Produced by Loen Kelley, Sara Ely Hulse and Ira Sutow
By all accounts, 34-year old Paige Birgfeld was a devoted mother to her three young children. So when she suddenly disappeared in June 2007, police in Grand Junction, Colo., suspected foul play.
While police and volunteers searched for the missing mother of three, disturbing evidence of a secret life she led shifted the investigation in a totally new direction.
Did that secret life, which Paige kept hidden from her family, play a role in her disappearance?
No one loved a family gathering more than 34-year-old Paige Birgfeld. "She would literally beam, she would radiate," her father, Frank, tells "48 Hours Mystery" correspondent Harold Dow. "Those were the absolute cherished times that she enjoys most."
So when Paige vanished on June 28, 2007, Frank and his wife, Suzie, feared the worst. "This is a crime. There's a crime here," said Frank, who doesn't believe Paige would have just walked away and left her kids.
After Paige disappeared, her brother, Dr. Craig Birgfeld, a Seattle plastic surgeon who specializes in the facial reconstruction of children, moved with his own young family into Paige's Colorado home to help take care of her three kids. "Callie and I decided at that time that our role was to be there for the kids and try to take care of them, be family there for them, just help them," he explained.
Craig's wife, Callie, added, "And I just remembered, the little girl, Jess, going, 'So do you know what happened to my mom? Do you know where she is?' And I was like, 'What do I say?' So I said, 'Wherever she is, she wants to be with you right now.'"
Her friends and family say Paige spent all of her free time with her children. She was a single mother; her ex-husband was living in Philadelphia. After their divorce in 2006, Paige had become the primary caregiver for their three children.
"I think as long as I can remember, what she wanted to be was a mom and she just couldn't wait to be that mom," said Craig.
So when Paige disappeared, Mesa County Sheriff Stan Hilkey was pretty convinced this mother of three would not have left on her own. "There's nothing at all that leads us to believe that she had abandoned her life or abandoned her children and gone off in that regard," he said.
Authorities started by looking at those closest to Paige. They quickly learned that Paige had not one, but two ex-husbands. Her first husband was her high school sweetheart, Ron Beigler.
According to Paige's father, Ron was her first big love. And in fact, for the past few months, the two had been dating again.
Ten years after divorcing her first husband, Paige said she was in love with him again.
Ex-husband No. 1 became the focus of the investigation in June 2007, when it was learned they had their last date on the very day she disappeared. The date took place at a rest stop, a halfway point between her home in Grand Junction and his home, more than four hours away.
When she was driving back home later that night, around 9 p.m., Paige called Beigler from her cell phone. They spoke briefly, and Paige told him she'd call him again later.
Cell phone records show that Paige was just a few miles from her home when she made that phone call; and it was one of her last.
Paige never did call Ron back that night, so the next day, he tried calling her. "And her phone rolled over to the voice message right away, so just to indicate the phone was turned off or the battery was down," Frank explained.
On Saturday morning, two days after seeing Paige, Beigler finally tried calling her at home. Paige's father, Frank, described what Beigler did next. "He actually called the house and got our granddaughter. And she was the one that told him that Paige hadn't been home since Thursday night. At that point the alarms start goin' off and he touched base with us, touched base with the sheriff's office. And things started getting in gear then."
Ironically, after Beigler called authorities to report Paige missing, he became one of the first people they wanted to question since he'd been one of the last people to see her.
Although Ron Beigler was one of the last to see and speak with Paige, those who know him believe he's also one of the last who'd want to harm her. "We met with him recently, and I think he is very devoted to Paige, and very emotional that she's not here," Paige's mother, Suzie, said.
Paige's friends were far more suspicious about her second ex-husband, Rob Dixon - the father of her three children. It turned out Paige had an explosive, troubled history with Dixon.
Authorities got one of their first big leads in the case three days after Paige Birgfeld's disappearance, when a man called 911 after seeing a car, in flames, parked in an empty lot. It turned out to be Paige's car - the vehicle she was driving on the night she disappeared.
The next morning, authorities discovered that the fire was started from
inside the car on the passenger side. "It at least suggests to me that that person is fairly savvy and intelligent enough to think that there's a real possibility law enforcement could find evidence in that car that would implicate him or her," remarked District Attorney Pete Hautzinger.
