HAZLETON, Pa. (AP) — Evelyn Colon’s mother imagined her daughter living happily surrounded by her own family and children.
She was spared the heartbreaking news that her beautiful, green-eyed daughter never lived to see her 16th birthday or the birth of her own baby girl, who shared her mother’s tragic fate.
Colon, who was known for more than four decades here in Northeast Pennsylvania as Beth Doe, was brutally murdered and dumped off an Interstate 80 bridge in East Side borough in December 1976.
Her then-boyfriend, Luis Sierra, who is now 63, of Ozone Park, New York, was arrested last month for criminal homicide after DNA testing proved to be the break in the case investigators sought.
He is being held without bail and awaiting extradition to Pennsylvania in Colon’s murder.
Colon’s family didn’t know what happened to her, as they lost all contact with her in late 1976 when she was eight or nine months pregnant with Sierra’s baby, said her niece, Miriam Colon-Veltman, on Friday.
The young couple had an apartment together in Jersey City, New Jersey, where their families lived.
But the apartment was abandoned when Colon’s family went to visit in mid-December and then they received a letter from Connecticut that she was happy, had the baby and was with her boyfriend, Veltman said.
The letter said that she’d contact them if she needed anything.
She apparently chose to live her life apart from them — a fact they accepted with great sadness, Veltman said. So, no missing persons report was ever filed, she said.
Her family never stopped thinking about her, wondering how she was, where she was and how her family may have grown over the years with additional children or grandchildren, Veltman said.
Veltman’s grandmother never gave up hope that she would see her daughter again, but passed before the family learned Evelyn’s true fate.
Veltman, who was born 11 years after her aunt vanished, grew up with stories about her, as they shared the same birthday, April 17.
“Every year, my father would tell me, ‘Happy Birthday,’ and say, ‘You were born on your aunt’s birthday,’” she recalled.
Evelyn would have been 60 years old in a few weeks, she said.
“She was the aunt I never got to meet, but I always felt a deep connection to her,” said Veltman, who lives in New Albany, Indiana.
‘He’s the family hero’
Veltman’s brother, Luis Colon Jr., gets the credit for providing the link that finally gave Beth Doe her true name back and gave investigators the break they sought for decades.
Luis Jr. had his DNA tested, in the hopes that his profile would link him with close family members — Evelyn’s children and his cousins — reuniting the heartbroken family, Veltman said.
“He’s the family hero,” she said, as his DNA profile was a 99.9% match to Evelyn, leading investigators to him a few weeks ago.
Her brother confirmed that his aunt disappeared in the 1970s, and put them in touch with his father, Luis Sr., who gave investigators additional information about his sister’s boyfriend, Sierra.
He hadn’t seen Sierra, who was older than him and went by “Wiso,” in high school, since his sister disappeared, he told them. Their family lived next door to his family in Jersey City, he said.
Other family members told investigators about finding the young couple’s apartment empty, and that Sierra was abusive and jealous towards Evelyn, keeping her locked inside the apartment.
Evelyn, herself, told her mother that she feared her boyfriend and that if anything happened, he was likely involved, investigators learned.
The family’s last contact was the letter in 1977 that told them of a birth of a 9-pound son, Luis Sierra Jr. Investigators did not think Evelyn authored the letter, according to court papers.
Evelyn’s family continues to reel over the details of her death — strangled, shot, dismembered, stuffed into suitcases and tossed like trash over a high bridge onto the banks of the Lehigh River.
Her unborn daughter, who the family has now named Emily Grace, was cut from her womb, and Evelyn’s nose, ears and breasts had been removed.
Reality overwhelming, heartbreaking
The reality has been overwhelming and heartbreaking for a family that had hoped one day to reconnect, said Veltman, who started a GoFundMe page for a memorial for her aunt.
They want now to connect with the then-teenager who found her body, Kenneth Jumper Jr., dogged investigators and people in Northeast Pennsylvania who mourned her death in absence of her own family and kept her memory alive all of these years, she said.
The family has no photographs of Evelyn, Veltman said, as they suffered a devastating fire in 1975 that took all of the cherished family mementos. They continue to seek them out, she said.
The family was also amazed at the likeness of composite sketches investigators created after her body was exhumed in 2007. Veltman immediately saw the resemblance to her niece and sister.
Her grandmother described her as the most beautiful girl in the family with hazel-green eyes, light skin and long, long dark hair, she said. She always imagined an equally beautiful life for her long ago, lost daughter, Veltman said.
“Now, we know she didn’t leave,” she said. “She was killed. She was taken away from us.”
Her grave in rural Carbon County now bears her name. A block of wood with the name, Evelyn Colon, lays at the foot of a white cross reading Beth Doe. Flowers and a child’s toy also adorn the grave.
Veltman can’t express the gratitude her family has for all of the concern, caring and tears others shed for Evelyn and Emily Grace.
“Carbon County adopted her,” she said. “It’s incredible. You all kept her memory alive, knowing about her and praying for her. That’s so powerful that this county was praying for my family and how you loved someone you didn’t know.”
The GoFundMe page raised nearly $2,600 at that point, and the case has attracted international attention, Veltman said.
A reporter from France has contacted the family, and a donation from Vienna, Austria, is among the more than 60 so far for the memorial.
“We’re so thankful for all of you,” Veltman said. “You’re all family now, too.”