FARMINGTON, N.M. — A New Mexico man has been charged with murder after DNA testing confirmed human remains found in Nevada belong to his girlfriend, a retired U.S. Army veteran who vanished in late May 2019.
Jerry Jay, 59, of Farmington, is charged with first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping and tampering with evidence in the death of Cecelia “Cece” Barber Finona. The 59-year-old grandmother was reported missing on June 1, 2019, after her family was unable to reach her for several days, police officials said.
Finona’s remains were discovered in February in a remote area of Clark County. Her bones were positively identified on June 30.
“Today we have very mixed feelings,” Farmington police chief Steve Hebbe said in a July 2 statement. “This marks the ending of two years of searching, and we’re deeply saddened at the outcome.
“We will continue working, as we have since the day she disappeared, to ensure the person responsible for this is held accountable. We offer our most heartfelt condolences to Cecelia’s family and friends.”
Jay previously served time in prison following a 1999 conviction for second-degree murder, the Farmington Daily Times reported. He was also convicted of two counts of aggravated battery of a household member.
Details of that case were not immediately available.
Finona’s daughter, Julietta Faria, told Dateline NBC in 2019 that Finona had moved home to New Mexico following her retirement, in part to care for her elderly mother. She retired as an Army master sergeant after 31 years in the service.
She reconnected with Jay, with whom she had attended boarding school, Faria said. Jay had recently been released from prison.
Faria said she last spoke to her mother on May 29, 2019.
“My mother and I were close. Very close,” Faria said. “She was my go-to person every time I got in my car. She was the one I talked to about everything, every day.”
Finona was last seen alive by her own mother the next day, on May 30, 2019, according to Farmington authorities. The elderly woman later told police that Finona and Jay had been arguing that night.
Early the next morning, she heard someone leave the home she shared with Finona and Jay. She never saw her daughter again.
The family became suspicious when they realized Finona was gone but her purse was still at the house. Jay was also missing from the home, as was Finona’s white 2016 Ford F-150 crew cab pickup truck.
Detectives who responded to the missing person report quickly suspected foul play.
“Evidence found at the home led Farmington detectives to be very concerned for the safety of Cecelia,” police officials said.
Court records obtained by The Associated Press indicate that police found a trail of blood from the bottom of the front porch to the gravel driveway. It appeared that someone had tried to hide the blood by covering the spots with potting soil, the documents said.
Authorities also found broken pieces of a pair of glasses, including a “single eyeglass lens covered in blood,” outside the home, the records stated. Finona wore corrective lenses.
Police put out an alert for Finona and Jay, as well as the missing truck. Finona’s family and friends also conducted their own searches throughout New Mexico and the Navajo Nation.
Both Jay and Finona are Navajo, authorities said.
“The Farmington Police Department is very concerned for the safety of Cecelia Finona,” Hebbe said in a statement at the time. “Based on Jerry Jay’s actions up to this point, we do believe he is a person of interest in this case and holds information that is extremely important to ensuring her safe return.”
Around 6 a.m. on May 31, Jay was seen on ATM security footage using Finona’s debit card in Farmington, the AP reported. He was seen using the card again about three hours later in Window Rock, Arizona, which is the capital of the Navajo Nation.
Jay was next spotted using Finona’s debit card two days later in Kingman, Arizona, and in Las Vegas. In the footage from Kingman, he is seen at the ATM, withdrawing cash, and then getting into Finona’s truck and driving away, the Daily Times reported.
All total, he withdrew more than $1,200 from Finona’s account, according to police.
Surveillance footage showed no sign of Finona as Jay used her bank card.
According to a criminal complaint from Washoe County, Nevada, Jay was picked up June 5, 2019, by police in Sparks, a city located just east of Reno. He was driving the white F-150 and had in his possession his missing girlfriend’s debit and credit cards.
Jay pleaded guilty the following August to possession of a credit card without consent and fraudulent use of a debit card. He is serving four to 10 years in a Nevada prison on those charges.
As of Monday, he remained in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, prison records showed.
After Finona’s remains were positively identified, the Missing & Murdered Diné Relatives Task Force issued a statement mourning her death. “Diné” is a Navajo word that means “the People,” and members of the tribe use the term to identify themselves.
“Cecelia was a mother, grandmother, auntie, sister and relative to many people who loved and cherished her,” task force representative Meskee Yatsayte said in the statement. “She was a U.S. Army veteran and community leader who believed in the importance of protecting her homeland and helping people.”
Amber Kanazbah Crotty, a delegate to the 24th Navajo Nation Council, commended Finona’s loved ones, particularly her daughter, for never giving up on finding the truth about what happened to her.
“At this time, I would call on (the) community to help carry Cecelia’s family through this grief, through healing prayers and strength,” Crotty said. “We will continue to advocate for justice for Cecelia.”
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