The Mysterious Death of Jaryd Atadero

The Mysterious Death of Jaryd Atadero

The Mysterious Death of Jaryd Atadero

On October 2, 1999, Jaryd Atadero, a three-year-old American boy, vanished while hiking with a Christian social group along Colorado’s Big South Trail in the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forest. Two businessmen on a hiking excursion discovered his fragmented remains on May 6, 2003. The Mysterious Death of Jaryd Atadero are still unsolved mysteries, and it is an anomaly that the boy’s cause of death has never been determined.

Experts on felids contend that the recovered remains do not fit the normal patterns of a mountain lion attack, despite the fact that the incident was frequently reported as a mountain lion attack. Atadero had allegedly been the victim of a kidnapping and murder, according to other analysts. The media played a significant role in the search for Atadero, in part because of the sensationalism surrounding the Colorado case of child beauty pageant entrant JonBenét Ramsey.

The Mysterious Death of Jaryd Atadero
Jaryd Atadero with his father Allyn Atadero


Then-six-year-old Josallyn Atadero was the older sister of Jaryd Atadero, who was the three-year-old son of Allyn Atadero and Stacie Mckissick. Allyn Atadero, a divorcee who was responsible for both of his children, had just joined the Christian Singles Network group, a local religious organization. As a result of the club’s well-known assistance in Allyn’s daily life as a single father, the Atadero family became very involved in the club’s organized group events. As a physical education instructor at a nearby junior high school, Allyn himself found solace in the devotion to religion.


During October 1999, Allyn lodged with his two children at the Poudre River Resort, a business-oriented hotel belonging to Allyn and his identical twin, Arlyn Atadero. Jaryd and Josallyn were enthusiastic about accompanying the Christian Singles Network members on a trip to the neighboring state fish hatchery. This was something Allyn had reservations about initially. However, his apprehensions were eased when the group assured him that their destination was solely the hatchery, leading him to agree based on his trust in the group’s promise.

At a certain juncture during the hatchery outing, the group of 11 individuals, along with Josallyn and Jaryd, opted to embark on an early afternoon hike up the Big South Trail, situated 15 miles west of the resort. The rationale behind this choice remains unclear, although Allyn pointed out that the splendid weather might have played a role. He described it as a “spectacular autumn day in the Colorado mountains.” Narrations diverge significantly regarding the precise sequence of events that unfolded on the trail leading up to Jaryd’s disappearance.

Colorado’s Big South Trail in the Arapaho & Roosevelt National Forest

It is generally recounted that the group fragmented into swifter and more leisurely-paced clusters while traversing the trail. Jaryd purportedly surged ahead of the group he was with. The young boy apparently paused to converse with two anglers, who later informed investigators that they didn’t find it concerning that Jaryd was alone. This was because they had spotted the Christian Singles Network group some 50 to 80 feet down the trail, oblivious to the fact that Jaryd was not connected to them. The anglers’ last visual of Jaryd showed him briskly walking up the trail in proximity to nearby camping sites.

Shortly thereafter, the members of the Christian Singles Network group, along with Josallyn, heard a piercing scream. According to Josallyn, the scream lacked clear context, as it sounded akin to “someone being attacked or someone engaging in play… a playful scream, as if someone was about to tag [Jaryd].” Subsequently, the group members scoured the area for Jaryd for approximately an hour before returning to the resort to apprise Allyn of the situation. Allyn experienced an emotional breakdown, getting into his vehicle while striking his own chest and repeatedly crying out, “they lost my baby, they lost my baby.”

The resort manager called the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, and a Search and Rescue team was deployed, some of whom comforted Josallyn and allowed her to pet one of the search dogs, named “Apache”. Bill Nelson, now a recently retired undersheriff with the Larimer County Sheriff’s Office, was in charge of the search for Jaryd. “Absolutely, I thought we would find him,’” he said. “Yes, it was a young child, but my thought was we should be able to get in there with our people and do what we do and what we have done hundreds of times: find the person.

