WHAT HAPPENED TO JAKE MILLISON?
The Atlantic|April 2020
WHEN A YOUNG RANCHER WENT MISSING, HIS FAMILY SAID HE’D SKIPPED TOWN. BUT HIS FRIENDS KNEW HIM BETTER THAN THAT, AND THEY REFUSED TO LET HIM SIMPLY DISAPPEAR.
RACHEL MONROE

IT WAS WEIRD THAT NO ONE HAD HEARD FROM JAKE MILLISON IN A FEW DAYS.

Maybe someone who didn’t know him, an outsider to Gunnison, a small Colorado town on the western slope of the Rockies, might assume he was flaky or unreliable. At 29, Jake still lived with his mom and spent most nights at the local dive bar, the Alamo. But Jake’s friends knew he was deliberate, a creature of routine. If you had plans to go to the movies on Saturday, he’d text you on Wednesday: What time should I pick you up? And then again on Thursday and Friday just to confirm. On a motorcycle trip to California, Jake was the one who brought tarps and first-aid kits. He definitely wasn’t the fall-off-the-face-of-the-Earth type.

Jake had spent most of his life on the 7-11 Ranch, his family’s property just outside Gunnison. He’d drive into town most evenings, work out at the gym, then stop by the Alamo. He always sat at the same table and always ordered the same drink: a Coke, because anything stronger made him nervous. His friends, a close-knit group of half a dozen guys, would show up after their shifts at the mechanic shop or the lumberyard. They’d shoot pool for a couple of hours, then Jake would head home to the ranch. “Everything was like clockwork with him,” his friend Antranik Ajarian told me.

On Wednesday, May 20, 2015—five days since anyone had heard from Jake—his friends Nate Lopez and Randy Martinez drove out to the 7-11 Ranch. They turned into the driveway, then drove past the barn decorated with the antlers of deer, elk, and moose, testaments to the property’s glory days as a hunting camp. They didn’t see Jake, although they did spy his truck, his motorcycles, and his dog, Elmo.

In the horse corral, they spotted Jake’s mother, Deb, a wiry woman whose frail frame belied her stubborn strength. Deb told Lopez and Martinez that Jake had gone to Reno, Nevada, to train at a mixed-martial-arts gym; he wasn’t responding to their texts because he’d dropped his phone in an irrigation ditch and left it behind to dry out in a bag of rice. Her explanation was logical enough. But the more they thought about it, the more it didn’t sit right with them.

Another few days passed, and still no word from Jake. His friends called and stopped by the ranch. They weren’t sure what else to do. I’ll let you know when he’s back, Deb would say. Were they paranoid, or did she seem annoyed to see them? The situation felt weird, they kept saying to one another. It just felt weird.

After about a week, a Gunnison County patrol sergeant named Mark Mykol, alerted to Jake’s sudden disappearance, called the ranch. Deb said her son had taken offwith a friend whose name she didn’t know. She thought they were headed to Reno to go camping. He did this sometimes, just up and vanished, and she seemed less worried than irritated. Mykol marked the case status as “unfounded”—nothing to see here. But Jake’s friends kept insisting that something was wrong. A week later, Mykol called the ranch again. This time, Deb admitted that she and her son had been arguing; he was almost 30 and still living at home, after all. He’d grabbed some camping equipment, a gun, and a wad of cash, then gotten into a car with someone she didn’t recognize. She figured he was in Nevada looking for work, or in California with friends, or in New Mexico with his father; she’d stopped trying to keep tabs on him.

But Deb’s story only left Jake’s friends more confused. It was as if she were talking about an entirely different person from the Jake they knew.

IN THE SKI MECCA of Crested Butte, the median price for a house is $750,000; Gunnison is its more rugged, affordable neighbor 30 miles south, a windswept town of hunting outfitters and craft breweries, and the home of Western Colorado University (motto: “Learning, elevated”). Gunnison’s 6,500 inhabitants are an eclectic mix of hippies, hunters, college kids, ranchers, and professional mountain bikers. At the Trader’s Rendezvous, you can pick up an antique rifle or a taxidermied wildebeest; a few blocks down the street is Shamans Corner, a combination massage parlor, tattooist, and metaphysical gift shop.

When I visited Gunnison in November 2018, the big news was a local ranch’s cattle relocation: “Cows will be walking down HWY 135 … between 9-noonish,” the Gunnison Regional 911 Center’s Facebook page warned. “With the snow please be safe and budget a few extra minutes as the girls make fast retreat down valley. Thanks for the patience.”

Jake’s parents split up when he was 6 and his sister, Stephaine, was 7. His father, Ray, whom Ajarian described as “an old crazy gun guy” (he meant this as a compliment), eventually moved to rural New Mexico. Deb got remarried, to Rudy Rudibaugh, a widowed rancher two decades her senior. When I stopped by Trader’s Rendezvous, everyone had a story about Rudy. He was a “tough little turd,” as one man put it, who had served as a frogman in World War II, lurking in rice paddies and breathing through a straw as he stalked the enemy. After the war, Rudy bought the 7-11 Ranch and based a successful hunting business there.

