Gwen Brunelle shouldn’t have been in Jordan Valley in late June, buying gas.
The Boise woman was supposed to be hundreds of miles away near Fresno, California, getting coached in rabbit judging.
But roughly 24 hours after she told the station attendant she was “in a hurry,” her unattended vehicle was spotted off a state highway north of Jordan Valley.
The 27-year-old woman had disappeared.
A missing person report soon triggered one of the most intense searches ever undertaken in Malheur County. Repeated searches found no trace of Brunelle.
Authorities believe she is somewhere out in rangeland that is sparsely vegetated with sagebrush, rabbitbrush, cheat grass and crested wheatgrass.
Her family in Boise hopes she is yet alive, perhaps secretly linking up with someone to run off.
But mysteries abound.
Her cell phone dropped off the network soon after she left home, indicating someone had shut it off.
She changed clothes no more than 20 miles from her starting point.
And there is no sign where Brunelle spent her first night on the road. That was likely somewhere in Oregon’s desert country, and in the company of her 11 show rabbits.
That she remains missing is a rarity. Authorities report that 9 out of 10 of missing people are found within 48 hours. Only 1 out of a 100 are still missing after a year. In Oregon, 220 people are still missing after being reported in 2022, according to Oregon State Police data. That includes two cases in Malheur County.
When Gerald Sanderson arrived home from work on the evening of Friday, June 23, his girlfriend of six years had surprising news. Brunelle said she was driving to California to meet up with a nationally-recognized rabbit judge in a small town east of Fresno.
Brunelle already was an authority on rabbits. The only child of Andy and Betsy Brunelle, she started raising and showing rabbits through 4-H. In 2007, she won a showmanship champion title at her first show at the Western Idaho Fair.
About Gwen Brunelle
Hair: Auburn, typically in pony tail
Weight: 140 pounds
Details: Pierced ears, left-handed
Have a tip? Malheur County Sheriff’s Office – 541-473-5125
She became a breeder and exhibitor, competing in American Rabbit Breeders Association shows. In 2011 at age 15, she was named the association’s queen in annual national competition.
Brunelle wrote then about the honor and her rabbits.
“Every day when I go out to my rabbitry, I see happy excited rabbits thrilled to see me,” she wrote. “It’s so rewarding to set aside a quiet place for a doe and give her everything she needs until I find five fat healthy babies in the nest box.”
“She was really good at what she did,” said her mother, Betsy Brunelle. “She was really devoted to the hobby, the craft.”
Brunelle had worked off and on to become certified as a rabbit judge, so the notion of training with a national expert wasn’t odd.
The suddenness of the trip was.
Brunelle took medications to temper mental conditions that could make her moody or inattentive. Sanderson was accustomed to those times when she wanted to be left alone to focus without distraction on a task at hand, such as packing.
Through the weekend, Brunelle readied to travel. She put a week’s worth of clothes in a duffel bag. She loaded her 2008 Honda Element with three cages containing 11 of her rabbits. Her father messaged Sanderson he would go with her. The boyfriend passed on the offer to Brunelle, who told him she had talked to her dad about the idea.
At about 11 a.m. Monday, June 26, she left their west Boise home, promising to stay in touch. Brunelle mentioned she might stop in Reno to break up the 700-mile drive.
“She gave me a hug and said she was heading out,” Sanderson said. “I said, ‘I love you – don’t forget to text.’”
She took her cell phone, running low on power. Her habit was to put it away in her purse or on the passenger seat.
“She doesn’t touch her phone unless she has to when she’s driving,” Sanderson said.
At some point that morning, the phone was switched off.
Debit card records show she stopped 20 miles away, at a convenience store in Nampa. Video footage showed her entering Jackson’s, buying snacks.
Sanderson later spotted something odd in the video.
She had left home wearing a blue shirt and Nike tennis shoes.
At Jackson’s, she was wearing knee-high dress boots and a red shirt. The blue shirt, unstained or bearing any other reason to change, was later found in her duffel bag. Her tennis shoes were never found.
Even stranger, Brunelle had taken roughly three hours to cover the 20 miles from her home to the store. There is no evidence how she spent that time.
For the rest of the day, there is no trace of Brunelle’s movements.
At 2 p.m. that Monday, Brunelle’s father texted her without response. About a half hour later, Sanderson texted her, seeking an update. He wasn’t surprised that she didn’t respond.
He texted her again that night, assuming she had reached Reno. After midnight, he sent another and just before 2 a.m., tried one more time. He got no answer.
The following day, he alerted her parents and Andy Brunelle reported her missing to the Boise Police Department. The agency entered her into a national database the following day so any officer inquiring about her would find she was overdue, required medicines and could experience mood swings.
That same day at about 9:30 a.m., her mother reached out to the California judge to see if he had heard from her. He hadn’t, he responded. What’s more, he had never heard from her and hadn’t been expecting her.
In fact, she was nowhere near central California.
At around noon Tuesday, she pulled into Jim’s Sinclair in Jordan Valley, pumping in 13.66 gallons of gas as the station manager ran her card.
As she handed the card back to Brunelle, the station manager asked how her day was going. She replied she was “in a hurry.”
Her uncle, John Brunelle, later calculated that, based on the Element’s mileage, Brunelle had covered about 290 miles. Factoring in about 80 miles from Boise to Jordan Valley, Andy Brunelle said his daughter might have burned the other fuel driving to the border town of McDermitt, Nevada, possibly deciding then to cancel her trip and double back.
If so, she never signaled her boyfriend or her parents of such an intent.
