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Six years after disappearance, family still searching for Nome local Joseph Balderas

Joseph Balderas went missing on the weekend of June 24, 2016. Today, his family and friends are still searching for answers.

Thirty-six-year-old Joseph Balderas was last seen on June 24, 2016. Three days later, when Joseph failed to show up for his job as a law clerk with the Nome Second District Court, one of his colleagues, Tracey Buie, reported him missing. “When I came to work on that Monday morning, I believe it was June 27th, I was told that Joseph wasn't at work and that his girlfriend had called the court and was concerned because she hadn't been able to get ahold of him,” Tracey told Dateline. “If Joseph was going to be late to work or not come in on a day, he normally would call me or send a text.”

The call Tracey made to authorities would change the Balderas family’s lives forever.

Joseph’s mother, Nelda Balderas, told Dateline, “Joseph, my son -- he was very, very, very intelligent.” She added that “he's the only one that finished college in our family.”

Joseph grew up in Lubbock, Texas with four siblings. He was the middle child. Nelda said Joseph was an uncle, too. “He was just a caring uncle,” she said. “Very good with all his nephews and nieces.” In 2014, Joseph moved to Nome for a job and was enjoying the Alaska lifestyle. He was known to fish, hike, and participate in community events.

According to family, Joseph was also engaged to a woman named Megan Rider and the couple had planned to move to Juneau in the coming months where Joseph would be starting his own business.

Dateline reached out to Megan, but was unable to arrange a time to talk.

Friends and family have described Joseph as an avid outdoorsman. “He was outgoing. He was super adventurous,” Joseph’s sister, Salina Hargis, told Dateline. “He's just, like, good at everything he does.”

Joseph would frequently go out for hikes or runs in the vast land surrounding Nome. “He'd go hiking and canoeing and then sleep out in the middle of nowhere,” Nelda said. “You know, hiding his food because of the bears. And he was always taking trips.”

Nelda told Dateline about a conversation she had with her son before his disappearance: She had warned him about hiking alone. “I would always tell him, ‘Don't go by yourself,’ you know, ‘Find somebody,’” Nelda said. In response, Joseph would always say, “‘Everybody's working, Mom,’ you know? And ‘I just wanna go. Don't worry.’”

Nelda said she thinks her son continued to go hiking alone. “Towards the end he wouldn't tell me,” she said.

Joseph Balderas
Joseph BalderasNelda Balderas

Reports provided to Dateline by the Alaska State Troopers state that Joseph’s vehicle was located on June 27, 2016, at mile 44 of the Nome Council Highway where he was believed to be hiking or mountain running. The trooper who found the truck stated it was unlocked. Inside, the trooper noted a backpack that contained fishing accessories, a pair of waders and boots.

According to the records shared with Dateline, air searches were conducted by Nome Search and Rescue and the U.S. Coast Guard, but showed no sign of Joseph. The search continued by air and land for many days and included multiple search dogs brought in from Fairbanks. The records state “a scent trail was located by the trailing dog team that went from the truck to the river but not on the other side of the river. The dogs also indicated an area of vegetation along the highway, heading from the vehicle to the Big Hurrah Bridge.”

On July 2, 2016, the case records show it was determined “that without new evidence, a continued Alaska State Trooper directed search was at great risk to the search party and having searched all egress routes from the vehicle, it was unlikely Balderas was alive, concealed in the brush.”

The Balderas family has hired private investigator Andy Klamser to look into Joseph’s case. He believes two theories can be discounted. The first is the idea that Joseph was attacked by a bear.

“Typically, you know, if there was a bear attack there would be evidence of it,” Klamser told Dateline. “With the number of people that they had out there on foot, on 4-wheelers and in the air and with scent dogs, it just seems like that's less likely.”

The other theory Klamser mentioned is that Joseph died by suicide. “It seemed very unlikely, because everyone I interviewed, you know, talked about his personality and all the plans that he had,” Klamser said. “I mean, he was within weeks of moving to Juneau to set up a law practice and marry his fiancée.”

Joseph’s sister, Salina, agreed that Joseph would not have taken his own life. “There's no way --because he was so happy,” she said. “He was just so happy and so excited.”

While the family is grateful for the search efforts and resources used to look for Joseph, Salina told Dateline that she felt the search was limited. “It was a good search,” she said. “Other than him just walking off and getting lost. That was the only one -- the only thing that they looked at.” Salina believes authorities didn’t even consider the possibility that someone may have done something to her brother.

According to the police records shared with Dateline, during the investigation, Joseph’s roommate, Jake Stettenbenz, lied to authorities about his movements the weekend Joseph was last seen.

Alaska State Trooper Investigator Steve Kevan recorded that, “Trooper Smith learned in previous interviews that Jake had gone bridge jumping with friends Emery and Tyler in the afternoon that Saturday [June 25].”

