Juan Muñoz

Juan Muñoz

Elizabeth Rivera received the call Monday afternoon from the state Office of the Medical Investigator: A body recovered late last week from the Rio Grande was that of her son.

She was devastated to learn her son — 20-year-old National Guardsman Juan Muñoz — had died, Rivera said.

But she also was relieved the Taos family could bring him home and lay him to rest nearly three months after he disappeared.

"He was the best son that you could have," Rivera said in Spanish. "He was very respectful, caring, serious and a hard worker. He was so mature for someone who was 20 years old, and he really cared for the well-being of others."

Taos County sheriff's deputies recovered Muñoz's body Thursday from the river, about 2 1/2 miles south of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. According to New Mexico State Police, it was first discovered by a kayaker.

OMI identified the body Monday, state police Lt. Mark Soriano said.

Muñoz was reported missing Feb. 20 after he failed to appear for National Guard training that morning in Rio Rancho. Police later found his car near the gorge bridge, where they believe it had been parked the night before. Inside were his keys, cellphone and wallet.

State police investigators said they are still investigating his death.

Officer Dusty Francisco wrote in an email that Muñoz was scheduled for a mental health evaluation, so his absence from training raised concerns.

"There were concerns he was suffering from mental health issues," Francisco wrote.

In September 2019, Muñoz's girlfriend, 16-year-old Maria Cruz, was killed in a high-profile drunken-driving crash caused by country singer Kylie Rae Harris. A month later, his uncle and father figure, Javier Muñoz, was killed in Taos.

The deaths took a toll, Juan Muñoz's family members said, but they are not convinced he took his own life at the bridge.

"He never made comments about wanting to end his life," Rivera said in an interview last week. "He never showed any signs."

As they continue to grieve the loss of a son, brother and cousin, the family is still seeking answers about Juan Muñoz's death.

"At least the search for him physically, that is done and now we can put him to rest," said cousin Vanessa Gonzales. "We'll keep being his voice until we get answers."

She said the family wants information from state police and the National Guard about what occurred the night Muñoz disappeared.

Before late last week, when his body was found in the river, the family had been pushing the National Guard for the release of security camera footage from the night he left the training center in Rio Rancho. At first they were told they could receive it, they said, but they later were informed it had been taped over.

They also expressed frustration with the state police investigation and rallied outside the agency's Taos station May 1.

The family argued state police investigators did not fingerprint Muñoz's car, have not unlocked his phone and might have contaminated the scene at the gorge bridge when they arrived.

Family members have said guards at the bridge told them they saw Muñoz's car pull up, followed by a second vehicle. Muñoz's car pulled to the side, the guards reportedly told family, while the second car stayed for only a few minutes before speeding off east toward Taos.

The family said the guards didn't see anyone walk out on the bridge that night.

Extensive searches of the gorge by helicopter, drones and kayaks came up empty in the days after his disappearance.

Muñoz was full of energy, his family members said. He enjoyed going to the gym, hiking and going fishing, and he worked two jobs. In addition to his service with the National Guard, he worked at the Taos Retirement Village and the Taos Living Center.

They acknowledged his difficult times. Along with the tragic deaths of his loved ones, his family said, he was diagnosed in November with COVID-19 and suffered from symptoms for a month. He was forced to take time off work to recover.

His mother said he was doing better by February and had been spending quality time with his 9-year-old sister and 16-year-old brother. 

He wanted to become a police officer, a dream he shared with his late girlfriend, Rivera said, and recently had applied to work with the Albuquerque Police Department. 

Rivera said many friends and family members supported her son.

"We're still not that certain that he could have done something to himself," Gonzales said. "We just want answers and to at least try and figure out what happened that day."

The Muñoz family was visited this week by Gen. Kenneth Nava and Master Sgt. Annabelle Lujan of the New Mexico National Guard, who told them Muñoz would receive full military honors at his funeral, Rivera said. 

The service is planned for 6 p.m. May 20 at DeVargas Funeral Home of Taos.

Nava told Rivera that when young men are in training — especially in the infantry, where Muñoz was — it can be mentally and emotionally difficult for them.

Nava and Lujan also expressed concern Muñoz may have had symptoms of depression due to the death of his girlfriend.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, and we offer our continued support," National Guard spokesman Joe Vigil wrote in an email. "Spc. Muñoz was a member of our National Guard family and his absence will be keenly felt. His passing leaves a hole in our ranks and a hole in our collective heart."

While the family remains concerned about the law enforcement response to Muñoz's disappearance and death, they expressed gratitude to the community.

"We are grateful for all of the people who have supported us," Rivera said. "We are just so grateful for everyone, and all of the help."

(3) comments

Mary Ann Montoya

Prayers for the family. So sad. 😢

Lee Vigil

Sad story. My condolences go to the family. Rest peacefully, Juan Munoz.

Fidel Vigil

May you rest in peace Juan Muñoz !

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