Josh, whose 17th birthday came and went while he was missing, was an adopted child whose search for identity may have led to the shallow grave where his remains were discovered.
"He was a kind and compassionate soul, but on the other hand, he didn't understand the consequences for his actions," said Jan Churchwell, his adoptive mother.
She and her husband, Bob, took in the boy after he was removed from his mother's home. The Churchwells raised him in a house full of children, some their own, others foster kids.
* * *
Josh was the biological son of Luis Rivera and Tammy Fernandez. Adams County Human Services took him out of the home when he was 3 years old for reasons Fernandez would not discuss.
"He was my little Bucky Beaver; when he smiled he showed all his teeth," said Fernandez, 47.
A couple that took Josh and two of his siblings decided to keep his brother and sister but found him difficult. They asked Adams County to find another home.
At that point, the Churchwells, who had provided emergency foster care for Adams and Kit Carson counties, opened their home to Josh.
* * *
Jan Churchwell recalled stopping short outside a room in her home when she heard the boy chattering inside. The then-fourth-grader was standing alone in front of a mirror.
"I am not a Churchwell," he said to his reflection. "I am a Rivera, I want my real family."
She spoke with him, and it was clear he believed the rest of Fernandez's seven children remained with their mother, that he was the only one separated from the family.
"It was terrible because I hadn't realized for all those years that he was internalizing that loss. That explained why he was so angry," she said.
[His adoptive parents facilitated a reunion with his birth mother and siblings, none of whom remained with his birth mother.]
* * *
As he grew, Josh took up wrestling, following in the footsteps of Isaiah, one of the Churchwells' older children. And he played drums and tuba, earning spots on the Burlington middle and high school bands.
He was fascinated with his Hispanic heritage and spent time in Burlington's Mexican-American community.
He attended quinceañera balls — coming-out parties for girls when they turn 15. He ate at the homes of Hispanic friends, where he learned to tell authentic Mexican dishes from more pedestrian fare made to American tastes.
But as his circle of friends widened, he fell in with some troubled teens. [Criminal acts led him to Juvenile detention, and he ran away from an alternative school].
* * *
The system failed Josh twice, the Churchwells believe — first when social services separated him from all of his siblings and again when his disappearance was treated as an escape.