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Then They Were Gone

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The worst day of his life, says Michael Blagg, started off like any other. Around 5:30 a.m. on Nov. 13 he looked in on his sleeping wife, Jennifer, 34, and daughter Abby, 6, in their rented three-bedroom home just outside Grand Junction, Colo. A half hour later he headed off to work at his manufacturing office. Five times during the day, says Blagg, 38, he tried to call Jennifer, a homemaker, but no one answered. Increasingly concerned, he headed home early around 4 p.m. No sooner had he walked inside and looked in the master bedroom than he saw a large pool of blood. Upstairs he found Abby’s clothes still laid out for school. But there was no sign of either his wife or daughter, nor has there been since.

From the moment he discovered the blood-soaked scene, the mystery over Jennifer and Abby Blagg has only deepened. Mike made a sobbing call to 911, and the paramedics who responded found him distraught and inconsolable. “I was shaking and trembling and crying horribly,” says Blagg. Sheriff’s deputies have no bodies, no motives and no named suspects. Yet. “Given the volume of blood we know that something bad obviously happened,” says Lt. Dick Dillon of the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department. “But we don’t know exactly what.”

Indeed, the probe into what took place at 2253 Pine Terrace Court is turning into one of the most puzzling investigations in Colorado since the 1996 JonBenét Ramsey case. In one of the few official statements on the incident, Janet Prell, the public information officer for the Mesa County sheriff’s office, said that so far investigators had no reason to believe that it represented a threat to public safety. Yet the bloody disappearances have sent waves of uncertainty through the peaceful county of 116,000, with residents wondering who might be responsible. “That makes us all vulnerable,” says Sherry Opp, a neighbor of the Blaggs’.

According to information officer Prell, when it comes to possible suspects, Blagg himself “has not been ruled out, but he’s not been ruled in either.” Nevertheless, at a Nov. 16 press conference, Blagg was asked point-blank whether he had anything to do with his wife’s and daughter’s disappearance. “No, I don’t have any idea what happened to them,” he replied in a firm voice. “I want to know what happened to them.”

At this point, police are treating the incident as a possible assault and kidnapping. One thing investigators do know is that they want to avoid the missteps that led to the JonBenét Ramsey fiasco in Boulder, 250 miles to the east. So, unlike the Boulder police, Mesa County authorities immediately sealed off the crime scene to prevent contamination of evidence. They also quickly brought in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and then the FBI, to help. Another principal difference between the two investigations: Blagg has cooperated fully and has been interviewed extensively by deputies. He has yet to hire a lawyer. “There is no need,” he says. “An attorney would just get in the way right now.”

As a matter of statistics, the majority of killers know their victims. But in this case deputies may be considering other factors as well. The Blaggs’ home is located on a cul-de-sac. For most of the day on Nov. 13 there had been landscapers working out front at a neighboring house, which could have made any attempt to remove Jennifer and Abby dicey, though not impossible. The back of the Blagg residence offered no better concealment, given that it fronts a busy road. So perhaps Jennifer and Abby were spirited out at night, though Mike said he left them sleeping peacefully in the morning. As for why the two might have been taken from the house at all, it is possible that a perpetrator may not have wanted any bodies found that might establish the time of death.

There are other wrinkles as well. For starters, one neighbor, Helen West, told investigators that she got up to walk her dog a little after 6 a.m. on Nov. 13 and heard what she thought were two or three men’s voices coming from the vicinity of the Blaggs’ back fence. As for Mike, he has certainly not acted like a man with anything to hide. A neighbor who saw him on the day in question reported nothing amiss. The neighbor, Tammy Eret, a deputy district attorney for Mesa County, happened to have seen Blagg arriving home, just moments before he made his dreadful discovery. She says that he gave her a smiling wave hello. “He looked happy,” says Eret. “He didn’t just turn around and walk away.”

By the same token, investigators have disclosed nothing in Blagg’s background, or that of Jennifer, that would suggest a motive for a crime. Born in Sherman, Texas, and a graduate of Georgia Tech with a degree in nuclear engineering, Mike joined the Navy and trained as a helicopter pilot. He served for 10 years, rising to the rank of lieutenant commander and doing two tours in the Middle East during Desert Storm.

While stationed in San Diego in 1988 he met Jennifer Loman, then a student at nearby National University. Three years later they were married, to the delight of Jennifer’s mom, Marilyn Conway. “He’s a very compassionate man,” says Conway, 61, who immediately came to Grand Junction after Jennifer’s and Abby’s disappearance and who is an outspoken supporter of her son-in-law.

After leaving the Navy, Mike took a job at AlliedSignal, which brought the Blaggs to Simpsonville, S.C. (A check with law enforcement agencies in all the places where the Blaggs have lived turned up no domestic disturbances or legal troubles.) Friends in South Carolina regard them as as an uncommonly loving and respected couple who were active in their church. The pastor of the large First Baptist Church, Randy Harling, points out that Mike was nominated as a deacon less than 2½ years after joining the congregation. “That’s unheard of,” says Harling, “in a church this size for someone who is so new.”

The family moved to Grand Junction 18 months ago, when Mike took a new job as the local operations director for AMETEK Dixson, a company that makes parts for trucks and RV’s. They joined two churches, and Abby attended first grade at Bookcliff Christian School, where Jennifer volunteered as a teacher’s aide two days a week. “Abby is excited about anything that puts her around other kids,” says Mike, who in conversation continues to refer to his wife and daughter in the present tense. “She likes Barbies, playing house and dress-up.”

His devotion to Abby was wellknown around the office. “He was crazy about his little girl,” says Howard Watson, an engineer who worked under Blagg. “If something happened at home he would be the first to leave. He was definitely a family man.” Mike and Jennifer didn’t socialize much, but Abby kept up the normal round of play dates and activities. In any event, there appeared to be no sign of trouble the evening of Nov. 12. Neighbor Helen West says she chatted on the phone with Jennifer around 8 or so, and that everything seemed normal. “She was not acting like a woman who was about to disappear the next day,” says West.

For the moment, the sheriff’s department is awaiting test results on the blood and other evidence found at the scene, which they plainly hope will produce some leads. “If one is patient,” says Mesa County’s Lieutenant Dillon, “a crime scene will tell you a story.” It has become the kind of case that gnaws away at the deputies who are working it. “Usually you have more direction [in a case] that allows you to have a gut instinct,” says Mesa County sheriff’s investigator Steve King. “I don’t have a gut instinct right now.” Meanwhile, search-and-rescue teams are probing the muddy waters of the nearby Colorado River for any bodies or clues, with no more success so far than they have had with the rest of the case. “The river,” says veteran searcher Walt Kochevar, “only gives it up when it’s ready to.”

Bill Hewitt

Vickie Bane in Grand Junction and Don Sider in Simpsonville