Jennifer Pentilla: A Montanan Forever Lost in New Mexico?
Updated: Dec 12, 2022
"Hi Mom, I have a change of plans.” These were the first words out of the mouth of eighteen-year-old Missoula teenager Jennifer Pentilla on October 17, 1991—and her mother was relieved to hear them.
She had boarded a flight with her bicycle a few weeks earlier destined for California, determined to ride to Mexico to join fellow aid workers as part of a humanitarian project for children. At 7:52 a.m., on October 17, 1991, she leaned against the pay phone outside the Downtown Shell station on Pine Street in Deming, New Mexico, an isolated agricultural town of cattle, chili peppers, onions and melons.
Thin, pastel-skinned, blonde, and alone, she wore a lightweight pair of blue and white biking gloves and brown hiking boots, a slim chain with a cross emblem dangled around her neck, her blue eyes obscured by dark brown eyeglasses. Plunked in the barrenness of the desert, she stood 35 miles north of the Mexican border, approximately 1,350 miles south of her Montana home.
She believed in the alms of humanitarian work, something which allowed her to celebrate her faith, which at times in her life she had been compelled to camouflage. In fact, she had visited Mexico a few months prior, where she had spent a part of her summer painting and repairing old churches, and a few years before that, at the end of her junior year at Great Falls High School, she traveled without a chaperone to work in Sierra Leone, West Africa – cleaning brush, chopping timber, tilling land – sometimes doing more than one job at a time.
Now she felt that it would be safer to modify her plans, not to venture south. Once Jennifer made a decision like this, she was disinclined to revisit it. And though her mother, Lynn, respected her daughter’s independence and the implacable sense of faith that balanced it, “Mom, I have a change of plans” was a decision that she desired to hear.
To Lynn, Jennifer seemed like a good girl who was trying to figure it all out and having a little trouble along the way, especially after the recent loss of her father, Nick Pentilla, who died of Leukemia at age 44. She seemed thoughtful, confident, and above all hopeful. Moreover, she had always had the character strength of taking accountability for her own behavior.
Lynn had lost much sleep and had several bad dreams since her daughter had flown to San Diego on October 1. And, furthermore, she even experienced pangs of guilt since Jennifer was traveling riskily while employing a mountain bike and camping equipment that Lynn had bought for her as high school graduation gifts, only months ago.
Jennifer worked hard to make the most of such freedom. Two weeks camping and bike riding in the unfamiliar West and Southwest, with stops in Campo, California and Willcox, Arizona, as well in Mexico, including, most recently, Tecate, where at times she faithfully relied on strangers for car rides and even shelter. “Faith is not faith until it’s all you’re holding on to,” was a credo that she had just scratched in her journal.
Still, Lynn intuited the turbulence in Jennifer’s voice. Perhaps her daughter – a gentle child, practically, who had a Rice Krispies watch on her wrist and stuffed platypus squashed in her rucksack – was getting lonely, even homesick. Besides, not everything had gone according to perfect plan for Jennifer thus far on the trip.
Razor-sharp rocks and scattered hunks of glass punctured holes in her bicycle tires, twice. The first flat coming before she had even made it out of California. Days later, she was stranded again, this time a truck driver would pick her up in Lordsburg, New Mexico, and provide the 60-mile ride to Deming, where a local man graciously repaired the bicycle tire.
Jennifer Arrives in Deming
On October 16, 1991, Jennifer attended the Wednesday night service at the Deming Baptist Church, which started at 7 p.m. After the church services, Jennifer asked members of the congregation if she could sleep in the church, perhaps roll her sleeping bag out on a pew? Maybe she could pitch her tent behind the church?
Pastor Robert Summers and his wife Loretta offered the girl a better and safer night’s rest at a fifth wheel on the couple’s property, nearby, where Jennifer took a warm shower and washed out her hair, then watched television, before she retired to bed at approximately 10 p.m. Robert and Loretta rose early the following morning, taking Jennifer for breakfast at McDonald’s at approximately 7 a.m. on October 17, and then Pastor Robert escorted her back to the church so Jennifer could retrieve her bicycle.
