Campsite Killer

Cold case: Eight years ago, Estevan Montaño was murdered during a hunting trip in the Santa Ritas

Camping in the Southern Arizona wilderness has some inherent dangers, ranging from the elements to the animals. The heat, the cold, the storms, the rattlers—they can pose a deadly risk.

Add in the notoriety of the area being a busy smuggling corridor, and the risks of heading into the mountains for a solitary weekend of hunting, in some cases, just might outweigh the rewards.

None of that mattered to Estevan Montaño eight years ago when he ventured into the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Green Valley for a few days of camping, bow-hunting and relaxation. The 44-year-old tree-cutter usually went out with friends or family, but this trip ended up being a solo mission to bag a deer.

Montaño left his Tucson home on a Thursday in late August 2004, intending to be home no later than Sunday morning. But when lunchtime passed on Sunday, and he still wasn't home, his wife, Darlene, began to worry.

"He usually doesn't like to stay out late," recalled daughter Jessica Montaño. "If he'd caught something, he'd have come back sooner."

Members of the Montaño family hopped into a truck to search for Estevan, heading first to the lower of two campsites in the Santa Ritas, thinking maybe his vintage 1960s International Scout had broken down.

Instead, they found Estevan dead, shot to death by persons unknown.

"I was in the back of the truck, and when we got close (to the campsite), I heard my mother screaming," said Jessica, who was 19 at the time. "The first thing I did was pull my mom to the back of the truck, because she didn't need to see that."

Pima County sheriff's detectives who arrived at the scene speculated that Estevan Montaño may have crossed paths with smugglers who considered him a threat.

"That area is known for drug-smuggling and for illegals crossing," Jessica said. "That's the first thing the detectives were saying. They cleared him from any wrongdoing. Most likely, he came upon something. The detectives said it seemed like it was more than one person."

Det. Kelly Anderson was part of the Pima County Sheriff's Department's homicide unit at the time. Now assigned to cold cases, Anderson said if Estevan was killed by smugglers, it will make finding his killer or killers that much harder.

"If there's no link to the victim, (those cases) are incredibly difficult to solve, because it would just make it random," Anderson said. "There doesn't appear to be anything about the victim that indicates illegal activity, or (that) he was doing something wrong at the time."

Jessica Montaño said DNA evidence was found on her father, who might have tried to defend himself before being killed.

"They found DNA, but no one to match it to," she said.

About a month after the slaying, the family returned to the Santa Ritas to place a cross at Estevan's favorite camping area, near where he died. There, Jessica said, they found remnants of a campsite that might have been connected to the crime.

Anderson said that the DNA evidence will be re-examined in hopes that someone whose DNA has been recorded in criminal databases since the killing will turn up as a match. It could be the Montaño family's best shot at finding Estevan's killer, Anderson said.

"Absent DNA evidence, it would be very difficult to solve something like this," Anderson said.

Estevan Montaño would have turned 52 on Aug. 3. His family commemorated the day by gathering for a meal at his parents' home, sharing stories and releasing balloons into the sky with messages for their lost loved one. Jessica said the same thing will happen later this month, around the 8-year anniversary of his death.

Jessica said she and family members—she's one of Estevan and Darlene's five children—can't help but wonder if their father's choice to go on this hunting trip alone factored into what happened. Usually, he'd taken sons, cousins or nephews along with him, she said.

"If they would have went with him, it's hard to think what might have been different," Jessica said. "I think about that all the time: What if somebody else would have gone?"

Anyone with information connected to Estevan Montaño's death is encouraged to call 911 or 88-CRIME.