By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
Recently, a California girl who had been missing for 13 years was located in Mexico.
Even though Sheridan resident Heather Vanderhoef doesn’t know whether the girl returned home, she finds solace in such stories. It gives her hope that one day maybe her son Kyle Ellis will return home.
However, four years after Kyle disappeared after being dropped off at a gas station in Greybull, the outlook is bleak.
Kyle was last seen at the gas station after being dropped off there by a woman who had given him a ride from the Bighorn Mountains outside of Sheridan and $20 for a meal.
Unfortunately, there’s no surveillance footage from the gas station or any other location around town to track where he might have gone after being dropped off. Nor did he have with him a cell phone, computer, debit card or even a driver’s license to help track him down.
The woman who dropped him off has been interviewed by police and Kyle’s father, and they and Vanderhoef are convinced was just genuinely trying to help him out by giving him a ride on a frosty January evening.
That night on Jan. 8, 2018, Kyle had walked up to the Bear Lodge Resort in the Bighorn National Forest. There, the resort’s owner called police out of concern for Kyle’s safety because he had been sitting outside in the cold. The police contacted Kyle’s dad who asked speak to him and offered to come pick him up.
Kyle didn’t want that, Vanderhoef said, and instead opted for the ride with the stranger who recalled that he didn’t talk much during the two-hour drive. Why Greybull? His mom has no idea. And though Kyle had mentioned wanting to go there for some unknown reason, Vanderhoef is pretty convinced he likely didn’t stay long.
Where he might have gone is anyone’s guess, though Vanderhoef hopes that he might have made it to the San Juan Islands off of the Washington Coast, where the family had frequently gone on vacation. It was Kyle’s favorite place. Though there’s a pretty active homeless population on the islands, a friend of hers periodically looks for him and thus far hasn’t seen Kyle yet.
So far, there have been no credible tips, sightings, arrests or remains traced to his DNA. “It’s like he’s just vanished,” Vanderhoef said. “One minute he was just gone.
”Though technically he did leave on his own, Vanderhoef said, the situation is complicated because he was was suffering from mental illness, which for the past decade has derailed his life and world. Up until his late teens, he’d been an honor student and multi-letter athlete who gone to University of Las Vegas.
It was there the first indications of his mental illness surfaced, showing up as excessive partying and self-medicating. Eventually, he dropped out of school.
This was followed by drug and alcohol abuse, arrests and a session of rehab in Rock Springs, where Kyle was unofficially diagnosed as bipolar, although his mom thinks it is more likely he suffers from borderline personality disorder or schizophrenia. However, Kyle didn’t care for medication or treatment.
He’d also left home a handful of times in the past – going as far as Spokane, Washington, Colorado and Texas – before ultimately contacting his mother on Facebook messenger to say he wanted to come home. Until 2018, the longest he’d been gone was 10 days and he’d always been in touch with his family regardless.
He’d warned his mother that one day he would leave and never come home. He was on a mission for God, who had plans for him, he’d said. Kyle had increasingly adopted strange and zealous religious beliefs, according to his mom, which she attributed to his mental illness.
When he told her to prepare for his eventual departure, she gave him 10 stamped envelopes with various family addresses and names and asked him to promise that if he did leave for good, he’d let one of them know. Those envelopes, along with his social security card and driver’s license, were found in his room.
Prior to his departure, Kyle had returned home to Sheridan and seemed to be doing well, Vanderhoef said. He was living with his dad, from whom Vanderhoef is divorced, helping him around the house while he healed from foot surgery.
“He was sober and doing well,” Vanderhoef said, “but then something happened, and he was just gone.”
She thinks it was a personal matter that put him over the edge, but she can’t be certain. Kyle told her he he was tired and wanted to be gone, though in the past he’d never harmed himself or given his family any substantial reason to admit him to a mental health facility. He is very smart, she said, and equally charming with a big heart.
He’s not street smart, however, so there’s a chance he might have gotten into the wrong car but at this point, it’s all conjecture.
“The only thing I know is that he hasn’t been found or arrested,” she said. “Those are the only two certainties I have.”
Ellis’ disappearance is one of the nearly 50 “missing person” cases involving men to have been opened since 1974 that are listed on the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation’s (DCI) missing person database. The men range in age from under 1 year to 72 years.
Also listed are the missing person cases of 30 women.
Wyoming, according to a 2019 Vivint Source Survey, is ranked seventh for missing people, with 7.8 missing people for every 100,000 residents.
Cases like Kyle’s prompted Casper resident Desirée Tonico to start the Missing People of Wyoming Facebook page to provide a resource to share reports of missing people as well as case updates. Two years after its start, it has more than 16,000 subscribers.
Wyoming is currently one of only a handful of states to not have a statewide database that stretches across law enforcement agencies other than the DCI, but Tinoco is leading an effort to create one and is currently in talks with DCI and local and state leaders to make it happen.
Though Tinoco has personally never had a loved one go missing, she was prompted to establish some kind of resource after seeing a couple of missing people posters around Casper of local men who had disappeared.
Tinoco wanted to provide a resource after noticing that the missing person cases that seemed to garner media attention largely involved children and young girls and women, but less attention was paid to indigenous people and middle-aged men, particularly those with spotty pasts and criminal records.
She has been surprised at the response on her Facebook page from the public and from state agencies and leaders who are universally in support of a statewide database that provides up-to-date information across law enforcement agencies and DCI to provide a uniform and cohesive resource.
Kyle’s case in particular had always stood out to her as “such a handsome young man with so much potential.
“So many of these cases are heartbreaking,” she said.
Kyle is currently 33 years old, 6-feet tall and weighing roughly 190 pounds with brown hair and distinct green/hazel eyes. He wears glasses and a black beanie at all times of the year and has tattoos of a pin up girl on both his right and left shoulders, “sex drugs and rock n roll” on his abdomen and a sleeve tattoo on his left forearm.
Anyone with information is asked to contact the Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office at (307) 672-3455 or the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS) toll-free hotline at (833) 872-5176 or firstname.lastname@example.org.