Authorities tentatively confirm that a death certificate discovered by a Canadian genealogist and former journalist in November is that of Roque “Rocky” Najera, who disappeared from Rawlins in 1985 and has been missing for nearly four decades.
Najera’s younger sister, Michelle Jacobsen, said the family was stunned by the discovery.
They knew in their hearts he was gone, because otherwise he would have contacted them, she said. Still, the heartbreak has hit them all as they process the news.
Najera died of smoke inhalation in a fire in an abandoned building in Seattle, Washington, on April 9, 1987, less than two years after he was reported missing. He was 21 when he died, according to the death certificate from the Washington Department of Social and Health Services Vital Records.
Hilary Ibbotson-Machan, a hobby genealogist and former reporter from Brussels, Ontario, found Najera’s death certificate while searching Ancestry’s online database, in late November. She has an interest in missing person cases and saw a post about Najera on an international missing person’s page on Facebook.
She looked him up and was shocked to find his death certificate, but happy to turn the tip over to Wyoming law enforcement. She also notified one of Najera’s family members and Desirée Tinoco, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Missing People of Wyoming, who helped coordinate information with Najera’s family and police.
Even though it was bittersweet news, Ibbotson-Machan told Cowboy State Daily she was grateful to be able to provide the family with closure to nearly 40 years of wondering what happened to Rocky.
“They have been looking for so long, and you don’t have an ending until you know,” she said.
Still No Conclusive Identification
Jacobsen and her older sister, Luisa, had been keeping the news secret until a more conclusive identification was made.
Unfortunately, this may be as close as they can get for now as law enforcement was unable to provide a conclusive identification because of a number of variables.
According to Carbon County Sheriff Alex Bakken, who oversaw the investigation in Wyoming, the tentative identification still hinges on a citation that Najera had on him when his body was discovered after the fire.
The citation was issued from the King County Sheriff’s Office in Washington for a reported robbery in which Najera had allegedly taken part. The birth date on the citation matches Najera’s, Bakken said.
No fingerprints were taken due to the advanced condition of the burns and deterioration of the body.
Najera, who was born in Mexico, did not have a driver’s license or any type of identification on him when he disappeared. He had just been issued an American passport, which his parents had been holding for him until they could give it to him in person.
Bakken said that his office is still waiting to hear back from the King County sheriff to see if there were any fingerprints taken at the time the citation was issued because Najera’s are on file in Wyoming.
“Based on the information provided to us by the King County Sheriff's Office and the Seattle Police Department, the deceased subject has been tentatively identified as Mr. Rocky Najera,” Bakken stated in an email to Cowboy State Daily. “We are unable to make a definitive confirmation at this time due to the tenuous nature of the initial identification but are hopeful that King County will have fingerprints from the citation which will allow us to compare them to the prints in our database.”
Until then, he concluded, further confirmation is not feasible, and Najera will remain an active missing person case on Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation’s missing person database.
Bakken further noted that King County has a 10-year retention for certain documents, so tracking down Najera’s “may prove difficult.”
Family Not Notified
Jacobsen and her family were shocked to learn that Najera likely died less than two years after disappearing from Wyoming, and in Washington of all places.
Over the years, she and other family members had searched vital records and unidentified human remains in the Cheyenne area with several family members submitting DNA for potential matches.
Jacobsen said she and her family had never looked beyond this area because they wouldn’t have imagined Najera would have ended up in Washington. However, in retrospect, the idea tracks with Jacobsen, who had heard rumors that her brother liked to ride the rails.
After his demise in 1987, a Seattle funeral home took possession of Najera’s body and no family members were notified. He’s buried in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery in Seattle.
Several blanks on Najera’s death certificate ¬— including Social Security number, address and names of his mother and father — likely explain why the family was never notified. His first name was also misspelled as “Rogue,” not “Roque.”
This likely accounts for the lack of notification, Jacobsen said, because it would have been difficult to track her family down.
An April 9, 1987, story in the Spokane Chronicle describes a fire at a vacant warehouse in Seattle’s Eastlake area where one victim was discovered under rubble in the badly burned building.
The victim was not identified, but the article states that transients had been using the building and lighting fires inside to stay warm.
Prior to his disappearance, Najera struggled with alcohol and drug addiction and had several brushes with the law.
