News

Twenty years after son disappears, his family is still praying and hoping

The last time Kelly Murphy saw her son Jason, they were at supper with other family members, playing a game.

“We really didn’t have a name for it, but it was kind of a who laughs first game,” Murphy said. “You would say one word, and it was usually something silly. You would just see who would start laughing. And he (Jason) was the one who always lost. We knew he had a tendency to start giggling.”

That happy moment was Murphy’s last memory of her son. The next day the 19-year-old walked away from his Omaha home to catch a ride with a coworker to his restaurant job. But he never arrived at their meeting place.

No one has reported seeing Jason in the 20 years since, and police haven’t any significant leads in the case, his father, Jim Jolkowski, said.

The family, meanwhile, has been left in a nightmarish limbo not knowing what happened to Jason. But they still cling to hope.

“Hope is your right until you know the truth,” said Murphy, who now lives in eastern Washington state. That statement is one she keeps going back to. It’s become one of her sayings, she said in a telephone interview.

“Some people try to take hope away from you,” the mother said. “They think, well, you should be over that by now, you should be back to normal.”

“Everyone deserves hope,” she said.

“My hope is that we find the answer we need,” his father, Jim Jolkowski, said while at a remembrance service for Jason on June 13 at Roberts Skate Park in Omaha, where a tree was planted in his honor 10 years ago.

“Hopefully we’d have a reunion,” his father said. “Until we have a reason to believe that’s not the case, that’s our hope.”

Jason’s brother, Michael, also went to the remembrance service on the sunny Sunday afternoon with his wife, Bridgit, and their sons Ryan and Michael, both 3, and Lincoln, 2.

Michael was just 13 when his brother disappeared. He and a neighbor were the last people to have reported seeing Jason, as he hauled the family’s trash bins back to their garage before he walked away from the house.

Michael said he’s sad that there’s been no information on Jason’s whereabouts for 20 years, but he knows the family will eventually get their answer, “whether it be in this life or in the afterlife. We’ll have an answer some day.”

Jason Jolkowski’s younger brother, Michael Jolkowski, helps his twin sons place painted rocks on a marker for Jason at Roberts Skate Park in Omaha during a remembrance service June 13. The rocks were part of an effort to renew awareness about Jason’s disappearance 20 years ago. About 50 people attended the service. SUSAN SZALEWSKI/STAFF

LIVING IN LIMBO

Years ago Murphy learned a word for the family’s suffering: ambiguous loss. It’s a psychological term for the traumatic loss of a person or a relationship, but without the possibility of closure or a clear way to grieve.

In the case of missing persons, “you don’t know if they’re going to magically show up tomorrow or next week or next month or next year,” she said.

“It’s kind of like this limbo of not knowing. If somebody dies, you know they’re dead. You know they’re buried. You know where their body is, if you want to visit the grave. It’s sad, it’s hard. But you know what happened, and you know they’re not coming back. But when someone is missing, you don’t know. We don’t know. Is he alive?”

“So with ambiguous loss, you can’t go through all the normal grieving motions because you don’t know what you’re grieving for,” Murphy said. “So you’re stuck.”

In the days following Jason’s disappearance, Murphy said, she felt numb.

“I remember sitting on the couch by the phone because I just kept hoping the phone would ring. It was almost like I had to tell myself, oh, you need to eat something, oh, you need to take a shower, you need to go to the bathroom. … It’s like you’re in this alternative reality of disbelief that this horrible thing is happening.”

Later, as Murphy was learning more about missing persons and getting to know their families, she began reflecting on the familiar story of Mary and Joseph not being able to find the 12-year-old Jesus for three days.

She said she thought about how horrible it would be to lose the Son of God and the parents’ anxiety, but also of Jesus saying to them: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

The story continues: “But they did not understand what he said to them.”

Mary and Joseph didn’t seem to have a full understanding of their mission as the parents of the Son of God, Murphy said, “just like I didn’t have, in my mind, the full mission of what I was to do with the things I was learning. As time went by and I was starting to be able to cope and get at least some normalcy, I realized I’m supposed to do something with this. I’m not just supposed to be looking for my son. I’m supposed to take what I’m learning and somehow help other people.”

