Event offers families of missing Utahns another chance at hope, discovery

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Elizabeth Rivera holds a poster with photos of her daughter Elsha, who went missing in 2004, at the inaugural Missing In Utah event in Sandy. The Salt Lake City Police Department, and nonprofit organizations invited people to come talk with them about opening a new, or adding to an existing, missing person case. Saturday, March 9, 2019.

Elisa Gonzalez can’t remember her mother. Elsha Marie Rivera disappeared 15 years ago from Fort Worth, Texas, where she and Elisa were living when Elisa was just a baby.

But Elisa, who has grown up in Midvale with Elsha’s mother, drove to Sandy on Saturday to offer the only clue she can: a mouth swab containing her DNA, which could be checked against samples of unidentified human remains.

"I don't think she's alive. Part of me tells me she's not," said Elsha's mother, Elizabeth Rivera.

Rivera took Elisa to meet with detectives from multiple agencies who gathered at the Miller Campus of Salt Lake Community College to take reports and evidence in any missing person cases that might need a second look from law enforcement.

"If they haven't reported them missing, or if they have, it's an opportunity to come in, get updates, give DNA, give medical or dental records — anything that would help with their case," said Salt Lake City Police detective Jessica Kilgore.

Police hoped the event, “Missing in Utah,” would provide a nonthreatening venue for reporting by people who may be “hesitant to reach out to law enforcement,” Kilgore said — especially people from immigrant communities.

"That's why we're not doing this at a police station, why ... we aren't wearing uniforms," said Kilgore.

For Linda Fields, the event was a chance to enlist more officers to double-check and update the search for her husband, 77-year-old James Fields, who disappeared Monday, possibly somewhere between Sevier and Utah counties.

James Fields was suffering from an infection, which may have worsened his confusion when he left his home in Annabella on Monday to drive to his doctor in Provo, about two hours away, Linda Fields said. The doctor later called to ask why James Fields hadn’t arrived.

"He's never done this before," Linda Fields said. "I thought, OK, we're going to find him tomorrow on the side of the road, ... waiting for a tow."

But a week of rain and snow has left her fearing the worst.

"As each day goes on, you wonder how long someone can survive out there," she said.

Officers at Saturday's event made some corrections and updated some leads in the records of the investigation while the Sevier County detective on the case is out of the office for three days, Linda Fields said.

James Fields was in a gray 2012 Dodge truck with a matching shell and a Utah license plate C232PL, according to the Sevier County Sheriff’s Office. Anyone with information can call investigators at 435-896-6471.

Saturday’s event was patterned after “Missing in Arizona Day,” an annual event that has helped Arizona investigators resolve more than 25 cases in four years.

For Gonzalez and Rivera, there is not much of an active investigation to speak of. Elsha Rivera received threats from a man she knew in 2004, when Gonzalez was only about 7 months old. Elizabeth Rivera traveled to Fort Worth to take Gonzalez and keep her safe, along with Elsha’s three young sons.

A week later, Elizabeth Rivera said, Elsha went to the man's house to collect some personal items and money. The family hasn't seen her since then. Elsha's story was featured on the Dr. Phil show in 2014, with a witness who claimed to have seen Elsha being murdered. But there were inconsistencies in the woman's account, and the show produced no viable leads, Elizabeth Rivera said.

Elsha Rivera grew up in Utah and would be 39 years old now. Her children have grown up in Utah, but her eldest son, Marcos, died in a motorcycle crash last year, Elizabeth Rivera said. His death has devastated the family, she said, especially Elsha's second-oldest son — the only one of her remaining children who can remember her.

“Him and Marcos — they swore they would find her,” Rivera said.