After parting with the Summers, Jennifer then walked across the road with her bicycle to the Downtown Shell station and called her mother to inform her of what she had told the Summers the night before. As the fall of 1991 edged toward winter, she would bicycle for a short while in the dry, sunny land of New Mexico and then jump on a bus or flag a ride to Moorhead, Minnesota, to visit a friend who was a freshman at Concordia College.
After Lynn told her that wintertime freezes had turned the ground to iron in parts of the Midwest, Jennifer said that putting away the bicycle for a while would be a welcome scenario; fatigued and stiff from all of the exercising, she was relying on Tylenol and Bayer.
“Please don’t tell her that I am coming to visit,” Jennifer requested of her mother. “The look on her face will be priceless.”
Lynn offered to pay the bus ticket fare from New Mexico that would land her in Minnesota. Jennifer politely reminded her mother that she still had a few hundred dollars in cash on hand and then she talked about matting and framing the poems that she had been writing at campsites and cafes, and perhaps even selling them at craft fairs to earn extra money for Christmas. She floated the idea of enrolling in writing and art classes during the spring 1992 semester at University of Montana.
“I will call you later tonight or tomorrow morning,” Jennifer concluded. “I will let you know what way I’ll be going to head out of New Mexico. I’m headed to Las Cruces. I’m excited to know that I’ll be home for the holidays. Love you Mom.”
“I was excited that she was going to be home for Christmas,” says Lynn. “When her dad was sick with leukemia, our last two Christmases were pretty sad, and they were spent at the hospital. We were hoping to have a better Christmas, and I just knew we would because she was going to be home.”
Between October 1 and October 17, 1991, Jennifer called home in Missoula collect at least a dozen times. But the 14-minute phone call from Deming, New Mexico, would be the final time that Lynn would ever hear her daughter’s voice.
“She told us that she was going to be biking to Minnesota to see her friend,” says Loretta Summers in 2021. “We told her to go to Highway 70 to Interstate 40 and gave her directions to the Fair Acres Baptist Church in Las Cruces. She asked about making a cut across to Hatch. We said that that was not a good idea. There was not a lot of traffic that way and it was not a good idea to go that way. We assumed that she went to Interstate 70. We learned later that bikes would not have been allowed on Interstate 70, so what could have happened to that poor girl?”
Thirty-years later, Jennifer Pentilla is listed on the website of the New Mexico State Police Cold Case Homicides.
What happened to Jennifer Pentilla?
Following the phone call with her mother, Jennifer Pentilla parked her white Sundance Fuji mountain bicycle against the side of the Downtown Shell station, draped her turquoise and white helmet over its handlebars, fixed her turquoise Jan Sport backpack against her shoulders, and walked inside and asked the attendant to point her toward the restroom.
According to the statement that he made to the New Mexico State Police on December 15, 1992, attendant Jesus “Chuy” Vasquez, age 21, the son of the station owner, Henry Vasquez, said that Jennifer entered the business sometime at “about 10:30, (or) 10.” He and Jennifer exchanged a bit of superficial chit-chat about her bicycle, “just a regular touring bike,” as he recalled, “I’m pretty sure it was white.” At one point he claimed that Jennifer, who, he said, was wearing “hiking boots” and “wool socks,” said “something about coming from Mexicali.”
“About five, ten minutes later,” according to Vasquez, Jennifer exited the bathroom, made a purchase, and after departing the gas station, she ventured off, walking alongside with her bike, “heading east,” according to Vasquez.
“I think she was going to the travel agency,” concluded Vasquez in his brief statement to Special Agent Miguel Frietzke, Jr. “’Cause she said something about going to the travel agency. But first she went to the phone and stayed on the phone for about 10, 15 minutes.”
Even if Jennifer used the pay phone at “about 10:30, (or) 10” after she left the Shell Station “for about 10,15 minutes,” as Vasquez contended – Lynn’s phone records substantiate the time of Jennifer’s phone call to her mother at 7:52 a.m. – her conversation with Vasquez would be the last known face-to-face conversation of the teenager’s life.
