Family who went ‘off the grid’ in Colorado wilderness died of malnutrition, autopsy finds

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Two sisters and the teenage son of one of them who told family last year they would live “off the grid” died of hypothermia and malnutrition as they endured the elements in the Colorado wilderness, according to newly released autopsy reports.

Christine Vance, 41, Rebecca Vance, 42, and Rebecca’s 14-year-old son were identified in July after three “partially mummified” bodies were discovered in a remote campsite in the Gunnison National Forest.

The teenager, who was not named publicly because of his age, weighed just 40 pounds, according to the autopsy from the Gunnison County coroner’s office, first reported by The Colorado Sun. The average weight of a boy his age is 112 pounds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Loved ones said that they were surprised the sisters would choose to forgo modern conveniences, but that Rebecca Vance had grown increasingly fearful of society after the Covid pandemic.

“It’s hard to wrap your head around why they chose to go,” Trevala Jara, their stepsister, said in July. “It’s hard for me.”

She said that Rebecca Vance had confided in her that she wanted to live in the wild.

Initially, Christine Vance didn’t seem like she was going to accompany her sister but last summer, she arrived at her stepsister’s home with an urn of their mother’s ashes and their deceased parents’ belongings for safekeeping, Jara said.

Jara said she pleaded with her stepsisters to go slow and test out living off the grid on a property, that she and her husband own in the mountains, that uses a generator. But she said Rebecca Vance declined.

None of them were known to be skilled in the outdoors. The sisters had explained in vague terms to other family members that they were going out of state, Jara said, but wouldn’t detail exactly why and where.

“If you think you can go live off the grid and do it by just watching YouTube and the internet, think twice,” Jara said. “You need to experience it first.”

Gunnison County Coroner Michael Barnes previously speculated that the cause of the deaths may have been related to exposure to cold weather and malnutrition. It appeared they were burning tinder in empty soup cans inside their tent for heat, he said.

Dental records and fingerprints were used to help identify the bodies.

Investigators also found a “lean-to” type shelter, a roofed structure generally made from logs and used to protect from the elements, at the campsite.

Desiree McDonald, Rebecca Vance’s friend and former co-worker at the now-defunct electronics chipmaker Atmel Corp., said in July that she had last texted with her at the end of 2020 as they were rekindling their friendship.

She said Rebecca Vance told her that her son was initially struggling with the transition to home-schooling and that she hoped life could go back to normal. She added that Rebecca Vance was a doting and loving mother, although McDonald hadn’t seen either of them in years after they lost touch.

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