ORGANIZING

Her advocacy started with getting a law passed in Nebraska to set up a state database of missing persons. It was called Jason’s Law.

Murphy said she wasn’t comfortable speaking before legislators, “but I felt like I had to do it for Jason. I had to do it for all the other missing people in Nebraska and people who would become missing.”

That effort took two or three years, and meanwhile, she said, she felt called to do more. The idea for a nonprofit organization to help families of missing persons took shape.

She said she didn’t know anything about starting a nonprofit, but she spent a summer reading up on it and developing what exactly her organization, Project Jason, would do.

For years it helped thousands of families take steps to help find their loved ones, including making posters and advising them on what she considered the technical aspects of locating people.

“But still something was missing, and I realized many years later there’s no training anywhere for helping these people learn to cope.”

“So I came up with this idea of doing a teaching retreat where we would actually bring these families together and teach them.”

“That was something I was really proud of,” said Murphy, who retired from Project Jason in 2018. “It was like, now I’m making people’s lives better. I’m not necessarily solving their case, but I’m helping them live a more normal life.”

“I felt God showed me the way,” she said.

An age progression photo shows what Jason Jolkowski might look like now. NCMEC

EVOLVING PRAYERS

Murphy said her prayers for Jason have changed over the years.

At first “I would pray that he would magically appear on the doorstep and have some explanation that made some sort of sense as to what had happened,” she said. “The prayers were, ‘Bring him home, bring him home alive.’”

“But over time – it was a fairly long period of time – the prayers became different because I think I accepted that this was the reality, as hard as it was.”

“Then it became, “If it’s your will, if it’s your will, bring him home.’ Then later it became, ‘If it’s your will, give us the answer, no matter what the answer is.’”

The prayers continued to evolve.

“After I’d worked with these families for years, and ran into quite a few that had had people missing longer than me but were still unable to cope at all, my prayer changed again. … My prayer became, ‘If it’s your will, I’d really like my turn to get the answer. But if it’s not my turn, I want one of these families who are really, really suffering to get their turn, because they need some normalcy in their lives again.’”

She realized eternal souls might be at stake and prayed: “Give one of these families their answer because they’re suffering so much, you know, and maybe they’re losing their faith in you. And I don’t want that to happen.”

Michael said he thinks about his brother and prays for him regularly, especially when the family marks the big moments, like birthdays and baptisms.

Relatives have honored and prayed for Jason at gatherings of extended family, including weddings, said Donita Say, Jason’s cousin who helped organize the remembrance service.

One of her five children was born five years ago on June 13, the date of Jason’s disappearance and the feast of St. Anthony. So the child was named Anthony in honor of the saint and Jason, whose middle name is Anthony.

She prays with hope, she said – hope for answers and to finally find Jason – and that God is with him wherever he is.

 

PRAYING FOR OTHERS

Jason’s father, Jim, said his prayers have been steady over the years: “I just want an answer.

“It’s not about me. I’m just concerned about Jason’s welfare,” and that of other missing persons and their families.

At the remembrance service he urged prayers for Ryan Larsen, a now 12-year-old from La Vista who went missing about a month ago.

Jim remembers Jason being a faith-filled person from an early age. As a young adult he served as a lector at the family’s parish, Holy Name in Omaha.

“You would think that the father would be the teacher, but Jason taught me so much,” he said.

At the remembrance service, family members and others described Jason as intelligent, quiet, compassionate and hard working. He loved sports and had just started a radio broadcasting career.

His family said it seems unreal that he’s been gone so long.

“I mean, 20 years, it’s insane,” his mother said.

“I still believe somewhere there’s somebody who knows something,” Murphy said, “and either they don’t realize what they know or they’re afraid to come forward.”

“We can unlock this mystery. That’s always the hope.”

The family said they are thankful for the support they’ve received.

“I’m thankful for all that I went through and the people I came to meet,” Murphy said. “Today, 20 years later, I can say I’m OK. And I’m OK because of faith. God has helped me be OK.”

“We will one day understand, but we don’t at this moment. But fortunately we have our faith to help us understand what we can in our earthly state.”