According to the police accounts of data collected from Jake’s cell phone, on July 4, 2016, he sent text messages to his friends Tyler Eide & Emery Booshu that “he had to use them ‘in a story for the state trooper.’” He told Tyler and Emery that he told police that after the three of them went bridge jumping that day, that they took a drive out to Solomon at 8:00 p.m. and got back at 1:00 a.m.

Emery texted Jake, "I honestly don't remember that day at all." Jake told Emery that he didn't either and that’s why he told the police that story, and then apologized.

When Tyler replied to Jake he said, "But you weren't even with me. You were with Cam and Cass and I slept in my cabin."

Investigator Kevan wrote in the police reports, “When confronted with the inconsistency in stories, Jake admitted that he had made up the story of driving to Solomon after bridge jumping. He said he has had little contact with Troopers before and was nervous.”

Police records noted that on July 8, 2016, Jake was asked about scrapes that were seen on his face and arms. He told police that he got the scratches playing catch (football) with a friend. Jake said this happened on Thursday, June 30 -- after Joseph was reported missing.

In the police records provided to Dateline, the reporting officers who searched Jake and Joseph’s home on July 3, 2016, recorded that “there were no indications of foul play inside the residence.”

Dateline reached out to Jake Stettenbenz for comment, but has not heard back from him.

What is known, according to the police reports, is the time of Joseph’s last text message. Officer Dustin Jorgensen obtained Joseph’s phone records from Sprint and stated, “The records indicated that the last outgoing communication (text message) from Balderas' phone was on Saturday 6/25/16 at 09:49 hours.” According to the police, based on the contacts recovered from Joseph’s tablet, the number Joseph was texting belonged to Christine Piscoya.

Joseph Balderas
Joseph BalderasNelda Balderas

Dateline spoke with Christine Piscoya, who said she met Joseph while working in the “small world” of law that exists in Alaska. “Joseph and I were co-workers but we were also friends outside of work,” she said. “We were just friends, nothing romantic happened between us.”

Christine recalled her final interactions with Joseph around the time he went missing. “Friday night we had gone out, had a couple beers. I talked to him Saturday. I was inviting him to the Arctic Native Brotherhood Picnic that was supposed to be that next day,” Christine told Dateline. “He had talked about going on a hike.”

Christine says she thinks the last time she talked to him was “maybe Saturday night, maybe in the afternoon.”

Christine recalled a conversation she had with Joseph similar to the one his mother, Nelda, had with him before he disappeared. Christine says she told him not to go hiking alone. “Megan was supposed to come here during the 4th of July and he really wanted to scope out the place where he was going to hike,” Christine explained. “And I said, ‘Well why don't you wait for her? At least then you both can go, and then you won't be alone.’”

Christine says Joseph replied, “‘No, I'm going to go and check it out.'"

Joseph was never seen again.

Joseph Balderas
Joseph BalderasNelda Balderas

“It's kind of like a whirlwind, like a bad dream,” Joseph’s sister, Salina, told Dateline.

Josie Bahnke, who was not only a colleague, but a personal friend of Joseph’s, told Dateline, “[Joseph] was a man of the law and he – that was his life's following. And justice -- seeking justice. And for him not to have it? That is a travesty.”

The family is offering a $25,000 reward for “information leading to successful resolution” of the case. “We have a reward that started at $5,000 and now we're at $25,000,” Joseph’s sister Salina said. “Every year, for the last four or five years, we've raised his reward. So we’re hoping, but I don't know if we can raise it anymore.”

Over the last six years, Salina has dedicated herself to the search for her older brother. “You know, he was a smart one. And the thing that's sad is that we feel like, if one of us would have been missing, he would have been the perfect one to find us,” Salina said. “He wouldn't have quit and he would have found us, you know, found what happened or kept trying.”

Joseph’s family told Dateline that they will forever be grateful for the kindness and support they’ve received from the community in Nome. “We were so grateful for the people of Nome, because they helped us out a lot in the search and the prayers and support, the food -- even our lodging, a place to stay. Everything,” Joseph’s mother, Nelda, told Dateline. “They were the nicest people.”

Joseph is 6’1” and has brown eyes and black hair. He was 36 years old at the time of his disappearance and would be 42 this year. The $25,000 reward is for any information leading to the successful resolution of this case. Nome police have not said whether they believe foul play is involved in Joseph’s disappearance and no persons of interest have been named and no arrests have been made in the case.

If you have any information about Joseph’s disappearance, please contact the Alaska State Troopers in Nome at 907-443-2835 and reference incident number AK16046211.

Also missing from Nome is a woman named Florence Okpealuk. Read her story here.