Living just ten miles from each other in Los Lunas, New Mexico, Denise Fay and her mother Rita Jaramillo would see each other almost every day. According to Denise, September 20, 2018 was no different, as Rita, 49, came to her daughter’s house for a visit.
“She left from my house in her car,” Denise told Dateline. “She told me she was going home.”
The next day, Denise said she tried calling and texting her mother, as usual. But this time, there was no reply.
“I didn’t hear from her. But I work nights, so there are some days where we don’t talk to each other. But we’ll send at least a text,” Denise said. “But the next day, I texted her and asked, ‘Are you OK?’ because I still hadn’t heard from her.”
Denise said she thought maybe her mother had left town on her day off, just to get away for a bit, as she has done before. Then, on the morning of September 23, Denise got a call she never could have expected.
“I get a phone call from my grandmother around 11:00 a.m. saying that [my mother’s] trailer had burned down,” Denise told Dateline. “I went there and there was a bunch of fire trucks and fire rescue and all that stuff. The worst thought was that maybe my mom was in there.”
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Valencia County Fire Marshal Casey Davis told local media in October of 2018 that they had received a call earlier that morning and crews were sent to Rita’s single-wide mobile home.
“The fire started in the south end of the home, in a bedroom,” Davis said. “As to how it started, I can’t comment because it is still an open case under investigation.”
But when the fire was put out, there was no evidence that Denise’s mother was among the ruins. Denise told Dateline that in addition to Rita being missing, her car and two dogs were also gone.
“We called everywhere and looked everywhere – nothing. We couldn’t find her,” Denise said. “So we put in a missing persons report. And to this day, we’re still looking for answers.”
In October of 2018, Valencia County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Jeff Noah told local media the department was concerned about Rita’s whereabouts.
“There are some facts in this case -- things found at her home -- that cause us to have concerns,” Chief Deputy Noah said. “Since this is an open case, I don’t want to comment on too many details, but I will say we have very plausible concerns about this case.”
Valencia County Fire Marshal Davis also called the fire “highly suspicious.” Firefighters also told the local NBC station that they found tires in each room of the house, which could have accelerated the fire.
Rita’s case has since been transferred to the New Mexico State Police, who were unable to speak to Dateline by Monday evening. As the months go by, Denise says her thoughts on what happened to her mother fluctuate.
“It’s hard. One day, we’re like, ‘She’s alive. She’s going to come home.’ And then later it’s like, ‘It’s been too long.’ We’re tired, we’re drained,” Denise told Dateline. “We had a candlelight vigil and the amount of people that went – I was shocked. People said they haven’t seen her in years, but she used to help them.”
Denise says her mother Rita was always known to lend a helping hand.
“She would do anything to help anybody. If she knew them, if she didn’t know them – she’s so giving. She had a big heart,” Denise said. “She showed us how to be like that, too. We’re going to make sure that justice is served for her.”
Rita Jaramillo is described as being 5’8” tall and weighing about 185 lbs. at the time of her disappearance. Her car, which also remains missing, is a 2006 Hyundai Sonata with the New Mexico license plate of PMZ393. If you have any information on Rita’s case, please call the New Mexico Department of Public Safety’s Missing Person Hotline at 1-800-457-3463.
Bianca Hillier covers missing person and homicide cases for NBC News.