The former Stanwood woman went missing in 1993. One morning that December, Bello, then 28, abruptly left her job at the National Food Corporation in Silvana. She never picked up her 3-year-old son from day care. Her car was found abandoned later that day at the Stanwood Post Office.
Bello was close to her siblings, and it seemed unlikely that she would voluntarily leave her young son behind.
A call last week set detectives on the path to solving Bello's disappearance.
A woman claiming to be the missing mother left a telephone message for sheriff's detective Kelly Willoth. The caller said she had seen her profile on the sheriff's website.
Bello is featured on the eight of hearts in the county's deck of cold-case playing cards. She was among seven people included in the deck who vanished under suspicious circumstances. She is the first missing person in the cards to be located. Over the past year, detectives also have identified suspects in three unsolved homicides featured on the cards.
Since receiving last week's call, detectives worked to confirm the woman's story and verify her identity.
Through multiple conversations with the woman and her family, detectives are confident that Bello is alive and living in California, sheriff's Chief Kevin Prentiss said Thursday.
The investigation revealed that Bello left her family because of marital problems. She left the state in August 1994. Investigators don't know why she didn't contact her family or the sheriff's office until now.
"There are a lot of reasons why people go missing, and not all of them are bad," Prentiss said. "Sometimes people just don't want to be found."
Detectives have since put the woman in contact with her family, Willoth said. They were the ones who helped confirm the woman's identity.
"Everybody is happy," said Roberto Bello, the woman's brother.
The family had much to celebrate when they gathered for Thanksgiving last week, he said.
"We finally found out that she is alive. We also have three (new) nephews," Bello said.
Over the years, they had heard numerous rumors about their sister's disappearance.
The woman explained that she left because of serious problems with her husband. She didn't reach out to her family because she was scared of the man and worried he would cause problems for her siblings, Roberto Bello said.
Three months after Judith Bello's disappearance, her husband left town with the boy. Police for years were unable to locate the man.
Roberto Bello said the family hadn't heard from his sister's son until several years ago, when he called his grandmother in Mexico before she died. They have remained in contact with their nephew, now 19.
The family is hopeful that they will be physically reunited with Judith Bello.
Several of her brothers are planning to go to California to be with her for Christmas, Roberto Bello said.
"I think it gives hope to other people" whose loved ones are missing, Prentiss said.
Bello's disappearance was featured in The Herald's yearlong series on the cold case cards.
Detectives created the deck in 2008 in hopes of generating leads on unsolved homicides and missing-persons cases. The cards were handed out in jail and prisons with a reward offered for viable tips.
This year detectives have identified suspects in three unsolved homicides featured on the cards. They also have eliminated a suspect in a double homicide that is included in the deck. They also ruled out several suspects in the 1972 death of a Jodi Loomis, the oldest case in the deck, cold-case detective Jim Scharf said Thursday.
"It's taken a few years, but we're really seeing the fruits of that labor," Prentiss said.
Cold-case detectives in April arrested a Seattle man in connection with the 1979 death of Susan Schwarz. They had received a tip from an inmate who had seen Schwarz's case on a cold-case card. Schwarz, 26, is featured on the queen of hearts.
The inmate tipster helped the detectives close in on the suspect, Gregory Duwayne Johnson, and his circle of friends. The detectives' digging led them to a witness who had never been interviewed about the homicide. That person in April admitted to being an eyewitness to the killing.
Johnson is charged with first-degree murder. He is scheduled to go to trial in March 2012.
A month after Johnson's arrest, cold-case detectives announced that they had identified a suspect in the 1995 slaying of Patti Berry and the suspicious disappearance and presumed homicide of Tracey Brazzel that same year.
Detectives obtained a search warrant in May seeking genetic samples from Danny Ross Giles, a convicted sex offender. Investigators said that the Lynnwood man's DNA was found in both women's cars.
At the time of the search warrant, Giles was serving time for a 2005 indecent-exposure case. He has since been moved to the state's Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island. He's expected to remain locked up there until a trial determines whether he suffers from mental abnormalities or personality disorders that make him likely to engage in acts of sexual violence.
The trial is unlikely to begin until some time in mid-2012.
The Giles investigation also helped detectives make an arrest in a 1998 unsolved rape in Everett. That happened because of genetic tests that identified a suspect.
Detectives in 2010 also tracked down the man who wrote several letters to the families of a slain Canadian couple featured in the deck on the king of hearts.
In the letters, the man claimed that he killed Jay Cook and Tanya Van Cuylenborg. He bragged he'd never be caught and threatened to kill again if he got the opportunity.
Tips from the public and police work led homicide detectives to a mentally ill Canadian man who admitted he penned the hurtful correspondence. Detectives don't believe the letter writer, now in his 70s, is responsible for the 1987 slayings.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.
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