For the nearly 1,500-mile journey from New Mexico to Minnesota, Jennifer planned to subsist on fruit rolls, sunflower seeds, beef and cheese sticks, and peanut butter snack crackers. She was equipped with a bike repair kit, a red Swiss Army pocket knife, a pair of flashlights, lantern candles, and enamel camping cups. She would continue to take pictures along the way with her 35mm Miranda camera and purify her water whenever possible.
When her mind turned quiet and clear, she would allot time to journaling or reading from a book that her mother Lynn had sent her off on her journey with, “To My Daughter With Love on the Important Things in Life.” Nighttime would be reserved for dreaming of all of the things that she expected out of life, things she needed to do, and the places where she imagined she ought to go.
Jennifer, however, failed to call her mother as promised that Thursday night, failed again to call the following day, and she never even called her mother on her birthday on October 19th. October darkened into November, and November gave way to December, and one year later, some of her possessions were found 46 miles northeast of the gas station where she was last seen, opposite Las Cruces.
One Year Later
On September 4, 1992, Bill and Sara Soures from Farmington, New Mexico were traveling through Hatch while on the way to visit with a family member in El Paso, Texas. While scoping out potential dove hunting spots along State Road 26, they turned down a sandy, undeveloped road across from the Las Uvas Valley Dairy. In the flat open scrub brush and among the vast fields of yucca and choya plants, no more than fifty feet from the road, Sara spotted an odd assortment of items – a couple of duffel bags stacked below a tarp – at first glance, perhaps litter between small scrubs of mesquite bushes. Probably nothing too unusual since the site was a known underage drinking and party spot for the teenagers of Deming and Hatch and enveloping areas.
However, something about the mound of items seemed eerie to the couple, specifically, how the items were stacked neatly, almost as if someone were planning to come back for them, and there was a selection of good quality camping gear that no reasonable person would simply discard.
There were backpacks, a bicycle helmet, a blue and gray tent, and, moreover, at the bottom of the pile there was what appeared to be a set of handwritten journals. Full jars of baby food (not something that jibed with Jennifer’s eating regimen) and cigarette butts (she certainly didn’t smoke) surrounded the mound of possessions. Sara phoned the police department in Hatch to inform them about a potential crime scene.
Three days later, the couple, troubled by what to them seemed like a startling lack of interest from Hatch authorities, returned to the same spot only to find the materials stacked in the very same location. This time they gathered the possessions and took them home.
Dry and shriveled items removed from the backpacks by the Soures’s were deeply private: two bibles, one written in English, the other in Spanish; inside one, a dried, rat-chewed ten dollar bill. There was a Blue 5 Star notebook journal with entry dates between July 11, and October 14, 1991, a tourist visa form stamped by the Mexican government that permitted entry into the country for 180 days, commencing October 5, 1991. And then a wallet containing the driver’s license of a teenager from Montana skimmed across the table.
After the identification of Jennifer Pentilla was discovered among the items, the couple tracked down Jennifer’s family in Montana to inform them of what had been found and to find out the facts of what brought her to New Mexico.
Teenager from Montana
Jennifer Pentilla (a Finnish surname pronounced Pen-tell-a) was born April 4, 1973 in Butte, Montana, and came out of that place as raw – and unselfconscious about it – as the town itself.
Jennifer was, by any measure, a serious girl, troubled by sometimes curious things. Even as an infant Jennifer impressed those around her as unusually intelligent and somewhat hyper-vigilant. It was if her blue eyes were perpetually scanning the environment, as if they were constantly seeking information. She was also fearless, ambitious, and direct.
“She was a go-getter,” says her mother Lynn. “I knew it right away.”
Her father, Nick, an Army veteran and business manager, sensed it, too. Indeed, Jennifer was sitting upright at three months, crawling across the carpet with abandoned curiosity at four months, and walking steadily at eight months. She didn’t want to sit still; she wasn’t going to be held back.