After fueling up, Brunelle drove across a parking lot, pulling in front of the adjacent Mrs. Z’s convenience store.
A clerk recalled her coming in, asking for a razor blade. Told the store had none, Brunelle used her debit card, spending $9.26 on a gallon jug of water and peanuts.
She went outside and sat in her car.
Concerned after an hour, the attendant went out and asked if Brunelle was OK.
“She said she was fine and did not need any help,” according to the clerk’s account in a Malheur County sheriff’s office report.
Her mother said the young woman can get shaky if she misses her medication doses and might have consumed the snacks in the parking lot to settle down. The family also said Brunelle sometimes used razor blades to cut her medication pills in half.
No one else in the border town of 175 people or the area reported seeing her.
Later that afternoon, a rancher pulled off U.S. Highway 95 about 17 miles north of Jordan Valley. He turned west onto Succor Creek Road, a well-used gravel road leading to the scenic Leslie Gulch.
He stopped at a graveled parking area, slightly less than a half mile off the highway to make a call. No other vehicle was there.
The following day, at about 11 a.m., the UPS route driver pulled into that same graveled parking area. This was his customary lunch spot, looking north over rangeland. A worn barbed wire fence runs across the range nearby and cow trails on nearby hills lead down to Succor Creek. Passing traffic on the highway can be heard. A T-Mobile cell tower is visible to the east.
He saw Brunelle’s Honda Element there too, but no one was around.
According to police, the pullout is regularly used by people who drop off vehicles and double up to drive on to Leslie Gulch and the Owyhee Canyonlands.
The UPS driver the next day, a Thursday, saw the Honda still here. The rancher who stopped to make that call remembered seeing it, unmoved, every day through that Friday, June 30.
On that Friday night, Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Hale was dispatched to check on a report of an elderly man parked out on Leslie Gulch Road, which branches off Succor Creek Road. At about 10:30 p.m., the deputy turned off U.S. 95 onto Succor Creek Road, stopping to check on two vehicles parked at that gravel pullout.
One was registered to birders who had parked there earlier that day.
The other was Brunelle’s Element. The police check turned up the missing person notice entered by Boise police.
For 45 minutes, Hale searched in the dark, joined later by a sergeant who drove down from Vale to help.
Not far from the Honda, searchers later found a purple bath robe that Brunelle wore around home. It appeared folded, as if someone formed it into a cushion to sit on. Next to it was the water jug bought in Jordan Valley, now half empty.
The Honda was unlocked, the windows down. By then, five of the 11 rabbits had perished, suffering through a day of 95-degree desert heat.
Police called the Brunelles the following morning to report the Honda had been found but not Gwen. The ignition key was inside as was her leather shoulder bag, seemingly undisturbed with her driver’s license and credit cards. The duffel bag with clothing was on a seat and there were wrappers from snack foods. Missing were her cell phone and the Nikes she had worn out the door the day she left Boise.
At daylight, the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office launched a search organized by Undersheriff Dave Kesey. Search and rescue members were joined by two private airplanes. Two local ranch hands on horseback explored Succor and Dog Creeks.
On Sunday, Sheriff Travis Johnson joined a more intense search utilizing 12 searchers, a heat-sensing drone and trained trackers and dogs from Idaho Mountain Rescue.
Two days later, Brunelle’s relatives and three dogs participated in a search organized by Deputy Brian Belnap. When the organized search stopped, Belnap continued on his own on foot, covering six more miles.
Belnap returned the following day aboard a helicopter piloted by a Juntura man. They flew along dry creek canyons and buzzed ranch buildings in the hunt for Brunelle.
On Thursday, July 6, teams that are part of Eastern Oregon Search and Rescue committed to the largest effort yet undertaken, involving about 100 people. Four eastern Oregon counties sent searchers. Idaho Fish and Game volunteered four people as Brunelle’s family again joined in.
In all, searchers walked 300 miles.
They turned up no trace of the missing woman, and the formal search effort was suspended.
Brunelle’s father returned, though, over the coming days to look. A team with dogs took yet another turn through the territory last week, again coming up empty.
Johnson, the sheriff, said there was no sign of an abduction. He believes Brunelle wandered off into the rangeland. He recalled another Malheur County case where an intense search didn’t find a missing man whose car had been abandoned. A year after the search, rock hounds discovered the man’s remains – one canyon beyond the area searched by police.
Her parents and Sanderson said Brunelle is not an outback hiker, instead using developed trails in Boise.
And Sanderson said the rabbits in the car suggest she didn’t intend to take off.
“If she left the rabbits there, she meant to come back soon after,” Sanderson said. “She raised all those since they were babies.”
Her parents looked over her writings from the past year in their search for clues.
“Over the past year we have noticed some of Gwen’s writings showed some delusional thinking and paranoia,” they said in a statement. “We are not certain but we think this could have affected her trip and the disappearance.”
That she perhaps lied about going to California suggests to her father that she may have instead planned to meet someone and go off.
“Maybe that was sort of a head fake, that she had something arranged and left with somebody,” Andy Brunelle sad. “Anything’s possible. It’s truly a mystery.”
Her mother, a psychiatric nurse, leans toward the conclusion that her daughter is somewhere out on that rangeland. She said her daughter might have suffered some mental crisis that resulted in a march to the range.
“I just have not sensed a presence of her on this earth,” Betsy Brunelle said. “It’s just like a mom thing.”
She added, “If she is alive, that would be fantastic. If she’s not, hopefully we can bring her back and have closure.”
Les Zaitz is editor of the Malheur Enterprise and Salem Reporter. Contact: [email protected].
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