A comprehensive search effort was launched to locate Jaryd Atadero

It might take a few hours to find the child crying or hiding someplace nearby, but we would be done before midnight.” Nelson went to his vehicle for a quick nap just before midnight and told his staff to wake him when they found the boy. When he awoke the next morning in the front seat of his pickup truck, he became concerned, realizing that Jaryd still had not been located.

Difficult search

A comprehensive search effort was launched to locate Jaryd Atadero, yet the endeavor encountered numerous challenges, exacerbated by a growing media frenzy. Adding to the complications, the helicopter employed in the search experienced a catastrophic incident. This Huey UH-1N helicopter, selected for the mission from F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, departed to the Fort Collins-Loveland Municipal Airport for refueling.

Upon its return, the helicopter encountered difficulties with its fuel load and the mountainous terrain, leading to its engine stalling and subsequently plummeting 100 feet before crashing along the Big South Trail. Among those onboard were four Air Force members and Mark Sheets, a Larimer County Search and Rescue participant who happened to be present due to a colleague’s shift change.

Searchers with Universal Tracking Services return to the Big South Trailhead on Oct. 3, 1999.

Sheets was not seated but rather on the floor with the door open. As he recounted, he observed the rotor blades striking treetops, causing helicopter debris to scatter into the surrounding forest. Despite his attempt to close the door, a severed tree limb penetrated and struck the Air Force doctor onboard, resulting in an eye socket fracture.

According to Sheets, the helicopter’s disintegration persisted as it crashed, splitting the fuselage into three fragments across the trail. The jet engines, still operational, continued to run for several hours until the fuel supply was depleted.

The Air Force crew was able to get out of the helicopter, but Sheets was trapped. Nearby search and rescue members ran to the downed helicopter, kicked in a window and managed to pull the then-unconscious Sheets out. Sheets suffered a severe concussion and a 13-inch gash on one leg that left his femur bone exposed. He also suffered three broken vertebrae in his lower back and a broken shoulder. Sheets was emotionally distraught, recalling in a 2017 interview that he had wanted to “do something useful” and help Jaryd. Sheets retired in 2017.

Larimer County Sheriff, Justin Smith was a sergeant with the department during the search, and recalled the intensity of media sensationalism surrounding Jaryd’s disappearance. TV trucks and newspaper reporters compared the case to the death of local glitz pageant winner JonBenét Ramsey, another Colorado-based child cold case. “I remember from moment one that second day, we quickly realized what we were up against,” Smith said.

The Mysterious Death of Jaryd Atadero
Larimer County Sheriff, Justin Smith

We had searchers down who they were bringing out on stretchers, we had a missing kid overnight, we had the Air Force closing off the crash site. Emotionally it was overwhelming, and you could see it in the eyes of everybody involved. TV satellite trucks, 17 at one time, lined up along Colorado Highway 14 with anchors in fur coats walking around and anybody and everybody calling us for information. Psychics professed to know where searchers could find Jaryd. A bare-footed man with a donkey showed up at the search site, ready to track [Jaryd] down. An American Indian came to perform a ritual, asking the mountain to give up the boy.

Searchers combed river banks and up steep slopes. Dive teams peered into small pools left in the narrow, slow-moving river. A plane made passes overhead, but was unable to locate Jaryd. “It became a tornado, a hurricane, the biggest storm in all of our lives,” Allyn Atadero stated. “I was critical of them at the time because when you are in a survival situation, you want everything that can be done to be done, and at times I thought there was so much more they could have done.” With no sign of the boy appearing, the search gradually ended, and the case went cold.

The finding of human remains

In 2003, Rob Osbourne and Gareth Watts, both businessmen, were engaged in a hike within the vicinity of Poudre Canyon, near the Big South Trail. During their hike, they stumbled upon partial human remains that included a brown polar fleece sweater, a pair of blue trousers, and the Disney’s Tarzan sneakers that Jaryd had on when he vanished. Promptly informing the authorities, their discovery led to further exploration which uncovered a human molar and a substantial fragment of a fractured human skull.

