Joe Helt was last seen on January 16, 1987. The 17-year-old high school junior from Ellenville, New York, disappeared after a party at an abandoned ski lodge. One account states that he got a ride with three other teens, their car got stuck in the snow, and Joe decided to walk home. According to various media reports, no one believes that Joe disappeared on his own. The only known fact is that he never made it back home. No trace of him has ever been found.
On any given day, there are as many as 100,000 active missing persons cases in the United States. In addition, every year, tens of thousands of people vanish under suspicious circumstances. The facts are sobering and lead to what has often been called “the nation’s silent mass disaster.” Some of the missing are found or have chosen to go missing. Tragically, others either arrive home in a coffin, or they lie, unidentified, among the many thousands of sets of unidentified human remains throughout the country.
Now, however, there is hope for the missing and unknown. In cold case research, time is an ally, as relationships between people can change, and new witnesses may come forward. Someone at the party that Joe attended knows something, and someday that person may go to the police with new information.
New witnesses have been known to come forward on their own, but advances in the Internet can speed up the process. These include getting the word out to the public via websites and social media, as well as posting Joe’s case (and the cases of many others) on NamUs––a dual database of the missing and unknown.
Both of these innovative and proactive measures to attempt to solve Joe’s case were initiated in 2010. That was the year when New York state resident Gina Schuster and a friend got together to plan their high school reunion. “When the subject of Joe’s disappearance came up,” Gina stated in a recent email, “we quickly scrapped the reunion idea and focused on raising awareness for Joe.”
Since then, Joe’s former classmates have hooked up with his aunt, and now the three women work together, monitoring a Facebook page and a “Justice for Joe” website.
Gina, who described herself as a “wall flower” in high school, said that Joe came from a broken home, while she had problems of her own. Although she didn’t know Joe well, he was always compassionate and friendly when others were not. Added Gina, “Joe had such a kind heart, such a sweet disposition, and he was determined to get me to smile each and every time he saw me in the hallways.”
Then, suddenly, on that cold snowy night 25 years ago, Joe was gone.
“When Joe disappeared I definitely felt a hole, a loss of someone who made my day with the simplest gesture,” said Gina. “I almost felt guilty for feeling that way. But, year after year, his persistence in trying to make me smile became one of the few bright spots for me at a time when I had none. This is why I am so passionate about finding him. I feel like I owe him at least this much for all the times that he took the time to help me when I needed a helping hand most.”
Both of Joe’s parents died without knowing what happened to their oldest son. He was an accomplished artist, played the electric guitar, and had a part-time job in an auction house. But, most of all, Joe was known as an all-around-kind-hearted guy, with a million-dollar smile.
During the same year that Joe’s classmates were increasing his presence on the Internet, the New York State Police entered Joe’s case, as MP-7041, into the Missing Person database of the NamUs System. NamUs had gone “live” only the year before, in 2009. This missing person database, where Joe is listed, is connected with another searchable database of unidentified remains. One of the advantages of these dual databases is that they can be accessed by the public.
Another advantage is that DNA from Joe’s family members has been profiled, at no charge, and entered into NamUs. This makes Joe’s DNA available to other law enforcement agencies for comparison with profiles of unidentified remains.
The passage of time, along with innovative measures on the Internet, bring optimism to the solving of cold cases. Joe’s family and friends are waiting for answers.