While Paige's family held on to the hope she was still alive, investigators turned their attention to Paige's second ex-husband, Rob Dixon.
Paige met Dixon in 1997, and back then he seemed like a real catch. "Rob had a business success with his father, had a significant amount of wealth," Frank explained.
It was a whirlwind courtship. The following year, the two had a wedding and started a family together.
But Dixon had extravagant taste and was reckless with his money. He'd invested millions of dollars in risky business ventures and, before long, the couple began having financial problems.
When the bills started piling up, Paige did what she could to pitch in.
"She started a little preschool dance business she called Brain Dance," Suzie explained. "She would have recitals twice a year and make costumes for all of those students."
Paige also sold high-end kitchen supplies out of her home for a company called The Pampered Chef. And as one of the top sales agents, she earned a free trip to the Caribbean.
But Dixon was losing money a lot faster than Paige was making it. In a few short years, his business investments fell through and he'd lost almost everything.
By 2004, the problems in the marriage took a turn for the worse. "We think of Rob as good Rob and bad Rob. There are times where Rob is just really a good, funny guy; bright," Frank says. "But at other times, Rob is a difficult person to be around. He can be violently angry, condescending, derisive. You walk on eggshells - a feeling of tension."
Finally, in October of 2004, Paige had to call police for help. "My husband and I were in a fight and he wanted the children to stay with him and he said that I would come home and find them all murdered," she told the 911 operator.
But by the time police and local media arrived, the crisis was defused. Dixon was allowed to leave after authorities decided he wasn't a threat to himself or anyone else. No charges were filed.
But one year later, police were called again. Paige said Dixon had pushed her to the ground and then later punched her while she was holding their baby. This time, in October 2005, Dixon was arrested. But the case was later settled after he completed a course in anger management.
By the time the couple divorced in September 2006, Rob Dixon had declared bankruptcy and was living in Philadelphia. And when Paige disappeared in 2007, Dixon said that's exactly where he was - in Philadelphia, 2,000 miles away.
But Paige's family found disturbing entries written about Dixon on an online message board by Paige herself, and they were hard to ignore. Just three months before she disappeared, Paige had written, "My children would ask me if Dad was going to kill me. I can't imagine what they were thinking life would be like after he killed me."
Investigators questioned Dixon about his whereabouts the day his ex-wife vanished, but didn't release details to the public. But Paige's family got word that his alibi held up. "I understand that a person's biography might make them a suspect. At the same time, if you're 2,000 miles away, I think it takes you off the roster," Frank said.
Both of Paige's ex-husbands seemed to have solid alibis. So who in Paige's life had any motive to harm her?
This led investigators to an even bigger mystery; one about Paige herself.
Two weeks after Paige Birgfeld vanished, questions remained as where to look in vast Mesa County, Colo. But the investigation was about to get a lucky break thanks to the efforts of Connie Flukey
When Jennifer Blagg and her 6-year-old daughter, Abby, disappeared from their home in 2001, they left behind a shaken community. Flukey made a promise that no family should have to go through this ordeal alone.
Back then, Flukey helped organize thousands of volunteers to search 45 square miles around the Blagg home. "It was incredible to see the turnout," she said. "This whole community got involved. There were employers paying wages of people to come out and search."
Now Flukey's search group was pressed into service again, this time to help find Paige. Her strategy: divide and conquer. Each day she broke hundreds of miles into manageable search areas that could be covered on foot.
"It's really amazing what they did, organizing satellite maps and assign searches," Paige's brother, Craig Birgfeld remarked.
"And she just gave hope," his wife, Callie added. "We were starting to become so dejected and just starting to feel hopeless. And she just walked in and took charge."
Day after day, the search teams navigated through rough terrain, filled with scrub brush and cactus needles.
As the volunteers pressed on, the Birgfelds had to navigate through a darker, more difficult terrain: the mysterious double life that Paige was apparently leading.
The family called police after finding things on Paige's computer, as they were convinced that the computer held clues to a side of Paige that could have put her in danger. "It doesn't change what I think of her. I mean, I would give anything to see her again right now and give her a big hug," Craig said.
While investigators mined Paige's secret life for more clues, evidence turned up on another front. Searchers discovered clues that could lead them closer to Paige. Various personal items, such as her checkbook and a membership card to a local video store, were found scattered along a highway some 15 miles from where her burned-out car was discovered.
