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Son Charged in 82-Year-Old Mom’s Murder Years After He Claimed She Left with a Friend for California

Sylvia Frens

Sylvia Frens

Authorities in Grand Junction, Colorado believe they have solved the murder of an 82-year-old woman who was reported missing by her family on May 29, 2018.

The Grand Junction Police Department on Wednesday announced the arrest of 54-year-old Richard VanderVelde on the accusation that he murdered his mother, Sylvia Frens. For years, there were no new lead as to Frens’ whereabouts, but there was suspicion as to VanderVelde’s involvement.

On May 19, VanderVelde was found in Florida and taken into the custody of the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office as a fugitive from Mesa County sought for first-degree murder, jail and court records show. VanderVelde was released from a Pinellas County lockup on June 3 at 7:46 a.m. and taken to Colorado to face charges in his mother’s death.

A 2018 story from The Daily Sentinel noted that VanderVelde was considered a person of interest at the time, and his use of his mother’s debit cards and vehicle did not go unnoticed. He was also reportedly pawning her belongings.

Richard Vandervelde pictured in 2018.

Richard VanderVelde pictured in 2018.

“Initial investigation found evidence that Sylvia’s son, Richard Vandervelde, who was living with Sylvia at the time of her disappearance, had been using her debit card between February and June of 2018,” the Grand Junction Police Department said in a press release. “Transactions indicated the card was used from Grand Junction, CO to Charleston, SC. Vandervelde also took over $10,000 of cash out of Sylvia’s bank account and was found to be in possession of her car.”

Authorities say VanderVelde continued using the victim’s debit card. A June 5, 2018 traffic stop in Missouri, during which VanderVelde allegedly provided a false name, led to an interview. VanderVelde allegedly told Grand Junction detectives a story about his mother leaving for California with a woman named “Barb” for a funeral.

“During the interview, Vandervelde claimed Sylvia left with a friend for California in April but did not disclose any further information about where Sylvia went, or when she planned to return. He also stated that his use of Sylvia’s debit card was authorized by her. Unfortunately, the interview did not produce any fresh leads,” the department said.

After three-plus of years of investigating Frens’ disappearance, Grand Junction investigators finally discovered the victim’s remains — reportedly in a trash bag inside a manhole. The discovery was made in March 2022 as authorities searched the property of Frens’ former residence. VanderVelde lived at the residence at the time Frens disappeared. Police said in the press release that an autopsy found Frens was the victim of a homicide and “had injuries consistent with blunt force trauma to the head.”

VanderVelde now faces charges of first-degree murder, tampering with a deceased human body, crimes against an at-risk adult, fraud-identity theft, theft, motor vehicle theft, and abuse of a corpse.

“I cannot even express how much I appreciate the diligent efforts of the GJPD these last four years,” her daughter Shari VanderVelde said in a Facebook post thanking the department. “My sister and I are finally getting some closure and it’s bc the detectives on Sylvia’s case never gave up. Thank you to the entire team from the bottom of my heart.”

[Images via Grand Junction Police Department]

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Matt Naham is the Senior A.M. Editor of Law&Crime.