Montana mom turns into investigator after police decline search for her missing son
Linda Varela Adams knew something was very wrong when her son didn't call on her birthday in July.
The Billings, Montana mom said that's just who Jance Varela is: the kind of son who calls his mom for Mother's Day, her birthday and the holidays. The kind of son more worried more about others than himself.
Adams reported Varela missing right away. Nine months later, he's still missing.
Though police opened a missing persons file and assigned an investigator in July, they've never launched an active search for Varela.
So what happens when your only son goes missing and the police decide not to pull out all the stops to find him?
If you're Adams, you take charge of the search yourself.
Last confirmed sighting in June
The last confirmed sighting of Varela was at a bowling alley on June 1 in Fort Collins, Colorado, about 50 miles north of Denver and the area he moved to from Montana in 2018.
Adams' 60th birthday was July 1, something she said her son wouldn't have missed.
She told police that her son had been diagnosed with a brain tumor in May and that may be affecting his cognitive function. Varela also struggled with homelessness and opioid addiction following a surgery, Adams said.
Adams also told them that her son is not the type of person to abandon his family.
"He was a very loving person," she said. "He was the one that made sure people had a place to stay and food to eat."
From the beginning, police determined that an active search for Varela wasn't warranted, said Kate Kimble, a spokeswoman for the Larimer County Sheriff's Office.
"There was no indication of foul play, there was no indication of any imminent risk to safety, and he's an independent adult," she said. "We have to balance those things ... Sometimes people decide to make a change in their life and cut ties with family or friends."
She said there was no evidence that Varela was cutting ties with family.
On Tuesday, nearly nine months after Varela disappeared, the department issued its first news release about his case, saying that new information investigators received about Varela has raised "concern about his wellbeing."
Kimble declined to elaborate but said the news release is intended to cast a wider net and drum up new leads.
"We recognize that it's concerning for family that it's been months since they've heard from him." she said. "Our hearts are certainly with family."
A mother takes charge
From the start, Adams was frustrated at the lack of an active search for her son.
"I just didn't know what to do," she said. "I tried to generate any kind of law enforcement, action, which was just not going to happen initially."
So, for the first time in her life, Adams joined social media and made a Facebook page dedicated to finding her son.
She built a network of people who also became invested in finding Varela, including Justice Takes Flight, a local group that's been helping the families of missing people since 2018.
Since Adams began looking for Varela, she and volunteers have conducted vigils and ground searches, and continuously distributed fliers.
One of Adams' Facebook followers from Florida has paid for several billboards about Varela's disappearance, a woman from Australia helped update fliers about him, and a Colorado woman recently held up a poster about Varela on the Colorado Senate floor for National Missing Persons Day.
"I just never knew there were so many wonderful people in the world that are just like, 'Hey, I'll help you. Just because," Adams said.
A familiar line
Adams' determination stands out among families of the missing, said Brittany Workman, founder and executive director of Justice Takes Flight.
"She's just been an amazing advocate for her son," Workman said. "Most families of missing persons are actively looking for them and trying to get answers, trying to get the picture and name out and everything. But she's on the next level."
At some point, many families can't take the emotional toll and take breaks from their search, sometimes for weeks or months. Not Adams.
"She's done it daily, even though it breaks her heart daily," Workman said. "It's really hard to watch because you really just want her to get the answers that she's looking for."
Workman said that police often are too quick to dismiss the cases of runaway teens, those experiencing homelessness and those suffering from addiction.
She recalled one case her group handled involving a man who walked outside for a cigarette and never returned.
"Police were like, 'Oh, he probably just took a ride somewhere,'" she said. "They wouldn't search around the property. The family found us after day two, we were up there by day three, and we found him dead within 15 minutes."
She said that's why her group is so passionate about on-the-ground searches and never giving up hope.
"There needs to be more support," from police, she said. "There needs to be more effort than just, 'He might have decided to go missing.'"
'It's very hard.'
Kimble said the department hasn't dismissed Varela.
"People are coming from all sorts of circumstances in their life," she said. "It's not a deciding factor whether or not we're going to look for someone. Those deciding factors are foul play and the sense of imminent danger."
Adams said part of her understands where police are coming from when they tell people their loved ones might not want to be found.
"But I think family knows more about that person," she said, adding that it's been frustrating at times to be the main source for tips about her son. "Whatever comes to me, I pass on to them, and they do follow up on it. But it's very hard."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Montana mom takes on manhunt for son, Jance Varela, missing since June