Whenever she can, Cecelia Downey leaves her cozy home near Lewis and Clark Middle School for long drives deep into the vast irrigation network of the Lower Yakima Valley.
Downey, who is 90, scans ditches and canals and ponds. She looks past dead animals and gutted appliances, broken glass and graffiti, debris caught up in dark corners under bridges and on rough dirt banks. None of that grim scenery stops her. This petite great-great-grandmother is on a sorrowful mission that began 10 years ago.
Her only son, Lawrence Jay “Larry” Riegel, was supposed to join his family for a belated Christmas dinner on Dec. 26, 2009, but he never showed up or called. No one has seen or spoken to the 57-year-old contract pilot and carpenter since Christmas Day 2009, when he called several relatives and friends. Downey last saw him that morning and last talked to him the same afternoon, when he called to thank her for the Adidas sweats she gave him.
The family has owned a small farm on Lateral C Road, between Fort and Larue roads, for decades. Downey and her four daughters well know the area’s broad grid of blacktop and dirt roads, farms and wide-open spaces. She’s not sure what she might find, but continuing to look for any trace of her son, physical or tangential, is important.
They strongly believe Riegel’s remains are in the Lower Valley, so Downey keeps driving.
“I go out all the time,” she said.
Riegel’s 67th birthday was Dec. 15. A few days later, a new billboard went up near the Eakin Fruit Co. in Union Gap. Alongside a big photo of a smiling Riegel are these words: “Remember Me? 10 years and the search continues.” The billboard includes a new $25,000 reward for tips that lead to the recovery of Riegel’s remains and urges those with information to call the Yakima Police Department.
That billboard and two more posted since then are “a little provocative,” said Riegel’s younger sister, Susan Riegel Vaughn, of Ronald. Family have previously bought billboards at the same locations, all high-traffic areas.
The missing-person case became a homicide investigation years ago, and relatives have heard all kinds of stories. They include rumored sightings in Lower Valley bars and homes, mysterious phone calls, supposed car rides and reports that Riegel left for another city or state. None have been verified by police.
A father of two — now a grandfather of two — Riegel didn’t disappear on purpose, his family said. They suspected foul play early on. But without a body, the case lurched along. Investigators have searched locations in Yakima and Moxee, and relatives brought a cadaver dog to the farm property, which Riegel was renting out when he went missing.
Until Riegel is found, they will keep looking. While his remains are crucial to the investigation, they’re even more precious to those who love and miss him.
“I want the body, and for my mom and his kids and my family. That’s really important,” Vaughn said. “If somebody points out where the body is, I’ll cut a $25,000 check for them.
“We’re a big Catholic family and everybody is buried at Calvary Cemetery. We don’t have anything there for Larry. I know it would give everybody a sense of peace.”
A “chatty Cathy”
Riegel kept in close contact with his family and friends, noted former Yakima Police Department investigator Nolan Wentz. He got the case in late 2013 and retired in June 2016, but stays in touch with Riegel’s family.
There have been a lot of stories about what may have happened, but Riegel’s disappearance was out of character, Wentz said.
“The circumstances tell me this was not a missing person,” he said.
Riegel was gregarious — just ask any of his fellow regulars at the James Gang Tavern and Old Town Pump Saloon in Union Gap. They may not have known his name, but they would probably say he talked a lot. Vaughn likes to call her brother a “chatty Cathy,” and Wentz mentioned his social nature, too.
“He can’t go a day without talking with somebody,” Wentz said.
They know Riegel made Christmas dinner that day at the house he shared with his girlfriend a few blocks from Downey’s home. At the time, a tenant lived on the Lower Valley farm and owed back rent of $3,000, Vaughn said.
Riegel called the renter that evening. Scanning Riegel’s phone records from Dec. 1, 2009, to Jan. 1, 2010, Wentz noted that Riegel’s last three calls started at 5:16 p.m. on Christmas Day. The final call he made was at 5:23 p.m.
In the family since 1962, the 10-acre farm was Downey’s home until 2000, Vaughn said. It was rented for about a year and a half until Riegel took it over and later rented it out again.
Riegel’s oldest son, Brian, tried calling him numerous times from Christmas night through early January but did not get a reply, Vaughn has said. They talked often, so it was yet another reason for alarm.
He had no reason to leave, his family said, and they don’t believe talk that he chose to. Riegel was also recovering from recent neck surgery and likely would not have been able to travel on his own.
With no confirmation of Riegel’s whereabouts, his family filed a missing-person report with Yakima police on Jan. 10, 2010. “By now, everyone’s worried,” Vaughn said.
Persons of interest
Wentz previously said there were at least “two or three” persons of interest in the investigation — people who were “very close to Larry.” He mentioned it in a 2014 interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic; at that point, investigators had already identified Ladena Mann, Riegel’s girlfriend, as a person of interest. She was the last person known to have seen him alive.
Late on the morning of Dec. 28, 2009, Vaughn went over to the house the couple shared. Vaughn said the girlfriend told her Riegel had gone to Seattle on Christmas Day. In a May 2013 interview, she said he left again, on the night of Jan. 4, 2010, and hadn’t been seen since because he assaulted her that night and she got a warrant against him for domestic violence the next day.
Riegel’s family confirmed that Mann went to the Yakima Police Department to make a domestic-violence report. Vaughn talked to an officer Jan. 10, she said.
“The officer said it was a he-said, she-said” issue, Vaughn said. “Nothing filed, no physical injuries.”
In May 2013, Riegel’s girlfriend was back in the spotlight when she was charged with welfare fraud, perjury and false verification for using Riegel’s electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card several times in the weeks after his disappearance.
Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Hagarty said Mann was in a diversion program, which would see charges dismissed if she reimbursed the state and met other provisions. She completed those requirements in February 2014.
Attempts to reach Mann for this story were not successful.
“A killing field”
In the years since, Riegel’s family members have continued to investigate on their own and publicize his case with billboards, flyers and social-media posts. They have also supplemented efforts as much as they can by spending money from fundraisers — and their own pockets — on a private investigator, cadaver-dog searches and other efforts.
They have provided DNA, and the vertebrae in Riegel’s neck, if found intact, could identify his remains quickly. “If I find a skeleton that has those vertebrae, I’ll know that right away,” Wentz said.
Every time human remains are found in the Yakima Valley, Vaughn calls the coroner. She and her family are among many with loved ones who have gone missing over decades and plead for more attention to their cases. They see the need for more resources for investigators and more money to fund already-strapped law enforcement agencies struggling with gang and drug violence amid the rugged landscape of one of Washington’s largest counties.
“You’ve got this perfect environment to hide human remains,” Vaughn said. “This is a killing field. That’s what the Yakima Valley is — a killing field.”
At least one person of interest has died since Riegel went missing. But anyone could have heard something crucially important to the case, Wentz said. It could be anything.
“It would probably be something really innocuous in conversation,” Wentz said.
Vaughn will continue to lead her family’s efforts to find their brother, son, father and grandfather, uncle and friend. She and Riegel were particularly close. He took her to school for show and tell when she was an infant and he was in first grade. She was his bookkeeper for 20 years.
“He was my friend,” Vaughn said. “I know he’d be doing the same thing for me.”
Their mother sings to Riegel’s picture every night, Vaughn said. She shouldn’t have to be looking for him. She should know what really happened to her only son before her time on Earth is done.
“My mom deserves that,” she said.