The last time Najera was seen by his family had been one day before his 20th birthday July 2, 1985, when he’d been stopped by his parent’s home in Rawlins. At the time, he had been living in Cheyenne with friends and working as a cook at a Holiday Inn restaurant.
However, when the family went to visit Najera in Cheyenne roughly a month later, they were told he wasn’t working that day. When they went to the trailer he shared with friends, they were met by a neighbor who said the group had packed up everything and left in the middle of the night.
For years, Jacobsen said she and her family feared that Najera may have been the victim of a crime in Cheyenne.
Why No One Caught It
For Ibbotson-Machan, it was also a heartbreaking discovery that the information had been out there for so many years, while the family believed he was still missing.
“I was really surprised and sad when I found it,” Ibbotson-Machan told Cowboy State Daily over Facebook Messenger. “His family has been looking for him for so long.”
In Washington, birth and death records have been digitized and are available online.
Every state has different laws governing digital records. In Wyoming, digitized records aren’t publicly available, said Cori Davis, statistician for the Wyoming Vital Records Services.
Birth records remain confidential until 100 years from the date of birth, and 50 years from the date of the event for death, marriage and divorce records, after which they become open records.
“Anyone who has obtained a certificate is free to upload it to Ancestry if they wish, so there might be some Wyoming records out there, but nothing like the full Wyoming registry,” Davis said.
Ibbotson-Machan said she was happy to put her skills to good use and has been interested in genealogy since the days of dial-up internet.
This is the second missing person case she’s helped solve. Years ago, she also helped a woman in New Hampshire find her missing grandmother.
Community Working Together
Tinoco is happy that her group has been able to provide a platform to share information and awareness of missing person cases throughout the state.
She sees technology as a game-changer for helping solve decades-old missing person cases like Najera’s.
“Now that we have technology on our side, it’s become quite easy to resolve some of these issues,” she said. “Law enforcement relies heavily on tips from the public, especially when it comes to missing person cases. There’s not enough time or resources to deal with all the cases that come in.”
She also encourages the public to look into older cases and do their own research like Ibbotson-Machan did and share those leads with law enforcement.
Though excited for the Najera family to finally have some sense of closure, Tinoco said it’s still a bitter-sweet discovery for the family.
“Now that Rocky’s case is solved, we think of it being over and the end of the story, but unfortunately it’s not,” she said. “There’s a healing process for the family, and that’s something that I think is forgotten with older cases especially. This is just the next step for his friends and family.”
Last Saturday, Jacobsen and her older sister, Luisa, made the trip from Casper to Rawlins to deliver the news in person to their parents, Juan and Teresa Najera.
Her father just about jumped out of his seat when he heard they had news of his son, but quickly sat down with the sinking realization that the news would not be good.
She’d only seen her father cry once before, she said, and that was the death of their other sister.
“They took it as well as they could, given the circumstances,” she said, choking back tears.
They asked few questions about how he died, and Jacobsen said she didn’t have the heart to fill them in.
Her father somberly said that his son had vices that he could not control, and they ultimately led to his demise. Teresa said she felt it in her heart that her son was gone. Najera was always her favorite child, and Jacobsen said she knows that the news hit both of them hard.
All of the family have accepted that Najera is most likely dead given the circumstances, though some, like Jacobsen’s older brother Felix, have lots of questions that have yet to be answered.
Jacobsen said they are still waiting for the Seattle Police Department to hopefully locate fingerprints to tie Najera to the citation and to let them determine whether to exhume his remains for a positive identification.
As for her grief, Jacobsen said it comes and goes in waves. Like the others, she suspected he was dead, but not knowing allowed a fleeting sense of hope that perhaps he was out there somewhere, traveling the world and had just bumped his head and forgotten his identity.
She chooses to remember her brother as she last saw him in Cheyenne — happy and having fun. She imagines him jumping on a train and catching a glimpse of the country that he would otherwise never have seen.
She wants to think of him exploring new places and people and living his best life as he traveled carefree. She hopes he knew he was deeply loved by his family who never stopped looking for him.
“Maybe he wanted to get home, but he just wasn’t able to get back on that train,” she said.
Jen Kocher can be reached at Jen@CowboyStateDaily.com