Many of those who remember Jennifer recall a girl who projected an appealing blend of confidence and deference from the moment she walked in the door. As a teenager she was more apt to pick up a book or colored pencil or a shovel or rake than a piece of athletic equipment or accessory. She loved camping and hiking and the thrill of sleeping outdoors, which inspired her to write poems of angels and cherubs; she read Nancy Drew mysteries and studied geography, often uncannily memorizing the stats of countries she had learned about in National Geographic books and magazines. She liked to bake cookies and decorate the house to celebrate the change of seasons and festive occasions.
Beginning in junior high school, she began to refuse gifts around the holidays, emphasizing to her loved ones that there were people who were far less fortunate and thus far more deserving of such offerings than she was. Teachers frequently complimented the girl on her obvious sense of initiative, like how she’d get up extra early before school to deliver the Great Falls Tribune, her dog Jericho in tow, or how, as an exchange student, she worked on-site to address poverty in Africa. As a hobby, Jennifer taught herself to speak Spanish conversationally.
In October 1990, her senior year of high school, Jennifer’s father, seemingly healthy up until then, was stricken with heart problems and then diagnosed with Leukemia. His death at age 44 only deepened her already robust Lutheran faith.
Her sense of empathy expanded following a trip to Mexico in July 1991, where she aided the construction of water and sewer projects. Come the fall of that year, the world appeared as an ever-widening circle, where underdeveloped countries such as Mexico had “made sense,” in her words, and volunteer work would be the bedrock of her entire life’s course.
The promise and privilege of a long existence would not be for Jennifer Pentilla.
Starting with the discovery of Jennifer’s possessions in 1992, police were bombarded with a number of phone calls from people claiming to have seen her in a variety of fantastical locations, including a pier on a wharf in San Francisco and a hippie commune outside the Grand Canyon in Arizona; other callers even suggested something more improbable: she was leading a life of deceptive anonymity in New Mexico. Statements over the years from New Mexico police officials, and available records pertaining to the Pentilla investigation, however, refute such claims of wanton vagabonding or reckless gypsying.
According to documents provided to the Pentilla family by New Mexico law enforcement, multiple witnesses reported that they saw Jesus “Chuy” Vasquez with Jennifer on the day that she was last seen, including an acquaintance named Sarah Chavez, who told law enforcement that “she saw Jennifer in the shed or a female in the shed.” Another witness told New Mexico police that she had seen Jennifer with “Chuy” in a Deming store after the phone call she had made to her mother.
One document concluded with a self-evident summary sentence. “There have been several witnesses and sources that have identified Jesus “Chuy” Vasquez as the individual responsible for Jennifer’s abduction and death.”
On December 15, 1992, Vasquez was interviewed for the first time by law enforcement while seated in the rear of the squad car of Special Agent Miguel Frietzke, Jr., of the New Mexico State Police, the conversation conducted outside the Shell gas station where Jennifer was last seen. Among other glaring omissions, the questions that comprise the brief interview fail to establish the man’s work schedule or what time he arrived at and departed work that day.
In September 1994, Vasquez was arrested by New Mexico State Police in a sweeping joint agency drug sale sting operation, after selling an unspecified amount of narcotics to an undercover agent. According to police reports, Vasquez, who, “suffered an accidental overdose or tried to commit suicide,” was “questioned about Jennifer and would not say anything.”
On August 8, 1995, Deming police officer Edward Apodaca wrote to inform the Pentilla family that Chuy’s ex-girlfriend Amy Chavez “saw a leather bracelet on “Chuy” similar to Jennifer’s, and when she mentioned it to him, he quit wearing it.”
Apodaca said that he would continue to wait for an “anonymous letter” to appear from her killer and that he has been attempting to “befriend” Vasquez and “is still trying to get him to come clean.”
Also around that time, a witness was discovered who reported to New Mexico State Police seeing a “1953 Chevy truck” reverse its route and head toward a girl he saw riding a bike near the Hatch airport. The date, he said, was October 17, 1991, the girl on the bike he identified as Jennifer Pentilla. After an employee at the Quick Pick Store in Hatch told authorities that she was certain that she saw Jennifer “come in with two men, one stayed by her side, and the other stayed on the outside by the phone,” New Mexico authorities announced that a farm laborer named Henry Apodaca, of Hatch, was “a person of interest for having bragged about abducting Jennifer.” (The Quick Pick Store is located seven miles from the site where Jennifer’s possessions were found.) Henry Apodaca, who died in 2011, was never charged with a crime.
