Colorado: Family living off grid died of malnutrition and hypothermia

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A 14-year-old boy who was living off the grid with his mother and his aunt in the Colorado wilderness was down to 40 pounds when he died, according to autopsy reports.

The boy, his mother Rebecca Vance, 42, and his aunt Christine Vance, 41, all died of malnutrition and hypothermia, and the deaths were accidental, the autopsies found.

The Times obtained copies of the three autopsy reports through a public records request to the Gunnison County Attorney’s office after The Colorado Sun reported the story Wednesday.

The family had been missing since October 2022. They were discovered in July when a hiker found the boy’s remains outside of a tent in a remote campsite in the area of Gold Creek Campground, east of Gunnison, in the Colorado Rockies, the reports said. The next day, investigators discovered the remains of Rebecca Vance and Christine Vance inside the tent. Evidence at the campsite suggested that the family was trying to live off the grid but desperately struggled, Michael Barnes, the Gunnison County Coroner who authorized the autopsies, told The Times.

Investigators found empty food containers at the campsite, “but almost no actual food was present in the tent or in the vicinity,” the reports said. They also found survivalist guides scattered around the site.

The campsite was located at about 9,500 feet in elevation, and it was a harsh winter, the reports said, with several feet of snowfall and several days of below-zero temperatures. Officials had also said there was a lean-to — a type of crude shelter — near the campsite, indicating they tried to escape the elements.

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The family members were all “very thin,” and wearing several layers of clothes when found, the autopsies said. They also each wore a necklace with a cross — Rebecca Vance also wore a whistle. No injuries contributed to their deaths.

Rebecca Vance, Christine Vance and Rebecca’s 14-year-old son disconnected from the modern world in July 2022 and headed into the Colorado Rockies, Vance’s stepsister, Trevala Jara, told The Times. Jara said Rebecca had become fearful of the state of the world during the pandemic and concluded she needed to live off the grid to protect her teenage son. Christine Vance, also Jara’s stepsister, decided to join them, thinking they’d have a better chance at survival as a trio.

Christine and Rebecca Vance, along with Rebecca’s son, were inexperienced, and Jara said she tried to stop them, but Rebecca Vance was certain they could “live on their own.”


This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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