Family believes search for teens may be over, but that’s just one piece of this Utah mystery

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Law enforcement officials load one of two bodies into the Medical Examiners truck after they were recovered from an abandoned mine in UtahÕs west desert near Eureka Wednesday March 28, 2018. Police believe the bodies are those of two teenagers who have been missing for nearly three months. in Wednesday March 28, 2018.

Eureka • The two bodies pulled from an abandoned mine in Utah’s West Desert on Wednesday are likely those of two teenagers who were missing from the area nearly three months ago.

Utah County Undersheriff Darin Durfey said an autopsy would be needed to confirm that the deceased are Brelynne “Breezy” Otteson and her boyfriend, Riley Powell, but that preliminary evidence suggests that they are the couple.

(Courtesy Amanda Hunt) Breezy Otteson and Riley Powell

Crews found the two bodies on a ledge about 100 feet inside the 1,800-foot-deep Tintic Standard No. 2 mine, Durfey said.

Police identified persons of interest in the case, they said Wednesday, and officers will follow up after accounting for any new evidence uncovered with the bodies. Police haven’t arrested anyone.

“At this point, it appears foul play is involved,” he said, adding that Utah County would be conducting the criminal investigation because the mine is just inside Utah County. Juab, Sanpete and Tooele county authorities have worked on the case. A Unified Fire Authority team pulled the bodies from the mine Wednesday.

Juab Sheriff Douglas Anderson declined to detail what led police to this mine shaft, which is on private property, citing the integrity of the ongoing investigation.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Law enforcement crews on Wednesday recovered two bodies from an abandoned mine in Utah’s west desert near Eureka. Police believe the bodies are those of two teenagers who have been missing for nearly three months. Wednesday, March 28, 2018.

Since the couple — both 18 if Breezy survived to her Jan. 27 birthday — vanished just before the new year, police have released little information about what happened, letting the story unfold in unsealed search warrants and periodic public updates that often raise more questions than answers. Since finding the Jeep that Breezy and Riley were driving the night of their disappearance, police have said they suspected foul play.

Family and friends have spent nearly every weekend combing countrysides of Tooele, Juab and Utah counties, finding no traces of the couple among the plentiful sage brush, rocks and juniper trees. Breezy’s aunt Amanda Hunt said Wednesday’s announcement closes that bleak chapter of the teens’ saga and begins a new one: the difficult task of finding justice.

As Riley’s father, Bill Powell, put it: “We have the answers to this. We’ve got more answers we want.”

Answers in the desert

For the past few days, police from Utah and Juab counties have searched the pit-riddled Tintic Mining District area, near Eureka, according to Utah County Sgt. Spencer Cannon.

Although family and friends didn’t know police would make an announcement today, increased law enforcement activity caught their attention.

“When a car comes through Eureka, and it’s not from there, everybody knows,” Bill Powell said. “Everybody calls everybody.”

(Courtesy Amanda Hunt) Breezy Otteson

So, Hunt and Bill Powell said, it wasn’t a surprise when police called them Wednesday morning and asked them to gather family members for a briefing.

Bill Powell and Hunt were working in Salt Lake City when they got the call, and they raced toward Eureka, where they learned a team would descend into the mine. A group of about a dozen family members and friends waited near the mine as police searched the area and spoke with media.

The mine in question is an inconspicuous hole in the ground, Bill Powell said, but big enough for a semitruck to drive through. It was one of the first mines the civilian search groups considered when they started descending into them.

Bill Powell said they decided against jumping into that mine after hearing it was more than 3,000 feet deep.

When asked whether Bill Powell and Hunt regretted not searching the mine earlier, they said no.

“Things happen for a reason,” Hunt said. “And there’s a higher power that kept us from finding them, for whatever that may be.”

Maybe, she said, it was so they didn’t disturb evidence. Maybe it was because police needed more time to sort out the clues to the teens’ disappearance. Maybe it would have been too hard on family members and friends to find the teens in that state.

Tragic timeline

Police have said Breezy and Riley were last seen leaving Eureka about Dec. 30. No one had heard from them since, and their social media have been silent.

On Jan. 11, a helicopter pilot saw a blue Jeep Grand Cherokee that the teenagers were driving the night they disappeared. It was partially hidden in cedar trees near near Cherry Creek Reservoir, a few miles southwest of Eureka and 22 miles away from the mine where the bodies were found.

The Jeep had been towed and abandoned there, two tires slashed, according to a Juab County Sheriff’s Office search warrant.

A neighbor told police he had seen a blue Chevrolet pickup towing the Jeep — which “Riley is always driving” — south out of Tooele County, the search warrant affidavit states.

The truck belongs to Riley’s mother’s boyfriend, Lee Shepherd, the neighbor told police.

(Courtesy Amanda Hunt) Riley Powell

On Jan. 15, police went to the property in the Tooele County town of Lofgreen, where Shepherd lives with Riley’s mother, Mistie Carlson; Riley’s grandmother, Linda Powell; and Linda Powell’s boyfriend, William Larson. Police found a tie-down strap in the back of Shepherd’s truck that was “identical” to the one found fastened to the abandoned Jeep.

Shepherd didn’t talk to police. But Carlson, Linda Powell and Larson did, according to a search warrant affidavit unsealed Feb. 7.

When police returned to search the Lofgreen property Jan. 16, they were told that Powell, Carlson and Shepherd had gone to Wendover. Police impounded Shepherd’s truck when a cadaver dog ”showed a lot of interest” in it.

Two days later, police learned that Carlson had attempted suicide in West Wendover, Nev.

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

Investigators “strongly” suspected foul play, and a search warrant affidavit states that police believed that they found evidence of homicide, desecration of a dead body and obstruction of justice.

Carlson has not responded to The Salt Lake Tribune’s requests for comment.

Police submitted affidavits to search phone records and Facebook pages connected to the missing teenagers.

(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.

Bill Powell previously told a Tribune reporter that Riley and his two sisters were taken away from Carlson soon after the boy’s birth because the mother and others “wouldn’t stop their drugs and drinking.”

After being expelled from school in Eureka, Riley spent time at a boys home in Fairview. He graduated from high school and recently started working as a plumber.

Breezy and her sisters had moved in with their grandfather in 2012, after their mother died in a car crash while their father was in jail, Breezy’s older sister Kylysta Otteson told a Tribune reporter.

In August, Breezy had a fight with her grandfather and moved in with her father, Kenny Otteson. About a week later, she moved in with Riley and his father in Eureka.

The teenagers had been dating for about four months when they disappeared.

Shifting gears

On Wednesday, standing on the side of the road and far away from the mine shaft, per police orders, family members and friends grappled with what to do with their free time now that there was no more need to search.

Hunt said she might start collecting rocks. Bill Powell said he’d like to help search for other missing people. Both said they needed to spend some time repairing their vehicles after the miles trekked across the unforgiving desert terrain.

Throughout their searches, Bill Powell and Hunt said they stumbled across another issue they think could consume their free time: advocating for someone to close off the hundreds of open and abandoned mines that dot the Eureka area.

Kylysta Otteson said she hadn’t prepared herself for life without her sister. Though she knew Breezy’s chances of survival were slim, Kylysta Otteson said she never gave up hope that Breezy would come home.

“I’m going to keep her in my mind, in my thoughts, and I’m just going to go on with life,” she said. “There’s probably nothing else she would want me to do.”

And the saga isn’t finished.

Family members will lay the teens to rest. Sooner or later, they hope, police will find out what happened to Breezy and Riley.

And maybe the reason why.