United Exec Jake Cefolia, Recently Found Dead in Woods, Was Under Criminal Investigation When He Vanished

PEOPLE covered the mysterious disappearance of Jack Cefolia last February

Ed note: On Sunday, authorities in Illinois announced they had identified the remains of United Airlines Executive Jake Cefolia, who was reported missing in August 2020.

According to a press release issued Sunday, Cefolia's remains were found in the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Lemont, Ill., about 25 miles outside of Chicago. Though his cause and manner of death are still under investigation, DuPage Forest Preserve Police Chief David Pederson said Cefolia was found hanging by a belt from a tree, adding there were no signs of foul play.

In February 2021, PEOPLE covered Cefolia's mysterious disappearance and the shock of those who knew him. Police in Elmhurst, Ill., told PEOPLE Cefolia was under criminal investigation when he disappeared, but they have not specified for what.

The person who initially reported him missing was his ex-wife, Kristine Cefolia, after Jake missed picking up his teen twins for his scheduled night with them and didn't respond to any of her calls.

"This is totally out of character," she said in the Aug. 8 911 call. "Something's just absolutely not right."

The February 2021 magazine story is printed below, in its entirety.

As senior vice president of worldwide sales for United Airlines, Jake Cefolia was "working at my dream job," he declared on his Twitter profile: "Travel is my job and my passion." In the summer of 2020, even as his industry was reeling from COVID-19 shutdowns, Cefolia took part in a webinar projecting a convincingly sunny outlook that was everything his longtime customers had come to expect from the genial executive, who had been named to his top-level post just two years earlier. "He was the same old Jake," a friend and colleague who texted with him July 24 recalls of Cefolia's demeanor on the video. "Warm, friendly, upbeat and talking about the future."

jake cefolia
Jake Cefolia.

Just two weeks later, however, Cefolia's own future turned upside down. After the 49-year-old father missed picking up his teen twins from ex-wife Kristine Cefolia for his scheduled night with them—and wasn't responding to any of her calls—she contacted police. "This is totally out of character," she said in a 911 call reporting him missing on Aug. 8, two days after he was last seen in his Elmhurst, Ill., home. "Something's just absolutely not right." In a matter of hours Cefolia's car was discovered abandoned in Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in nearby DuPage County. Police—who later revealed that Cefolia was under criminal investigation for reasons they would not identify, citing the open case—fanned out to search the area but came up empty-handed. Six months and multiple searches employing dogs, drones and helicopters later, Cefolia's whereabouts are still a mystery, and his loved ones are left without answers. "It's so strange," says friend Kevin Iwamoto. "Here we are months later, and there's no new information. That's what makes this unsettling. There's just no closure."

Jake Cefolia
Jake Cefolia. Elmhurst Police Department

Nothing seemed amiss the last time Iwamoto had an email exchange with Cefolia earlier in the summer. "It was just checking in, and there was nothing that would make you stop," he recalls. "Very normal." But in the days before Cefolia's disappearance, his behavior did seem erratic. On Aug. 4 he took an overnight trip to San Francisco to reconcile with a girlfriend who had recently broken up with him. Faced with the stress of his job in the pandemic, he had been drinking heavily, she told authorities. Returning home on Aug. 6, Cefolia had dinner with his teenage son, who, according to police reports, told his mother his father appeared "extremely drunk." The next day he didn't show up for remote work and had missed both an appointment with a Realtor who was selling his house and his night with the children. "We've left multiple texts, messages—nothing," his ex-wife told police, adding that Cefolia had in the past "fantasized about going off the grid." When police searched Cefolia's home, they reportedly found a phone and an Apple watch he had left behind.

Did the pressures of his job—or the threat of criminal charges—send him into hiding? Or could he have been a victim of foul play? Even officials involved in the case admit they are baffled. "I think everyone's pretty dumbfounded," says Tony Martinez, spokesperson for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, which has conducted more than 10 searches in the preserve where Cefolia's locked and undisturbed car was found. The woods are well-traveled by locals, and Cefolia was said to be a regular runner there, but they can be a destination for the despondent, Martinez says. Several times a year deputies find people attempting suicide or the bodies of those who've already died, and while people have gotten lost in the 2,500 acres of thick woods, "we've never had someone go missing and not be able to find them."

jake cefolia
Jake Cefolia.

Cefolia's family has reportedly hired a private investigator, and Elmhurst police, who are handling the case, refuse to speculate on what might have happened to him. More surprising in a missing-persons case, says Thomas Lauth, a private investigator not connected with the case, is the fact that his family isn't speaking freely to the media. "That's really unusual," Lauth says. "Maybe it's what their lawyer or law enforcement told them to do. Perhaps they're keeping hush to secure a potential leak of information."

Whatever the truth, the mystery is hard to square with the gregarious professional friends knew. "What the heck could he be investigated for?" asks friend David Burzynski, who started a Bring Jake Cefolia Home Facebook page. "He had so much to lose." Burzynski likes to imagine Cefolia "drinking out of a coconut on a beach, like Robinson Crusoe," but that, he admits, is unlikely. "He's such a good guy that I don't think he'd let his kids believe he's dead." For now, Burzynski says, he's only left with questions. "And at this point, everybody just wants answers—the good, the bad or the ugly."

If you have information, please call Elmhurst Police at 630-530-3050.

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