Ian Eckles was supposed to meet a buddy in May to go turkey hunting north of Liberty, a tiny community in unincorporated Kittitas County.
Eckles, 41, never met up with his friend, and the following Monday he didn’t show up for his job as a warehouse manager in Kent. Six days later, what Kittitas County Sheriff’s deputies initially thought was a search for a lost hunter morphed into a 23-day manhunt for a presumed killer, deep within the southern woodlands of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest.
Jorge Alcantara Gonzalez, 34, was captured June 14 in Teanaway, a rural settlement 5 miles east of Cle Elum. He was booked into the Kittitas County Jail, charged with second-degree murder in connection with Eckles’ death and 22 other crimes, including burglaries and being in possession of stolen vehicles and firearms, jail and court records show. Alcantara entered not guilty pleas to all 23 counts when he was arraigned June 19, and he remains jailed in lieu of $3 million bail.
During the investigation into Eckles’ disappearance, detectives in Kittitas and King counties learned Alcantara was allegedly in possession of a stolen vehicle that belonged to an 80-year-old Fall City woman, Nancy Holste, who was found dead at her home five days before Eckles disappeared. Holste’s and Eckles’ SUVs were hidden near each other in the woods, with items inside tying both vehicles to Alcantara, investigators said.
Ellensburg defense attorney Paul McBride is representing Alcantara but said he knows very little about the state’s case against his client and is awaiting discovery, so he could not speak meaningfully about it.
For just over three weeks, residents of the Cle Elum, Teanaway and Liberty areas were on high alert during the manhunt, and the arrest allowed them to breathe a collective sigh of relief. For Eckles’ family and friends, who plastered the area with missing-person posters and scoured forest roads for any sign of his Toyota FJ Cruiser, the anguish of his apparent homicide will remain until his body is found and brought off the mountain.
“We just want to bring him home so we can have closure and evidence and proof of what happened so (investigators) can put the pieces together,” said his sister, Stefanie Eckles, 39.
After the manhunt ended, more than 100 volunteers from six counties spent six days looking for Eckles’ remains, but the organized search effort was called off June 28.
“We couldn’t maintain that kind of operational intensity,” said Kittitas County Sheriff’s Inspector Chris Whitsett. “We looked everywhere we knew to look. Now the search will be a blanket search. We have to have intelligence (about where to search) and we’re looking for that now.”
Eckles left Kent around 4 p.m. on May 16, a Saturday, his car packed with a shotgun, a handgun and camping gear. Cellphone tower pings that evening indicated he was headed toward Liberty and an area further north, where he had hunted before.
He also sent his friend a text message, saying he was in the Liberty area, according to his sister.
When Eckles and his friend went turkey hunting last year, they parked and camped off the side of Spur 130, off Forest Service Road 9738, and it’s believed that’s where Eckles bedded down for the night. When his friend arrived on May 17, Eckles wasn’t there.
According to evidence in the case, Eckles likely died the night of May 16 or in the early morning hours of May 17.
Eckles was supposed to be at work May 18 back in Kent, but he was a no-show for the first time in three years on the job.
Concerned by his absence, Eckles’ boss and friend reached out to his family and ex-girlfriend, who Eckles lived with even after their breakup in early 2018.
As Eckles’ 22-year-old daughter in Colorado spread word among relatives, his ex-girlfriend called police and reported Eckles missing.
“He’s not the type of person who says he’s going to show up somewhere and not do it,” Stefanie Eckles said.
At first, his family thought maybe he had been in a car accident and didn’t have cell service, she said. Eckles had been a little blue as he prepared to move out of his ex-girlfriend’s house and back to the Portland area, where he grew up, but “he was still excited to be moving out and moving on,” his sister said.
That next weekend, Memorial Day weekend, his family and friends joined searchers looking for Eckles.
“He always found humor in everything. He had this light burning inside him and people were just drawn to him,” said Eckles’ older brother, Nathan, attributing the large turnout to the bonds of friendship Eckles had formed in high school. “Almost every single one of those people hadn’t seen Ian in a long time and they all dropped their lives to come there and help us look for him.”
Around 5 a.m. on May 23, some of Eckles’ friends spotted his vehicle on Forest Service Road 9738. They engaged the driver in a brief conversation before the man, who was wearing a Seahawks hat, took off. The friends noted the rear window of Eckles’ silver Cruiser had been blown out.
That same morning, a U.S. Forest Service officer came across an unoccupied, green Ford Expedition registered to Holste, the 80-year-old from Fall City, that had been reported stolen to the King County Sheriff’s Office around May 13, two days after her body was discovered. The vehicle was tucked into the woods and almost completely concealed from the road, a rugged sub-spur off Spur Road 130, according to charging documents in the case. Eckles’ vehicle was found parked in the same area a short time later.
As a detective and two sheriff’s deputies approached the vehicles that same day, “a shirtless man popped up and took off running,” quickly losing the officers in the heavy brush, said Whitsett, the sheriff’s inspector.
