PARLIN — Quartz Creek meanders through the 7-11 Ranch between Fossil Ridge to the west and Lookout Mountain to the east, amid lush, grassy meadows where cattle and horses graze. In the shadow of a rocky mound on the 700-acre ranch, a cluster of log homes and cabins stands silent vigil, surrounded by rows of rusted farm equipment, pickup trucks and junk.
No one answers the door. Empty beer cans, old washers and broken furniture litter the grounds.
The Gunnison County ranch stands at the center of a family drama nearly biblical in its accusations of sibling rivalry, greed and murder that left a 29-year-old man dead. His mother, sister and brother-in-law now sit in jail accused in his death and the disposal of his body beneath a layer of manure in a corral on the property.
But the ranch also provides the backdrop for a tale about the devotion of childhood friends who refused to believe that Jacob “Jake” Millison had merely walked away from his home, family and beloved dog. Skeptical and persistent, they pressed authorities to investigate the initial, improbable explanations for Millison’s disappearance in 2015 and ultimately make arrests.
Parlin cattle rancher Deborah Rudibaugh portrays Millison, her son, as a booze-addled, drug-crazed and physically abusive gold digger she had to put down and bury to spare her own life.
But Millison’s friends describe a soft-spoken man who drank Coke instead of beer at The Alamo Saloon in Gunnison, took many jobs to eke out a living and aspired to work on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska.
The starkly different versions of Millison’s life ultimately convinced investigators and prosecutors that Rudibaugh, 69, was a habitual liar. Even when she eventually confessed to killing him and burying him on the property, they harbored doubts about her story.
Detectives disregarded the 70-pound woman’s tale of burying her 170-pound son alone. Over the past two weeks, they have charged her 33-year-old daughter, Stephaine “Stephanie” Jackson, with first-degree murder, and her son-in-law, David Jackson, 34, with tampering with a corpse. Rudibaugh has also been charged with her son’s murder.
Gunnison County Undersheriff Mark Mykol credits a relentless flow of tips from a large group of friends and a mammoth law enforcement investigation over the course of nearly three years for solving the case.
“They pretty much kept saying something ain’t right, and we kept listening,” Mykol said Thursday. “This is just bizarre.”
All agree, however, that Millison’s murder was linked to the 700 acres of meadow land — along Quartz Creek — estimated to be worth up to $3 million.
Inheritance and siblings
World War II Navy “frogman” Marion “Rudy” Rudibaugh bought and managed the 7-11 Ranch. He also ran a prosperous hunting-guide business for decades. Deer antlers and elk antlers, as well as skulls, mounted on the side of a log horse shed still indicate his former business.
“He was a little bitty guy, but tougher than hell,” said Jay Miller, a friend. Rudy once kept a caged African lioness on the ranch.
Rudy and his first wife had four children. After she died, he married Deborah Millison, a divorcee with two small children, Jake and Stephanie. Before Rudy died in 2009, he left money and property to his four children as their inheritance. He also bought a $140,000 home for Stephanie and David Jackson in Denver and left the ranch to Deborah.
Adam Katheiser recalled meeting Jake Millison at Pathways, a Gunnison alternative school. Painfully shy, Millison had been home schooled on the ranch until high school, when he and Katheiser discovered they were neighbors and shared interests in science and space.
Along with Antranik Ajarian, another classmate, the boys became lifelong friends. Katheiser and Ajarian frequently helped Millison brand livestock on the ranch. Millison spent portions of most days at either Katheiser’s or Ajarian’s home. Their friendship endured for more than a decade after high school.
They tinkered with cars — installing a turbo kit to Millison’s Mazda Miata or fixing up Ajarian’s 1969 Dodge Charger. Millison built a fireplace in a garage at the ranch where they often stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, working on vehicles or just talking.
The Rudibaughs tended to be a bit quirky, the friends noticed. The family would scrape up road kill — such as a deer or a raccoon — and feed it to their pet lioness. Deborah Rudibaugh often berated her adult son in front of them. He bowed his head and took it most of the time.
“Jake got pigeon-holed into working there on the ranch,” Katheiser said. “It was just expected that he would stay there when Rudy died. He hadn’t been paid in 20 years. He didn’t like working on the ranch. He wanted to break out, see some of the world.”
But Millison, a creature of routine, built his social life around visiting his friends. He often described working for his mother on the ranch like a slave, although he also held side jobs, including woodcutting, and once acted on his early dream by heading to Alaska and catching on with a commercial fishing boat.
