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Crime News Dateline

Family's Suspicious Behavior After Colorado Rancher Disappeared Leads to Disturbing Confession

When reliable rancher Jake Millison disappeared, his friends were immediately concerned, but his family insisted he was fine and may have had secrets of his own.

By Jill Sederstrom

In most missing person cases, the family leads the charge. But not in the case of Colorado rancher Jake Millison

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Millison’s family seemed relatively unconcerned about his mysterious 2015 disappearance, insisting the 29-year-old had simply chosen to leave town on his own, according to Dateline: Secrets Uncovered.

But Millison’s close knit group of friends weren’t buying it and continued to add pressure to local law enforcement until the disturbing  truth was finally revealed. 

Who Was Jake Millison?

Jake Millison, featured on Dateline: Secrets Uncovered 1122

To his friends, Millison was known as the “old man” of the group, choosing  to drink Coke at the bar over beer. 

“Even though he was only a couple years older than us, he always acted like an old man. He was always the responsible one, trying to do the smart thing in tricky situations,” friend Nate Lopez told Dateline reporter Josh Mankiewicz.

Millison, they said, was also a creature of habit, spending his days tirelessly working on his stepfather’s sprawling 7-11 ranch before heading into town on his beloved vintage Harley Davidson motorcycle to go to the jiu jitsu gym and then stop at the local Gunnison bars to play pool and visit with friends.

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“Jake was the most consistent student that was ever in that gym,” gym buddy Derek Chodorowski recalled. “He was there every night, four nights a week.” 

Which is why Millison’s friends were so concerned when he suddenly vanished on May 16, 2015. Friend Randy Martinez had been out to a movie and the bars with him just the night before. 

When Martinez dropped him back off at his home around midnight, the pair made tentative plans to get together the next day. But the next morning, Millison never responded to Martinez’s texts and seemingly vanished into thin air.

I texted him to see what was up and never got a reply, which was really weird because I pretty much talked to him every day,” Martinez recalled.

What Happened to Jake Millison?

Millison’s friends at the jiu jitsu gym were also getting concerned, including his friend Jared Hooks, who just happened to be a sergeant with the nearby Mount Crested Butte Police Department. 

“I thought I had a little bit of credibility and so if I had red flags, it would translate to the deputy there,” Hooks said of agreeing to report the disappearance to the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office.

Gunnison County Undersheriff Mark Mykol agreed to look into the case, but he discovered that Millison’s mom, Deb Rudibaugh, wasn’t concerned at all and insisted he wasn’t missing.

“Deb told us that he left with a friend and was going to the Reno, Nevada area,” Mykol said. 

Before his disappearance, Millison was living with Rudibaugh at the ranch, where they worked together to care for the large property in the wake of his stepfather’s death in 2009.

Millison’s dad also told authorities he had been known to “take off abruptly” in the past, once taking a job in Alaska on a fishing boat. 

But his friends insisted it wasn’t like Millison to leave without telling anyone and their concern only grew when they learned he had left his beloved dog Elmo and that vintage bike behind.

The weeks went by without any sign of Millison, but then in June, Rudibaugh told authorities that Millison had come home one night to pick up a bunch of camping gear and supplies before leaving in a dark pickup truck with a friend. She said he didn’t have his phone with him because it had fallen into an irrigation ditch and even showed officers the phone in a bag of rice, where it was drying out.

“So, [we] really didn't have anything to go with at that point,” Mykol said. 

Jake Millison's Mom Comes Under Suspicion

It wasn’t until a few months later, when Rudibaugh felt her son had been gone “too long” that she finally filed a formal missing persons report in August of that year.

The report caught the attention of The Gunnison Country Times reporter Chris Rourke, who reached out to Rudibaugh to learn more about the mysterious disappearance. But there were several things that struck Rourke as odd about the conversation. Unlike most distraught mothers of missing children, Rudibaugh couldn’t remember the last time she’d had contact with her son. 

She also told Rourke that her son had a dark side few knew.

“I’m not supposed to know, but I do know — because everybody’s kept it a big, dark secret — that my son has been doing drugs,” she said in a recording of their conversation. 

As for their relationship, Rudibaugh said they weren’t close and described having “one argument and fight after another” once he “started doing the mixed martial arts and the drugs.”

As she painted her son as a reckless person prone to impulsivity, when the article came out, Millison’s close friends were livid. 

“They were upset,” Rourke recalled. “They said that ‘something has happened to him. The Jake that Deb is portraying is not the guy we know.’” 

They also believed it was unlike Millison to leave behind the ranch, which he had cared for since he was a young child. In his absence, Millison’s older sister, Stephanie, and her husband, David Jackson — who Millison had never liked and even feared —moved onto the property and began to take it over. They asked their friend Jeremy McDonald to help. 

“We were gonna turn the ranch around, have the guest cabins and all of that,” McDonald said, noting it had been a “mess” with “junk everywhere” when he arrived at the property. 

For months, they all worked together on the property and McDonald soon saw a new side to Stephanie.

“There is the Steph that most — a lot of people — knew, which was a very nice lady, but it seems like there was a switch and if the wrong thing was said or the wrong thing was done there was fire in her eyes,” he told Mankiewicz. 

While Millison’s family seemed relatively unconcerned about his absence, his friends were determined to find out what happened to him. They started their own Facebook page and regularly placed calls to Sheriff Rick Besecker. 

“They would not give up on Jake,” the sheriff said. “Every one of the friends had credibility.” 

Movement Made in Jake Millison Case

Investigators also believed something just wasn’t right and enlisted the help of Gunnison County Deputy District Attorney Jessica Waggoner, who secured a search warrant to comb over the ranch. 

“We couldn’t buy the family’s reasoning anymore,” Waggoner said. “Deb Rudibaugh had said from the beginning that he had left for Reno, Nevada to do some martial arts fighting and then Stephanie Jackson would tell friends and family that Deb Rudibaugh had told her that he was in Portland or Seattle and the cities kept changing and the reasons why he was leaving kept changing.” 

They could also find no financial trail or sign that Millison had been to any of the places they mentioned.

As it happened, by the time investigators were ready to serve the search warrant, more than two years after Millison disappeared, an annual convention of cadaver dogs was in town and their handlers agreed to help. 

Before the dogs ever made it to the property, however, Rudibaugh casually confessed to shooting her own son to death as he slept. She claimed she was able to drag his body down the stairs of their home and outside where she buried it in a manure pile.

His body was found buried on the ranch that same day.

Investigators, however, didn’t believe she acted alone. 

At the time of his death, Rudibaugh was battling cancer and was recovering from surgery that prevented her from lifting heavy objects. Waggoner believed that Stephanie and her husband, David, had played some role as well. She believed the motive in the murder was Stephanie’s desire to get her hands on the ranch property, which would have been worth millions.

All three were later arrested, but Rudibaugh continued to insist she acted alone and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in May of 2014.

She received a 40-year sentence, but died of cancer in 2019 while in prison. 

David pleaded guilty to tampering with a deceased body and received a 10-year sentence, while Millison’s older sister Stephanie eventually admitted to being part of the cover-up and pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting and tampering with a deceased body.

While she tried to shift the blame for the “heinous” crime onto her mother, the judge didn’t buy it and sentenced her to the maximum of 24 years behind bars.

Years later, it's still unclear exactly what happened that fateful night on the ranch, but Millison’s friends can finally take comfort that they’ve found justice for their friend.

“It’s closure, but it sucks because I’d rather have my friend than closure,” Martinez said.