On March 1, 2010, a spokesperson from the New Mexico State Police announced that the Luna County DA’s office was anticipating that it would “bring charges up on a suspect” in Jennifer’s case.
In October 2011, Vasquez, then 41, got into a fight with his brother Frank and beat him to death, eventually pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. The defense contended that Frank was in poor health due to a number of “undiagnosed medical conditions and extreme methamphetamine intoxication.” Convinced that Frank died of a heart attack aggravated by a run-of-the-mill confrontation with his brother, the judge sentenced “Chuy” to four years in prison.
After serving his sentence, Vasquez returned to Deming, where he remained the principal subject of the investigation into Jennifer’s disappearance.
On November 6, 2016, Deming officer Edward Apodaca wrote to the Pentilla family again, this time stating that he told “Chuy” repeatedly “that Jennifer deserves justice” and that he even tried to sympathize with “Chuy,” allowing that Jennifer’s death “might have been unintentional or even accidental.” (No longer employed with the Deming Police Department, Apodaca would not comment on the Pentilla case when he was repeatedly contacted in March 2021.)
Nonetheless, authorities who have investigated Jennifer’s disappearance and presumed murder leave little doubt as to what conclusions they have drawn in terms of where responsibility for her absence resides.
“The guy I thought was going to get close to “Chuy” ended up going to jail,” says New Mexico Police Agent Charles Boylston. “There went my way of getting any new information. I always have Jennifer in the back of my mind and this case is very dear to my heart.”
Eternal Memories of Jennifer
The Shell service station is no longer in operation on Pine Street in Deming. The Sundance Fuji bike that Jennifer was riding and that has never been found was white with green lettering, it had a front battery operated head light and a set of black saddle bags on the front and rear. Jennifer’s aunt’s name was engraved on the underside of the bike. The bike serial number was F 9101771. A leather friendship bracelet that Jennifer was wearing around the time of her disappearance has never been recovered, and neither has her blue and silver sleeping bag.
The cigarette butts and jars of baby food found with Jennifer’s possessions at the crime scene in Hatch in 1992 are not part of the list of inventoried items said to be stored at the New Mexico State Police Crime Lab. There is no evidence either to indicate that the latent prints on the evidence found by the Soures’s were processed at a crime lab in New Mexico or Montana. The road that leads to the site of the recovery of Jennifer’s possessions is blocked by a fence and locked gate, marked with a sign identifying the area as a private hunting preserve.
Before she arrived in Deming, New Mexico, in the fall of 1991, Jennifer Pentilla had changed her mind about traveling to Mexico alone and was headed toward the Midwest to visit with a friend. While she was in San Simone, California, she mailed her mother a package that contained two heavy travel books about Mexico and her tennis shoes. Not long after Jennifer went missing, her package arrived in Missoula, creased and smudged from the trip it had taken in the girl’s backpack before it was even mailed. Lynn took the unopened envelope in her hand and looked at the front. There was Jennifer’s name and additional words printed there: “SOMEWHERE SOUTH.”
Jennifer Pentilla would have been age 48 on April 4, 2021. Her birthday is a bitter occasion for her mother Lynn, another milestone that she won’t celebrate with her daughter, a depressing day of emptiness and intrusive thoughts, and another gaping reminder of what it is like to raise and love a child and then have them ripped away.
“Jennifer is daily on my mind,” says Lynn. “But come April and October my mind is consumed with thoughts as to what happened to my sweet beautiful 18-year-old daughter and it haunts me that no one has been able to find her. Why has the person who took Jennifer away from her family in Montana not been caught yet? Why do they get to go on living as if nothing happened? I can’t help but wonder who else this person has hurt in their lifetime?”
A reward of up to $1,000 may be available for information about Pentilla’s case. Tips or information related to the whereabouts of Jennifer Pentilla may be emailed to the New Mexico Cold Case Homicide Unit at firstname.lastname@example.org or New Mexico Police Agent Charles Boylston at email@example.com.