Sister of deceased Battlement Mesa man who went missing seeks closure
Colorado law bars her from submitting claim because she’s not man’s child, lawyer confirms
Family members joined Maria Loya in displaying pink rose petals, photos a worn-out baseball cap and a fly-fishing pole across a portable table at Davidson Park in Rifle on Saturday.
The mementos paid tribute to Filmer Lopez, a former resident of Mesa Vista Assisted Living Residence in Battlement Mesa who was found dead following his disappearance in August. His family was hosting his celebration of life.
“He could’ve lived a longer life,” Loya said of her brother. “It was cut short.”
According to the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, he was last seen leaving a Battlement Mesa gas station around 2 p.m., Aug. 13. Lopez, who suffered from dementia and used a walker to get around, had been a resident at Mesa Vista since May.
Loya said her brother told his caretaker that day he was going out to buy cigarettes. Once approved, he walked alone to the Kum & Go gas station nearly a mile away from Mesa Vista.
Not until 7:30 p.m. the next day, Aug. 14, did Mesa Vista call Loya to inform her that her brother was indeed missing, she said. She also personally had to call the Sheriff’s Office to officially report her brother’s disappearance.
“She did not tell anybody until Sunday,” she said of the caretaker.
Lopez and Loya are originally from the Boulder area, so she immediately began searching for her brother all along the Interstate 70 corridor when he went missing. She handed out fliers in Longmont and Boulder, as well as places like Rifle and Glenwood Springs.
By Aug. 27, she assembled a volunteer search party in Battlement Mesa to assist in potentially finding her lost brother. Results, however, came up short. Meanwhile, rumors circulated on social media of people ostensibly spotting Lopez around Garfield County.
“We had so many tips from people seeing him,” she said. “All of them weren’t true.”
At 7:23 p.m., Aug. 30, the Garfield County Coroner’s Office confirmed the discovery of Lopez’ body in a privately-owned parcel of land less than 2 miles away from Mesa Vista Assisted Living Residence. He was 69 years old.
The autopsy revealed no injuries contributed to Lopez’s death. Sheriff’s and coroner’s office investigators also suspected he was “likely lost and disoriented when he suffered a medical event,” a Garfield County Coroner’s Office news release states.
“It is likely that Lopez died on August 13th or 14th,” the release states. “The coroner’s office is investigating the manner of death as natural.”
NOT AT THE BRIDGE
Before his health began to decline, Lopez worked various menial and odd jobs around Longmont. He was a food prep at a restaurant. Other times, he worked as a farmhand.
“Any place that had food because he loved to eat,” Loya said. “He always asked when Christmas was because I always made him tamales.”
In 2012, he was struck by a vehicle while riding his bicycle home from work and, his cognition already in decline at the time, suffered further brain damage as a result, Loya said.
Lopez continued to live on the Front Range for another eight years. Around 2020 was when he came to live with Loya, a Garfield County resident since 1980, in Rifle.
Loya said it was during this two-year stretch that she’d take her brother to bingo night at the local Elks Lodge and Moose Lodge or bring him for ice cream or take him to some of his favorite restaurants around town.
“He was always such a friendly man, and everybody loved talking to him,” she said. “Even though he had to repeat himself, everyone understood him.”
In addition to bingo and Chinese food, he’d go watch his grandnieces play softball at Deerfield Park, she said.
This wasn’t Lopez’ first time in Garfield County. He used to go fish for trout underneath the old Silt bridge when he visited Loya in the early 1980s.
“He always remembered that,” she said. “I even went to the bridge to go look for him after he was gone.”
He was admitted into Mesa Vista in early May 2022 and paid for his care using funds he received from Social Security disability benefits.
Loya said her brother paid Mesa Vista $720 per month for stay and care, leaving an extra $149 he typically used for toiletries and cigarettes.
Whenever he was running short on funds, he’d ration his cigarettes until Loya brought him some from the market, she said.
“I’d buy him food, snacks,” she said. “I’d bring him money or buy cigarettes and bring it to him.”
Closure is a prevalent word in Loya’s life at the moment. First, she sought closure when her brother went missing. When his body was unfortunately discovered, that gap was initially filled.
“I wanted closure because I didn’t know where my brother was,” she said. “I was like a chicken with its head cut off, putting up posters.”
But, now, she seeks more closure. She questions why her brother was let out to begin with and why she wasn’t informed of her brother’s disappearance until more than a day after he was last seen.
“Because the person that (Lopez) told did not tell anybody for 30 hours,” Loya said. “If she would’ve told somebody he was missing, within 20-30 minutes they could have found him.
“It’s a lack of communication.”
But, any potential civil claims submitted against Mesa Vista — including a claim for wrongful death — on behalf of Loya can only be made by either parents, a spouse, children or legal beneficiary of Lopez. As his sister, she is barred from submitting a claim.
Basalt-based attorney Beth Klein is an expert on malpractice law. She told The Citizen Telegram on Friday that, statutorily, the state of Colorado does not allow siblings to sue a party for wrongful death claims.
“Under our law, (Lopez’) parents — or his children — have those rights,” Klein said. “They’re the only people who have those rights.”
Wrongful death claims can result in various damages and financial compensation being awarded to the party submitting the claim. While Loya can’t sue, Lopez does, however, have a stepdaughter.
“The money is nothing,” Loya said. “I just want to let (Mesa Vista) know that they are at fault, and that my brother is dead.”
In addition to reaching out to lawyers, she said she’s been in contact with Garfield County caseworker Elizbeth Hatcher, who represents the county’s Child Welfare and Adult Protective Services department.
Hatcher is not at liberty to confirm whether this local subdivision of the Colorado Department of Human Services has now opened an investigation on Mesa Vista for any potential mistreatment, nor can she confirm speaking with Loya.
Hatcher did tell The Citizen Telegram, however, they generally open an investigation when a complaint of mistreatment is made in relation to anyone 18 or over and incapable of caring for themselves. This encompasses accusations like physical or sexual abuse, exploitation and neglect.
“It depends on what’s happening. It varies,” Hatcher said. “In home services, if they need to be in a facility; (and) if they need court intervention, to appoint someone as their guardian.
“We would try to connect people to legal services such as community resources and, maybe, private agencies, depending on social and financial status.”
Mesa Vista has incurred violations in the past. Since 2017, Mesa Vista has been inspected for 10 possible violations and two major occurrences, according to a Colorado Department of Health and Environment online database. Most of the inspections proved Mesa Vista wasn’t at fault.
But, in 2017, Mesa Vista was cited for failing to “maintain and follow written policies and procedures for the administration of medication.”
And, in 2019, a caretaker was accused of stealing oxycodone from a resident.
“We try to prevent further mistreatment from happening,” Hatcher said.
In Loya’s case, it was only last week that a Garfield County Sheriff’s deputy pounded in a memorial stake at the site of Lopez’s death.
Loya said she just wants her case to be known, so that it hopefully prevents it from happening to other people.
“I think this is going to affect me for a long, long time — until I pass away,” she said. “I put my brother’s life into their hands to take care of him, and it wasn’t done.”
The Citizen Telegram reached out to Mesa Vista for this story with emails and phone calls, but they declined to comment.
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.