After the body of a missing Utah homeless man was pulled from the Jordan River, his family asks: Who is ‘worth’ searching for?

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Teja Trujillo, along with her biological son Keith Fulcher's dog Priest Holmes, take a moment along the Jordan River where Fulcher's body was found on June 13, 2019.

How important does a person have to be for their community to notice when he disappears?

As the search for Keith “Chino” Fulcher languished in its second week, that question was chewing a hole in his birth mother’s gut.

Teja Trujillo had watched throngs of volunteers on TV scouring Utah’s west desert for Susan Powell. She had seen footage of helicopters taking highly trained search teams into the mountains to find lost hikers. A well-connected family can get a photo of a missing person to thousands on social media, maybe even a spot on the news.

Would anyone ever give a second thought to Chino, she wondered — a 36-year-old with a criminal record and a history of drug abuse, who drifted between motel rooms and the back of a truck?

He was reported missing on May 31, but investigators told the family they couldn’t do much because he was an adult, Trujillo said. His search party amounted to a couple of people taping up flyers at the Salt Lake City Family Dollar where he worked.

“We’re not worth being looked for. That’s the way I felt,” Trujillo sobbed. “My son was worthy of anyone worrying about him.”

A week ago, on June 13, Chino’s body was found in the Jordan River.

Salt Lake City police get at least a couple of missing-person reports each week, said Sgt. Greg Wilking. To justify an extensive search, he said, the person has to be considered "endangered."

But for people on the margins — the poor and homeless, especially — the criteria for "endangered" may be paradoxically hard to meet.

(Photo courtesy of Keith Fulcher's family) Keith "Chino" Fulcher poses for a selfie May 29, 2019, two days before he disappeared in Salt Lake City. His body was found in the Jordan River on June 13, 2019.

‘It breaks my heart’

It's not clear whether an aggressive, immediate search would have saved Chino.

He disappeared early May 31, not long after his coworkers on night shift at the Family Dollar on 900 West and North Temple dropped him off at a motel where Trujillo and his girlfriend were staying, said his manager, Chanel Lankford.

Chino lived much of his life in motels, and his early childhood set the stage for years of turmoil. Trujillo was just 17 when she came down with appendicitis and doctors discovered she was pregnant.

“He was my miracle baby,” Trujillo said.

She'd had his older brother when she was 15. Their father, she said, started dating her when she was only 11.

He was seven years older than she was, she said.

Trujillo was drawn into street life, and her mother adopted and raised Chino and his brother. But when the boys became adults, they reconnected with Trujillo. She was surviving on sex work and addicted to heroin, she said, but “they were always with me.”

Chino said he started doing meth because of her, she said.

"He told me, 'I started getting high just to be around you,'" she said tearfully. "It breaks my heart."

At times she even provided the drugs and hotel rooms to use them, she said.

“My stupid mind was, ‘If they’re getting high here, if anything happens to them, I can take care of them,’” she said.

Chino's drug busts started piling up when he was about 20. Homelessness-related charges like public urination and camping on public grounds followed. During the search for Chino, a friend of his told police that Chino liked to dig holes and tunnels and get into them, Sgt. Wilking said.

“He did that to get warm; he’d make huts. He was homeless,” Trujillo explained. It’s one of the things a person does to get by, she said. Like keeping track of friends after they’re kicked out of extended-stay motels, or knowing which KFC is the most generous with the uneaten mashed potatoes at closing time.

If money got too tight, she said, "I'd go out there and do a date."

Chino was in and out of jail, and eventually served a prison sentence for aggravated assault — his only conviction for a violent crime. Through the cycle of drugs and jail time, Chino fathered a number of children, Trujillo said, but she didn’t know exactly how many. About 13 kids called him “dad,” but some of them didn’t look like him, she said. Not long before he disappeared, a 19-year-old daughter reached out on Facebook; he hadn’t seen her since she was a baby, Trujillo said.

Children, like many of the other people in Chino’s world, were often off the grid, cycling through temporary homes, Trujillo said. The expectations of transiency get passed from one generation to the next.

“I feel so guilty,” she said. “It’s sad, it’s really sad. My son should have been a dad, but he never had the tools. I didn’t have the tools to be a mom — to go out and get a job or anything.

“Our life was hard,” Trujillo said.

But on May 30, Chino had a good night, Lankford said. He had just been rehired at Family Dollar after an argument caused him to quit a few days earlier, and he was happy to be back. Lankford likes to do "closing ceremonies" at the end of shift; on that Thursday night, the staff put on "googly glasses" from the party aisle while locking up for the night.

(Photo courtesy of Chanel Lankford) Keith "Chino" Fulcher poses for a selfie with his coworkers at the Family Dollar store at 900 East and North Temple on the night of May 30, 2019, hours before he disappeared in Salt Lake City. Fulcher's body was recovered from the Jordan River on June 13, 2019.

Chino put on flamingo glasses and posed for a selfie with the others. "He was happy," Lankford said.

Afterward Lankford dropped Chino off at Motel 6, where he was staying with his girlfriend and Trujillo. “I got three keys,” Trujillo said proudly. “For the first time, we all have our own ID.”

Chino and his girlfriend started arguing, which wasn’t unusual, Trujillo said. Trujillo left, she said, and when she returned the girlfriend said Chino had gone out for food. But he didn’t have money. Trujillo assumed he had gone to KFC to scavenge leftover mashed potatoes, and she’d see him in the morning.

Chino never came back.

