When police found three “fairly mummified” bodies at a remote campsite in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado two weeks ago, they were baffled. Two of the bodies were found inside a tent that was still zipped up while the other body was in a wooded area a short distance away.
Now, the deceased have been identified as two adult sisters and a 14-year-old son, according to Gunnison County Coroner Michael Barnes.
Christine Vance, 41; Rebecca Vance, 42; and Rebecca’s son, who was not named because he was a minor, all used to reside in Colorado Springs before packing up to live “off the grid,” family members told the coroner.
Their official cause of death has not yet been determined, though they were all emaciated from malnutrition. Barnes believes the group may have succumbed to starvation, freezing temperatures or carbon monoxide poisoning from trying to make fire to stay warm. Authorities will know more once toxicology reports have been processed.
The degree of decomposition of the bodies indicates that the two sisters and the teenage boy died sometime during the winter.
According to the women’s stepsister, Rebecca had been the one to suggest living off the grid — and the three set off in July 2022 to live permanently in Gunnison National Forest.
Trevala Jara told The New York Times that Rebecca dreamed of living in nature, disconnected from a world she saw as chaotic and dangerous. Rebecca’s paranoia intensified during the pandemic, though Jara notes her stepsister didn’t believe in conspiracy theories. She thought a better life was waiting in nature, instead of with society.
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“She went for good intentions,” Jara said in an interview on Tuesday. “She thought she was protecting her son and our sister, Christine, because she didn’t want them to get wrapped up in what the world was coming to in her eyes.”
At first, Christine didn’t plan on joining Rebecca and her son in living off the grid, but she decided to go out of concern for their safety — a choice that ultimately sealed her fate.
Jara said that Christine changed her mind “because she thought that if she was with them, they had a better chance of surviving.”
Rebecca’s 14-year-old son was smart, caring and a bit of a “mama’s boy,” Jara described. He was excited to live off the grid with his mom, but felt sad at the prospect of not being able to see his friends and family.
Rebecca was described as being protective of her family and Jara added she always preferred to be by herself growing up. Both Rebecca and Christine had “heart(s) of gold,” she said.
“Me and my husband, we tried to stop them,” Jara said, her voice breaking in her interview with the New York Times. She added that the two sisters and the teenager didn’t share where they planned to make their base.
The grim campsite was found by police on July 10, after a hiker spotted one of the bodies. At the campsite, authorities found empty food cans, books, a restroom area and a partially built lean-to shelter that evidently hadn’t been finished by the time last year’s harsh winter set in.
“I wonder if winter came on quickly and suddenly they were just in survival mode in the tent,” coroner Barnes said. “They had a lot of literature with them about outdoor survival and foraging and stuff like that. But it looked like they supplied at a grocery store.”
The only remaining food found at the site was a single package of ramen, Barnes said.
The family was found near the Gold Creek Campsite, roughly an hour’s drive away from Gunnison, a small rural community.
Jara says she hopes her family’s tragic tale discourages others from trying off-the-grid living.
“I know this world is scary,” Jara said. “But don’t let that fear, that doubt, all of that take over.”
— With files from the Associated Press