For all its beauty, there is clearly a darker side of the mesa: the 2001 search for Jennifer Blagg ended tragically when her body was finally found in the local landfill. Her husband, Michael Blagg, is serving a life sentence for her murder; daughter Abby remains missing to this day.
Paige's friends and family prayed that their search would end differently.
What Paige Birgfeld's family didn't know at the time of her disappearance was that she was leading a double life and keeping a secret from them. Paige, the devoted mom, wasn't just teaching dance classes and selling kitchen products. In provocative ads on the Internet, Paige was also known as "Carrie," a high-priced escort.
"I for one was shocked," D.A. Pete Hautzinger admitted. "I've been a prosecutor for 20 years and this is the first time I've encountered somebody from that socio-economic level and that kind of family involvement to be involved in this business."
Sessions with Carrie could include stripping, dancing and role-playing.
On one Web site, she suggested that clients can pay for "extras," such as topless and nude massage.
"I think for Frank and Suzie - that the thought of their daughter even doing that - it didn't even cross their minds because it's their daughter," sister-in-law Callie Birgfeld said. "You don't think your daughter's gonna do that. So I think for them it was a really, really big shock."
As upsetting as it was for Paige's family to learn about her secret life, they were convinced she turned to the escort world for one reason only: her children.
Paige had three kids to support and a huge mortgage to pay, nearly $6,000 a month. "You know, it never really made sense to me that she would be able to come up with the mortgage for that place for more than a couple of months," Craig Biirgfeld remarked.
Her friends said Paige did what she had to do and turned to the one job she knew would pay well. "And it has no bearing on the kind of mother, friend, that she is," one of her friends told Dow.
"She always saw a situation and got it under control. If something needed to be done, she made sure it happened," another friend remarked.
And her sister-in-law, Callie, now thinks she knows where Paige got the idea to become an escort in the first place. Many years earlier, Callie had asked Paige how she was able to afford her first home on a dance teacher's salary. "I flat out asked her if she was doing something other than teaching dance. And she had told me that she had been stripping," Callie said.
Before becoming a mother, Paige had worked as a stripper at a place called the Mile High Saloon. "In Denver, when she was 21 years old," Callie said. "She said she had been making $400,000 a year doing it. And that, you know, she didn't need to do it anymore."
But apparently, she later did.
"I wish I had been given the opportunity to be involved and perhaps be able to sort it out," Frank said. "I would have counseled her that that strikes me as dangerous. It doesn't sound totally moral."
Paige's family knew this new information could help investigators figure out who was responsible for Paige's disappearance. But they also knew it would lead to answers that would be painful to learn.
Asked what he thinks happened to Paige Birgfeld, D.A. Pete Hautzinger replied, "I think she was probably murdered by one of her clients."
But as far as he knew, Paige did not leave a diary or black book with names. However, she did have that cell phone, which helped investigators track down everyone who'd had contact with Paige. "We have looked very carefully at all of her clients and have made every effort to investigate everybody who may have been on that list of people she was going to be contacting later that night," Hautzinger said.
Before long, they honed in on one man, a 56-year-old father of two grown sons named Lester Ralph Jones.
Hautzinger said Jones was one of Paige's clients and that they had at least more than one encounter.
Authorities got warrants to conduct searches of his home, where he lives with his third wife. They spent hours searching through his belongings, but wouldn't talk about what they found - not even with Paige's family.
And remember her burned out car, discovered a few miles from her home? Search dogs led investigators from that parking lot to an RV shop across the street. It turns out that's where Ralph Jones worked as a mechanic.
"The fact that her car was burning so close to his place of employment is at least one significant fact," Hautzinger pointed out. "Common sense certainly would indicate that it's something more than a coincidence."
Hautzinger won't disclose if Paige and Jones spoke on the phone on the night she disappeared. Asked if he knews if Jones was one of the people she had an appointment with that night, Hautzinger replied, "I'm not gonna answer that question."
Though the district attorney refused to elaborate, sources close to the investigation told "48 Hours" there was something that tied Jones to Paige the night she disappeared. They said one of the last phone conversations Paige had was with someone using a throwaway phone. And although Jones denies buying such a phone, sources told "48 Hours" there's surveillance video from a local store showing Jones purchasing that phone.