‘That’s not like him'

To be considered "endangered," a missing person has to meet certain criteria, Wilking said. Someone might have disappeared under suspicious circumstances, for instance, or they need medication or have been diagnosed with a debilitating mental illness.

But that criteria may elude some of the most vulnerable people out there: the poor and homeless.

If someone is going without health care, critical medical needs and debilitating mental illnesses might not be documented. If a person has no consistent place to stay, it might not register as "suspicious" if they don't show up somewhere they were expected.

And if friends or family aren't comfortable admitting problems to police, they are unlikely to stumble upon what missing-person advocate Libba Phillips says is often the secret passcode to a high-priority investigation: "This person is a risk to themselves or others."

“It seems really unfair, but it is on the family member to communicate that clearly so that the law enforcement officer will make that distinction,” said Phillips, who founded Outpost for Hope in Tampa, Fla., after her sister disappeared in the 1990s. “It is very difficult for family members to self-advocate, when it should be the other way around: ‘If a person is homeless or vulnerable in some other way, let’s push this to the very top so we might have an opportunity to save a life.’”

On the other hand, Wilking said, people who are reported missing often elected to leave their home — and if they are adults, they are entitled to do so.

Just two months ago, South Salt Lake Police called off a search for a couple who was reported missing after investigators learned they had simply taken a spontaneous road trip. A few years before that, Wilking said, a Salt Lake City family enlisted the media in their search for a "missing" woman, who later called police to say she simply wanted to be away from her family and did not appreciate the media attention.

But several members of Chino's family and multiple coworkers were adamant: He would not disappear without a word.

When he didn't come to work on May 31, Lankford was baffled. Chino was known as a "good, hard worker," confirmed Steve Tripple, an assistant manager. "I was always happy when he was working on my shift."

That morning the staff was receiving new inventory, and Chino knew Lankford couldn't lift loads because she had broken a rib, she said.

"I knew for sure he would not abandon me for 'truck day,'" Lankford said. "That's not like him."

In fact, Chino was so unlikely to disappear that Lankford and another employee went behind the store and shouted his name.

"He's always in the neighborhood and the community," Lankford said. "He's always there, instantly. He has his own bat signal."

When he didn’t come, Lankford started to worry. Back at the motel, Trujillo was already panicking. If Chino had trouble, he’d call her, she said.

She reported his disappearance to police that day — but she said they told her they couldn't do much other than take a statement.

“They said, ‘He’s probably holed up in some room,’” Trujillo said. “I keep trying to tell them, this ain’t my son’s habit. Thirty-six years, I knew everywhere he was. Even when we were in our drug days, I always made sure we had a hotel room, and if I ever got in a fight with the boys, I knew everywhere he was. Even when I was in jail I knew where he was.”

(Jeremy Harmon | The Salt Lake Tribune) Keith Fulcher's body was found in the Jordan River between 300 North and 400 North in Salt Lake City on June 13, 2019.

Chino’s family said they uncovered other odd things as they searched for him. Two new Facebook accounts appeared in his name while he was missing, Trujillo said. Then, about a week after he disappeared, a man was spotted near North Temple, carrying a backpack identical to Chino’s, Trujillo said — except now it was labeled with eerie messages in black marker, written in multiple handwriting styles: “My heart hurt for him.” I wish he could fill the pain." “Live life to the fullest.” “Miss him so much.” “Thinking about him 24 hour.” “I wish that I can go home.”

The man carrying the backpack said he got it out of the dumpster at a motel where Chino had gotten in a fight with an employee about a week before he disappeared, Trujillo said.

"When they found the backpack, I just knew my baby wasn't coming home the right way," she said.

Meanwhile, Trujillo said, Chino’s girlfriend, who had shared devices with Chino, got a notification that his tablet was in Sandy.

Wilking said he didn't know whether the detectives were informed about the location of the tablet. The backpack was given to his adoptive parents.

Trujillo believes her son was intentionally killed, but police say they have found no evidence of foul play. An autopsy was inconclusive because the body deteriorated in the water, Wilking said. Lab results are pending, and the case is still open, he said.

"There’s a lot we don’t know," Wilking said, "and maybe we never will know, unfortunately.”

‘I’d give anything’

Trujillo cried as she went through Chino’s things on Saturday, two days after a passerby spotted his body caught on debris in the river. His favorite color was red because he loved the Kansas City Chiefs, she said.

"I'm going through his clothes, and it's so hard, and I don't know what to do," she said. "I don't know how people deal with the grief. When you wake up you know your baby's not there. I'd give them my soul, I'd give anything to be with my son for five minutes. I just want to touch him."

When Trujillo learned a body was in the water, she went to the riverbank at 360 North, where water is running so cold and deep after near-record rains this spring that warnings have been issued to avoid riverbanks across northern Utah. Police confirmed that the body recovered by the swiftwater team had a Kansas City tattoo on his arm, like Chino did.

Trujillo went to the Family Dollar. Lankford was working in the back when Trujillo arrived.

"I heard screaming and wailing," Lankford said. "I heard her so well from the back of the store, I just about dropped to my knees."

Now Trujillo is worried she’ll never have answers, and if anyone believes his disappearance and death were suspicious, they won’t care.

“I tried to tell people but they don’t want to listen to me … because we were from the streets, my son has a record, and we were living at a hotel on the west side of town,” she said. “When the backpack was found in the dumpster, if it was anyone else, someone from the east side, I’m sure [police] would have tore the place up, going door to door to ask questions.

“Something happened to my baby,” Trujillo said. “I just want someone to help me.”