Rudy was known for doing things his own way. In the pre-cellphone era, he used carrier pigeons to send messages between hunting camps. When Jake and Steph were little, Rudy and Deb bought an African lion cub; they kept it chained in the horse corral and fed it a diet of roadkill. Neighbors complained that it frightened the livestock; eventually, somebody shot and killed it from the highway— the Gunnison County equivalent of a drive-by shooting.

Jake and Stephaine were homeschooled by Deb, in part so they could help out on the ranch. There was always plenty of work on the 700 acres: branding calves, baling hay, repairing tractors, leading hunting trips, caring for the horses. As Rudy got older, he had a harder time keeping up—and Jake was expected to pick up the slack. The family was often the last to finish putting up their hay for the season, because Rudy and Jake handled all the work themselves, Jake’s friend and former neighbor Adam Katheiser told me. And when Rudy was no longer able, it was just Jake.

As a teenager, Jake began attending public school for the first time. Early on, he got in trouble for the rifle in the back of his truck; he hadn’t realized you weren’t supposed to bring firearms to school. After spending much of his youth isolated on the ranch, Jake began to amass a group of friends. He and Ajarian, both introverts, found it easy to be quiet around each other. Their crew grew to include other guys with similarly low-key temperaments. They went camping, fiddled with their motorcycles, and made fun of one another for all the project vehicles that never quite got all the way fixed.

After high school, Jake stayed at the ranch while most of the crew rented apartments in town. Jake could be standoffish with strangers, but he was inseparable from his friends. He seemed to have a boundless —occasionally exhausting—appetite for hanging out. He could be a know-it-all, and if he thought you were doing something stupid, he wouldn’t hesitate to tell you so. His friends sometimes rolled their eyes, but they appreciated that they always knew where they stood with him. “We used to say, ‘Yeah he’s an asshole, but he’s our asshole,’ ” Ajarian said.

Jake was 23 when Rudy died, in 2009. Stephaine had already received an inheritance of $30,000. Jake didn’t get any money; the assumption was that he and his stepbrother, Shane—Rudy’s son from his first marriage, who lived in Texas—would eventually inherit the ranch. Now the full burden of maintaining the property fell on Jake’s shoulders. If he thought about shirking his obligations, he never did. “Gunnison ranchers don’t move away,” Jake’s friend Tom Page told me. Jake was tied to the land, to his family—and to a dying way of life.

THOUGH THE MYTHOLOGY of the American rancher looms large in our national imagination, economic pressures and climate change have made small-scale ranching ever more precarious. Since 2000, the Colorado River Basin has suffered an unprecedented period of drought, and low commodity prices and the rising cost of living haven’t helped matters. The suicide rate in Gunnison and other rural Colorado counties is more than twice the national average.

Faced with a deficit of water, Colorado’s booming cities have turned to a “buy and dry” policy, in which farmers agree to let their land lie fallow and lease their water rights to thirsty urban areas hundreds of miles away. By the time Jake took charge of the family ranch, the gulf between rural and urban Colorado was vast: the agricultural land of the Rockies’ western slope lying uncultivated and slowly drying up, while in Denver so many new buildings were being erected that there was a waiting list to rent a crane.

Ranch life was becoming the purview of wealthy hobbyists who could afford to indulge in cowboy fantasies. In Gunnison County, not far from the 7-11 Ranch, the billionaire businessman Bill Koch built his own private replica of an Old West town, complete with a saloon, church, jail, and train station; the property’s 21,000-square-foot mansion is stocked with memorabilia, including firearms that belonged to Jesse James and Sitting Bull.

News accounts would later refer to 7-11 as a “$3 million ranch,” but when Jake disappeared, “it was kind of a junkyard,” Lopez told me. Jake lived in the lodge, a building that had been intended for big gatherings and camp suppers; now it was so cluttered with Deb and Rudy’s collections—stuffed rattlesnakes, old bits and bridles, ancient guns, antique machines with unclear uses—that it barely had enough room for his bed.

Jake once asked Katheiser to help brand calves. Katheiser had helped friends out before, and knew that typically a calf was herded into a mechanical chute, where a clamp closed around the animal’s neck, immobilizing it and then flipping it on its side. Katheiser was surprised to see that the 7-11 Ranch had no such equipment. It was a day of rough, physical work—snagging the calves with a rope, wrestling them to the ground, then holding them down to be branded. The corral itself needed maintenance. But Jake could never get to it, “because the fences need fixing, the truck needs fixing, and we’ve got to brand all these cows now,” Katheiser said.

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