A tactical team was called in and officials started evacuating campers and recreational users from the area, kicking off a manhunt that would grow to more than 100 officers from 26 federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies, according to Whitsett.
It took officers with chain saws 12 hours to get Eckles’ and Holste’s vehicles off the mountain and back to Ellensburg to be searched, he said.
Meanwhile, Whitsett learned officials in King County had performed a welfare check on Holste on May 11 after someone found her door ajar. The medical examiner determined Holste, who lived alone, had been dead for 6 weeks, putting her death date around March 26.
“Because of the state of decomposition and that no signs of trauma were visually seen, no autopsy was performed and she was later cremated,” the lead detective wrote in charging papers.
Alcantara has not been charged in connection with Holste’s death.
Back in Ellensburg, investigators searched the two vehicles: Inside Holste’s Expedition, they recovered items — including a raft, two guns, a bow and set of arrows — that had been stolen in burglaries reported on April 3 and 17 along with a bloodstained sleeping bag and a parking pass registered to Eckles. Inside Eckles’ Cruiser, they found blood and other evidence of a violent assault, leading investigators to believe at least one gunshot had been fired from inside the vehicle and at least one gunshot had been fired from outside of it, according to the charges.
They also found a Seahawks hat and a wallet containing Eckles’ driver’s license, credit cards, and vehicle registration along with Alcantara’s driver’s license. His photo matched the description of the man Eckles’ friends had seen driving Eckles’ vehicle, charging papers say.
“Once we knew who our suspect was, we learned Alcantara was intimately familiar with the woods here and had lived here before. He told his family he had stashes in these mountains,” said Whitsett, who interviewed one of Alcantara’s relatives.
Court records show Alcantara, a Mexican citizen, had multiple encounters with the law but no history of arrest for violent offenses. According to a news release issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, he had been removed from the country three times between 2003 and 2013 for being in the United States illegally. He was arrested in King and Lewis counties at least three times since 2017 for driving under the influence, car prowling, and failure to comply, the release says.
A relative told police Alcantara struggled with alcohol and drug abuse and had mental health issues, according to the charges.
Last year, Alcantara told the relative “he wanted to get away from people,” and asked to be dropped off in the woods about 20 minutes outside Ellensburg. Alcantara lived in the woods for about six months and later lived for several months with relatives before he was asked to leave.
In late March or early April, Alcantara arrived at the relative’s house driving a Ford Expedition that matched the description of Holste’s vehicle, say charging documents. He told his relative that he had done some work for a lady and she had given him the Expedition, but Whitsett said investigators don’t believe that’s true.
During the search, investigators came across a half dozen supply stashes and seized everything they found in order to make Alcantara more vulnerable, Whitsett said.
On May 26, officers posing as hikers came across who they believe was Alcantara near the Mineral Springs Group Campground.
“He was carrying a shotgun that belongs to Ian Eckles,” said Whitsett, who added the suspect dropped the gun and again disappeared into the brush.
A couple of days later, a team of trackers found fresh signs of Alcantara’s presence and chased him for four hours, gaining 4,000 feet in elevation as they tracked him up the Teanaway Ridge before losing him, Whitsett said.
Another time, Whitsett said Alcantara evaded police dogs by wading into a stream.
Helicopters, drones, and fixed-wing airplanes searched from the air as other officers, some equipped with climbing gear, searched on the ground, covering huge swaths of terrain that had been closed to the public.
With the massive manhunt underway, Eckles’ family and friends were forced to sit out the search. His parents, Steve and Sherry Eckles, who now live in Clark County, said the people of Cle Elum showed them much kindness, buying meals and offering an Airbnb for them to stay in for free.
“They were just as sad as we were,” Steve Eckles said of the community. “Having somebody loose in your community like that, everyone was on the same page. We all knew once you cross that line (and kill someone), it’s easier to cross it again.”
A little after 3 p.m. on June 14, a man walking his dog in the Teanaway area called 911 and reported someone moving around in a neighbor’s house that was supposed to be empty.
Officers from the Kittitas County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife surrounded the house, Whitsett said.
When Alcantara stuck his head out an open window, a detective ordered him to climb out; Alcantara complied and was arrested. Detectives interviewed him for several hours but Whitsett declined to say what Alcantara told them.
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” Nathan Eckles, 43, said of his brother, an avid hunter and fisherman who treated the woods like a sanctuary.
Ian Eckles, who would have turned 42 on June 2, was passionate about music, loved the NFL New England Patriots, rode Triumph motorcycles on annual road trips with his dad and brother, and was a talented handyman who could build just about anything out of wood or stone, his family said.
He was proud of his daughter, Audrie Elkins, for her four years of service in the Army and joyfully welcomed his first grandchild, Noah, who was born in early 2019, they said. When Eckles’ workplace was shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, he made two trips to Colorado to visit them.
“I’m thankful he was able to have that time with his grandson and daughter. Family meant everything to him,” Nathan Eckles said.
He’s also angry, left to question why someone would have taken his brother’s life.
“I want to see justice served,” Nathan Eckles said, “for every single life this person has touched or hurt or devastated.”