The family of Juan Muñoz, 20, - whose car and belongings were found at the Río Grande Gorge Bridge on Feb. 21 - is still searching for him more than a month after his disappearance.
Muñoz was spending the weekend at the National Guard Armory in Río Rancho when he didn't show up for training Sunday morning Feb. 21.
His sergeant quickly reported him missing and was unable to locate his car, which was later reported to have been seen at the Río Grande Gorge Bridge parking lot after dark Saturday night, Feb. 20, by guards working at the bridge.
Juan Muñoz's family said the guards told them they saw Muñoz's car pull into the area around 8 p.m., followed by another vehicle. They told the family the second vehicle stayed for several minutes, then sped off heading east across the bridge into Taos. The guards at the bridge declined to comment for this article.
Elizabeth Muñoz and Vannesa Gonzalez, Juan's mother and cousin, respectively, have been heading up the independent search for Juan, believing it uncharacteristic of him to leave with no trace, or jump from the bridge. "He wouldn't just get up and run off," said Gonzalez.
His mother Elizabeth described him as a quiet person, but also very nice and responsible. He held three jobs, one at the Taos Retirement Village, one at the Taos Living Center, and his job with the National Guard. "He is really mature about his life decisions and everything he does," said his cousin Vannesa.
His mother and cousin also pointed out that Juan had applied for a job at the Albuquerque Police Department, was investing in a 401k, had just gotten a haircut the Wednesday prior to his disappearance, and also ordered clothes that arrived the week after. They pointed to all of these facts as reasons why they felt suicide was unlikely. However, they did say that Juan's sergeant had told them he was acting "more quiet than usual" in the days leading up to his disappearance.
In addition to the second car allegedly spotted alongside Muñoz's, the guards on the bridge told the family and private detective Elaine Graves - who is working as a consultant on the case - the cars were spotted entering the parking lot from the west side of the bridge, and that it was highly unusual for Juan to drive from Río Rancho into Taos from that direction. The second car also reportedly sped off east across the bridge.
Aside from the details given by the guards at the bridge, and a rough time window of between 4:30 p.m. in Río Rancho, and 8 p.m. at the Río Grande Gorge Bridge, the family does not have a lot of details to go on. Extensive searches of the gorge have yet to turn up any sign of Muñoz. The family said so far, helicopter searches, drone searches and kayak searches have all come up empty handed.
The family has turned to the public for information, as they feel the New Mexico State Police and the National Guard have let the case go stale. They are offering a reward for any information relating to Muñoz's disappearance.
"Honestly, we just need help," said Gonzalez. "If people have information, if they saw something or they have solid information, [we're hoping] they could come forward, because that second vehicle is suspicious to us."
Until a tip comes in, the family said they will continue to search along the Río Grande, and have been fortunate to have additional help from a kayak team
This is not the first time someone's car has been located by the bridge and a body never recovered. In 2016, Taos resident Holly White was reported missing after her car was found parked in the gorge bridge parking lot. In February of 2020, the same thing happened again; this time, local musician Melissa Crabtree's car was found. None of these individuals bodies have been recovered.
There is some hope for a safety measure that may change the circumstances for people who go missing at the gorge. A new capital outlay funding bill - House Bill 285 - is awaiting the signature of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. In the bill, Taos County has asked for $150,000 in funding for "Río Grande Gorge safety improvements," which would include putting up cameras in the area with the help of the New Mexico Department of Transportation. If approved, the funding would go a long way toward keeping families from being left to wonder.
If anyone has any information relating to the disappearance of Juan Muñoz, they can contact the New Mexico State Police at 575-758-8878, Juan's mother Elizabeth Muñoz at 575-779-5242, or Juan's aunt Miriam Muñoz at 575-779-6144. All tips will remain confidential and anonymous.