Problems at home
Millison often grumbled about his sister and brother-in-law moving back to the ranch in 2012, and he accused them of free-loading, Ajarian said. He believed that because his sister got her Denver home for her inheritance, he would one day own the ranch. Tensions rose. In 2013, Millison accused David Jackson of pulling a gun on him, and Millison obtained a restraining order, according to court records. The Jacksons moved from the ranch to an apartment in Gunnison.
Millison became a regular at The Alamo Saloon to play pool with his custom-made pool stick and buy a Coke, his friends recall.
“I never once saw him with a doobie,” Katheiser said. “I never saw him drunk once.”
Eventually, though, their friendship began to wear thin. As much as they liked Millison, Katheiser and Ajarian grew uncomfortable with his daily visits. Katheiser’s wife put her foot down and forbade her husband from spending so much time with him. Ajarian said he got tired of getting off work and constantly finding Millison there waiting for him.
Then Millison suddenly disappeared.
He texted a friend a message about music at 2:29 a.m. on May 16, 2015, but it gave no indication of trouble. However, communications involving his sister in those same early hours raised questions. At 3:17 a.m., Stephanie Jackson received a text message from someone — authorities have not yet said who — that said: “It’s time to play!” Cellphone records indicate the message was deleted six minutes later. She later posted this Facebook message: “Have you ever been woken up with such awesome news you wanted to run outside screaming?”
Three days after Millison disappeared, a man who was living on the ranch saw Rudibaugh and Jackson burning a mattress. Rudibaugh initially told investigators she did it because the mattress was infested with bedbugs.
After days of not getting a call, text or visit from Millison, Katheiser and Ajarian suspected something was wrong. Ajarian drove out to the ranch and asked Rudibaugh where Millison was.
“She told me he went to Delta to help his grandparents,” Ajarian recalls. “Weeks later, she said he was on an extended backpacking trip in New Mexico with his dad.”
Suspicious, Ajarian called Millison’s father, Ray. The story puzzled him. He hadn’t spoken to his son anytime recently.
Meanwhile, Deborah Rudibaugh’s account seemed to constantly change.
“It made no sense,” Ajarian said. “I thought: Is she crazy? There were all these red flags.”
Rudibaugh had no explanation why her son would leave without Elmo, the black Labrador mix who slept with him every night. It took months for her to file a missing-person report because, she told Ajarian, she didn’t want to get into trouble for filing a false report when he eventually turned up.
In the meantime, David Jackson repainted Millison’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Katheiser found that odd because Millison was proud of its vintage paint.
“Jake hated David,” Katheiser said. “Hell would freeze over before that would happen if Jake was still alive. It’s complete crap. I was not buying any of what they were saying about this. This whole thing turned Jake into a ghost.”
Ajarian created a Facebook page: “Where is Jake Millison.”
“Everybody in town started asking around,” he said.
Deputies contacted Rudibaugh. She told them her son had gotten progressively more aggressive with her because he was using cocaine, mushrooms and steroids. She speculated that he was either dead or in the witness-protection program. She claimed her son choked her into unconsciousness several times and threatened to kill her if she didn’t write his sister out of her will and give everything to him.
But the investigation found the opposite to be true: Weeks before Millison disappeared, Rudibaugh wrote a will giving everything to her daughter and nothing to her son. Authorities continued to work the case for two years.
On June 27, 2017, an individual who would become a confidential informant drove to the 7-11 Ranch and found the Jacksons looking at something on the ground and shaking their heads. The skeletal remains of a rib cage protruded from a manure pit. She told the informant that her mother said the remains were those of a bear and that a wild animal had dug up the remains and carried away an arm.
Stephanie Jackson loaded two scoops of manure from the pig pen into a front-loader and dumped them over the bones. Later, she said she believed the remains were of her brother and told the informant that the secret needed to stay between them forever.
A few weeks later, on July 17, Rudibaugh confessed to investigators that she used her Smith & Wesson .357 “Lady Smith” revolver to shoot her son in bed while he slept.
“I killed Jake,” she said. “I shot him in the head.”
When investigators dug up the pit, they found Millison’s skeletal remains, minus one arm, with a barrel full of sheep and goat heads.
On March 1, nearly three years after Millison disappeared, authorities arrested Stephanie Jackson. They arrested Rudibaugh the next day and took David Jackson into custody on Tuesday.
“We knew something was up,” said Ajarian, the longtime friend, “and didn’t want it to get swept under the rug.”