DETROIT

She went missing in Peru. Now her family 'will not allow Carla's case to be forgotten'

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — It's been three years since Carla Valpeoz was supposed to be on a flight home to Detroit from Peru. She didn't make that plane, but her family said they haven't given up hope that they'll get her back.

Valpeoz, who would have turned 38 on Dec. 8, was known for defying expectations of the legally blind. She crisscrossed the globe, sometimes solo, to explore new places. The Detroiter set out on a trip on Dec. 2, 2018, to trek the historic Macchu Picchu site in the Andes Mountains in Peru with a friend when she failed to show up for her returning flight. Her family and friends say they haven't heard from her since.

"It's like she evaporated," her brother, Carlos Valpeoz, told The Detroit News. "I do not like using the word disappeared to describe her case. She did not simply vanish from this planet. Someone is responsible for her abduction ... and has gone to great lengths to make sure she is never found."

Carla Valpeoz

After Valpeoz went missing, her 73-year-old father searched for her in Peru until he was forced to leave in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, he and her brother are working from Vancouver in British Columbia and have been asking the United States government to take action.

Prior to visiting Peru, Carla Valpeoz had visited 20 of the 22 countries on her bucket list, her brother said, as she endured a degenerate eye disease that left her completely blind in her right eye and partially blind in her left.

"She wanted to see as many places as possible before her world went dark, which she knew was inevitable. Everywhere she went, she studied their culture beforehand and while she was traveling," Carlos Valpeoz said.

Through her travels, Carla Valpeoz enjoyed studying in Egypt, volunteering in Yemen, and teaching English to school children in Papua New Guinea. She was fluent in English, Spanish, Arabic and Braille, her brother said. 

"Carla was kind and giving. She always put others before herself. She was ambitious and intelligent, and if she was your friend, she would do anything for you," he said.

The opportunity to visit Peru came when her friend, Alicia Steele, was invited to a wedding in Lima, and "the timing just made sense," her brother said.

The globetrotting Texas native and Steele took a bus from Detroit to Chicago on Dec. 2 and then flew into Lima. The pair attended the wedding, then ventured off to reach Macchu Pichu. However, when it came time to head to the next adventure in Cusco, Peru, Steele decided she didn't want to travel further and Valpeoz traveled solo, Carlos Valpeoz said.

Valpeoz was due to be on a flight departing Dec. 15, but her family believes she went missing on or about Dec. 12.

She relied on a cane but relished exploring independently, family and friends said. She was last seen in Písac, a village, where video footage showed her at the entrance of an archaeological park.

Since then, local authorities have scoured the area extensively with a helicopter, drones, cadaver dogs, sniffing hounds and professional mountaineers.

Carlos Valpeoz says that since his sister went missing, Peruvian National Police have ignored countless leads, attempted to shelve the case and failed to conduct a proper investigation. The agency did not respond to The News for this story.

Carla Valpeoz is shown walking along the Macchu Picchu site in the Andes Mountains in Peru in 2018 in a picture taken by a fellow traveler. Valpeoz's family estimates she went missing on or about Dec. 12, 2018.

"My father and I have tirelessly investigated Carla's case. In many instances, we have been left to our own devices, providing the Peruvian National Police with countless leads," he said. "There are countless instances where we have been left with more questions than answers."

It took the family a year to get Carla Valpeoz's case classified as a homicide.

"I cannot share specific details with you at this time, but everything we have learned leads us to believe that she was most likely assaulted, murdered and buried," her brother said. 

"What is unfortunate about how this case has been handled is that the Peruvian National Police understand this, but it has shown little interest in preventing something like this from happening again. The only reason her case remains open is because of the work that my father and I have done."

Carla Valpeoz

Carlos Valpeoz said on Dec. 21, 2018, Carla's WhatsApp was compromised and that her account was deleted from her phone. There are four major cellphone providers in Peru and, "as of today, police still haven't attempted to ping her last location."

While they continue to have weekly conversations with the American Citizen Services at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, the agency's reach is limited, Carlos Valpeoz said, adding not enough has been done and that the U.S. Department of Justice has not explained to the family why the FBI won't open up an international cooperation case. 

"Carla is an American citizen and devoted community leader," her brother said. "She has always put those in need above herself. She has fought for her blind community, her Latino community, and championed human rights issues."

The State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs said in a statement to The News Monday that: "We are aware of a U.S. citizen missing in Peru. When a U.S. citizen is missing, we work closely with local authorities as they carry out their search efforts, and we share information with families however we can.

"The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State. We stand ready to provide appropriate assistance to U.S. citizens in need and to their families."

Carlos Valpeoz said the State Department, through its American Citizen Services program, did look into the case but high employee turnover has brought on several new caseworkers who "don't have much jurisdiction anyways," he said.

The Detroit office of the FBI referred questions from The News to the Miami office that handles international cases. That office did not respond to an inquiry from The News.

They will never stop looking for Carla, Carlos Valpeoz said. Even without finding her, he said their efforts will not be considered a waste.

"All our work and the terrible pain that this incident has caused will not be in vain," he said. "I will not allow Carla's case to be forgotten."

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_