The Mysterious Death of Jaryd Atadero
Jaryd’s clothing and shoes found by hikers nearly four years after he went missing

Initial DNA analysis at that time indicated an 86% likelihood that the remains belonged to Jaryd. More contemporary DNA testing later confirmed the remains to be a definitive match to Jaryd’s DNA, standing at 100%. Rather than opting for burial or cremation, Allyn Atadero made the decision to retain the remains. He transformed his son’s former bedroom into a tribute for Jaryd, maintaining it exactly as it was prior to his disappearance. The fragment of skull was placed atop Jaryd’s cherished toys and personal belongings, creating a shrine in his memory.

According to Allyn, “I am at peace and I know I am going to see Jaryd again one of these days. I’m going to look at him at say, ‘Jaryd, what happened?’ He’s going to look at me and say, ‘dad, does it really matter?'” In Allyn’s published book, Missing: The Jaryd Atadero Story: A Father Turns Tragedy Into Hope After the 1999 Disappearance of His Son in the Colorado Mountains, he discussed his motivations for keeping Jaryd’s skull piece, as well as his religious beliefs aiding him in his decisions surrounding how to best handle the remains and memorial of the boy.

Regarding Jaryd Atadero’s passing, there are two main theories.

Mountain Lion

Despite the prevailing consensus in the case suggesting that Jaryd Atadero met his demise through predation by a large creature, most likely a mountain lion, significant controversy envelops this hypothesis. Allyn, for instance, reports that experts well-versed in the behaviors of sizable felines in Colorado informed him that a mountain lion would have initiated an attack by targeting the boy’s abdomen, specifically aiming for his internal organs. However, this perspective is at odds with the condition of Jaryd’s sweater, which exhibited no indications of such an attack.

Initially there was a theory that Jaryd was attacked by a mountain lion

Adding to the complexity, Jaryd’s trousers were found turned inside-out—an action inconsistent with the behavior of a mountain lion. Moreover, the Tarzan sneakers displayed only minimal signs of wear, without any hint of being dragged. This observation carries weight since it suggests that a mountain lion wouldn’t have been capable of dragging the boy’s body up the trail to that extent into the mountainous terrain without causing significant damage to the sneakers. Nevertheless, it’s noteworthy that mountain lion tracks were discovered alongside Jaryd’s tracks during the initial search efforts.

According to Allyn Atadero, “[the search team] found some cougar prints coming down toward his tracks, and where the cougar prints and a little person’s prints come together, the child’s prints disappear.” At the time that Allyn had stated this, another initial theory had existed that Jaryd may have slipped and fallen, either getting caught in the rocky terrain and dying from exposure or dying from the fall. This theory has been largely ruled out, although not completely considered implausible by authorities.


The idea that Jaryd was seized, taken, and killed before his clothes were disposed of is another possibility that has been put forth. The fact that a human could have turned the pants inside-out served as support for this. The only wear and tear on the pants was caused by rodents and birds ripping off sizable chunks of the fabric to weave into their surrounding nests. Although Jaryd’s family and friends were questioned, there was no other proof that Jaryd had been abducted—at least not by anyone the Atadero family was immediately aware of.

Items of Jaryd lie on a bed in Allyn Atadero’s Parker home.

Claim of being Jaryd

Allyn Atadero faced harassment from an individual who purported to be Jaryd himself. Allyn responded by obtaining a restraining order against this person, and upon its breach, the individual was apprehended. However, with the revelation of Jaryd’s remains and the conclusive DNA match, the man’s assertions were discredited. Law enforcement authorities now speculate that the man either suffered from a mental disorder or sought attention through his actions. As of 2022, the case maintains its official status as unsolved.


Two books have been authored centering on the Jaryd Atadero case: “Missing: The Jaryd Atadero Story: A Father Transforms Tragedy Into Hope After His Son’s 1999 Disappearance in the Colorado Mountains,” and “Missing: When the Son Sets: The Jaryd Atadero Story.”

The passing of Jaryd Atadero prompted Governor Bill Ritter of Colorado to designate September 8 as Recreational Safety Awareness Week in commemoration of Jaryd Atadero. Allyn Atadero was entrusted with presenting Governor Ritter’s proclamation to Lori Perry-Crumrine, the assistant principal at Falcon Bluffs Middle School, where Allyn was also employed as an educator.

Jeremy Jhordy

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