Jones, who declined "48 Hours'" request for an interview, denied having anything to do with Paige's disappearance.
"Would you say he's capable of murder?" Dow asked.
"I honestly couldn't answer that," D.A. Hautzinger replied.
But Jones has a criminal record, which shows he was more than capable of violence. Jones was arrested for two incidents involving his estranged wife, Lisa, in 1999. He served three years in prison after pleading guilty to kidnapping and assault charges, both felonies.
"Those are, by definition, kind of violent offenses," Hautzinger pointed out.
And so, more than three months after Paige disappeared, authorities publicly cleared her two ex-husbands, and named the one target of their investigation: Lester Ralph Jones.
During the winter, snows on the mesas stopped the search for the missing mother of three. But with the spring thaw came new resolve and a new search for Paige.
"The places I'm looking, I don't wanna find her. I don't wanna see her in the position she'll be in. But I need to do this. I owe it to her. I owe it to her family," said Frank Birgfeld who now walks the rugged terrain with his daughter, Paige's, dog.
It's just one more reminder of how life has changed for them all. With the future so uncertain, Paige's parents find themselves holding on to the past. "We went to a Mexican place on Father's Day. Golly day, I'd love to do it again. So...how many things are parents doin' today and they just don't appreciate because suddenly, you never know when it's just taken away and then you don't have those chances," Frank remarked.
"We really also cannot go through what people call the grieving process," Suzie said. "You know, at some point you hopefully will be able to release those feelings, but you're waiting. And that's why we have to find her."
Prosecutor Pete Hautzinger wants the same thing the Birgfeld family so desperately needs: to find Paige. But he has his own reasons: "As we sit right here with no body, I have zero evidence as to A: is she actually dead? And B: how was she killed and what was the manner? So it's a fairly glaring hole in any homicide prosecution."
Although authorities have zeroed in on one suspect, Jones, no charges have been filed, and no new developments have been made public in the case. "We wanna make sure we get the right person. We wanna make sure we find that person accountable. But we don't wanna take our shot prematurely and let 'em get away with it," Hautzinger said.
Adding to the legal hurdles, the district attorney believes that Paige's escort work could make it more difficult to convince a jury that a murder was even committed.
"The lack of a body coupled with her secret life makes it that much harder to prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt," he said. "I can certainly see a lawyer arguing to the jury, a defense lawyer - 'Look, she kept all these secrets from her friends and family and so many people had no idea what she was doing with her evenings and her spare time. How do we know and how can Mr. Hautzinger, the district attorney, prove that she didn't just go off and live on a beach some place?'"
But there is one piece of the puzzle that could help the district attorney's case: sources have told "48 Hours" that investigators discovered a large amount of cash in Paige's home - tens of thousands of dollars believed to be from her escort business -something she would not have forgotten if she was simply running away.
And everyone who knows Paige agrees on one thing: she would not have walked out on her children. "And frankly, if I was trying this case now without a body, that would be the kind of evidence that I'd be really trying to rely on to persuade the jury she must be dead because everybody who knew her and her kids thought she was highly devoted to 'em and cannot conceive of her leaving her kids for any reason whatsoever," Hautzinger said.
"If you never find a body...you're not gonna press charges in this case?" Dow asked.
"I'm not saying that," Hautzinger replied. "We will either find her body and proceed with the prosecution, or we will ultimately wind up presenting this case to a grand jury and asking the grand jury to investigate it."
Paige Birgfeld's daughter and two sons are now living with their father out of state. Her personal belongings are slowly being removed from the home as it is readied for sale.
"Paige is not lost, she is somewhere. Someone out there knows where she is. We just need that person to let us in on where she is too, so we can bring her home," her brother, Craig Birgfeld said.
On June 28, the Birgfeld family will mark a grim anniversary - three years since Paige left home and was never heard from again. And the thought that the person who may have murdered her is out walking free is almost too much for her loved ones to bear.
"We are not going to let this go," Hautzinger vowed. "Ultimately, it's my intent that the perpetrator is going to be brought to justice."
"I have to hold out hope that, not only is she out there, but that we'll find her," Craig said, "because the idea of us going through life without ever really knowing what happened to her is almost unbearable."
Paige Birgfeld's parents sought custody of her three children, but the courts ruled they would remain with their father, Rob Dixon.
The investigation into Paige's disappearance continues.