recently started working as a plumber after graduating from high school.

Shena Draper, who has been Riley’s confidante, as well as the mother “he wished he had,” said Riley grew up with the deck stacked against him.

“He was such a good kid,” said Draper, who lives in Eureka. “I mean, he was a sh--, but I want everyone to know he had the biggest heart in the world.”

(Courtesy Amanda Hunt) Breezy Otteson and Riley Powell

Breezy Otteson and her sisters moved in with their grandpa in 2012 after their mother, Nannette Hamby, was killed in a car crash while their father was in jail, Otteson’s older sister, Kylysta, said.

Soon after their mom died, Kylysta Otteson said her sister started distancing herself from the family.

“She didn’t want to listen to parents,” she said. “Nothing. She would be like, ’Hi, I can’t be told what to do with parents.’ That’s just how she was.”

Otteson described Breezy as persistent and strong. She’s independent, too, her sister said, adding: “You try to help her, and she gets mad.”

In August, Breezy moved in with her dad, Kenny Otteson, after a fight with her grandfather. And about a week later, she moved in with Riley and his dad in Eureka.

In Breezy, Draper said, Riley found the relationship he’d wanted his whole life.

“He’s just one of them lost little boys,” Draper said, “and I think when he found Breezy, he found love and acceptance.”

They’d been dating about four months when they disappeared.

Theories about what happened to the kids typically involve Carlson, Shepherd and their friends. Since Riley’s disappearance, a handful of people have littered Carlson’s Facebook with comments, pushing her, as one says, to “come clean.”

She’s been inactive on Facebook since Jan. 2, when she wrote, “Has anyone seen my son Riley L Powell he has been missing for like two days.”

As Draper theorized, Carlson knows people who live in Eureka, and those people know the mines there.

Plus, search warrant affidavits focus on Carlson and Shepherd and no one else. According to the affidavit, Carlson told police she was with Linda Powell and her boyfriend, William “Clubby” Larson, on New Year’s Eve. Larson disputed that, saying she and Shepherd weren’t with them at their home in Lofgreen in Tooele County.

When police came to search the Lofgreen property Jan. 16, they learned Linda Powell, Carlson and Shepherd had gone to Wendover. A cadaver dog investigators brought along “showed a lot of interest” in Shepherd’s truck, which police impounded.

Two days later, West Wendover police report Carlson had attempted suicide.

Linda Powell later told police Shepherd “has been acting weird” since police took his truck.

“You know, I don’t know if Mistie had anything to do with this, but I think she knows something,” Draper said.

But if something bad did happen to the kids, why?

Draper and her son, Kyle, told The Tribune they think something happened to Breezy, and Riley stepped in to protect her.

Breezy’s older sister believes Riley “agreed to do something” for someone and now “it’s kind of screwing them both over.”

Whatever happened to them, Powell said that’s the least of his concern.

“Reality is reality, you know?” he said. “We’ve just got to find the kids, and get that taken care of, and we can worry about the rest of that later.”

False leads

Hunt, Breezy’s aunt, was back in the truck. By that time, the search party of ATVs and four-wheel-drive vehicles had already traveled up the wrong bumpy backcountry road to try to check out a limestone quarry, and been denied permission to search a man’s property for signs of the kids.

Hunt and the others had gotten in and out of the truck a handful of times to scan the landscape for pieces of clothing or freshly disturbed dirt, and then to regroup when they found nothing. She said she still had hope.

“Nothing’s ruled out yet,” Hunt said. “They could very well still be alive.”

Just then, Ryan Thacker, another searcher, approached.

“Hey,” he said, “back over here, we found quite a few footprints hidden in the middle of nowhere. They want to walk it.”

So, she went along.

Hunt soon approached a group standing in a small clearing amid two pairs of shoe prints, a larger hunting boot and a smaller shoe.

“They’re all over, and they are fresh,” Draper said. “Not daily fresh, but you can see them good.”

Maybe they’re rabbit hunters. Or chukar hunters, Powell said.

(Paighten Harkins | The Salt Lake Tribune) Footprints found crisscrossing a small clearing in the hills outside Eureka on Feb. 10, 2018. Searchers thought the prints might lead to more information about the disappearance of Riley Powell and Breezy Otteson. They didn't.

By that point, searchers had dispersed following the footprints in different directions. A woman came back to report her observations: Dirt. Rocks. Sagebrush.

Another group found two mounds of freshly turned dirt. Powell and others dug. More nothing.

“But one of these times, something is going to lead to something,” Draper said that day.

“Yeah, I know that’s all that matters,” Powell responded. “There’s a first for everything.”

More searching

On Wednesday night, Hunt said she thought there’d been a breakthrough when she saw an article about two bodies found in New Mexico’s Santa Fe County. Turns out, it wasn’t them. That’s good, sad news, she said.

“We don’t want to have to continue looking. We just want closure,” Hunt said, “but we also know there’s hope, so we have to keep that faith, too.”

Those searching for Riley and Breezy walk the line of wanting answers, but not wanting the answers to confirm their daily fears. The idea the kids are still alive is all some have to cope with their disappearance.

“I’d love it if they came walking in the door and said, ‘Well, Dad, we kind of took off to somewhere, and we’re sorry,’ “ Powell said. “Then I’d hug them and kiss them and kick their a--.”

Yet, Powell said, there are just too many signs that something bad has happened.

They never picked up their Christmas presents. The money in their bank accounts hasn’t been touched. They haven’t been on social media. And then there are the circumstances surrounding the Jeep, he said.

Until they get some answers, Powell and the others said they’ll keep searching. By now, it’s just something they do.

Draper said she hopes their searches wear on the people who know something and aren’t talking. She specifically was thinking of Carlson, Riley’s mom.

“I want them to know that we’re not giving up,” Draper said. “Yeah, I want pressure. Eventually someone will crack.”

Because there’s been no real evidence aside from the Jeep, searchers have turned their attention to the mines around Eureka. The thinking goes, if someone wanted to make the kids disappear, a mine would be an easy place to hide the bodies.

So, on Feb. 17, two men rappelled 1,100 feet down a mineshaft.

“They found a bunch of junk. A car, a Christmas tree and weird sh-- like that — but no kids,” Powell said. “That’s one checked off our list. There’s like 163 left to go.”