When Maureen Fields went missing in Pahrump in February 2006, suspicion immediately fell to her husband, Paul.
The whispers gave way to an intense police investigation a short time later, when her car was found abandoned, the keys still in the ignition, in an empty desert valley just west of town.
But after six years spent trying to find the 41-year-old woman and collect enough evidence to charge her husband with murder, investigators are exploring a new lead in the case that points to an 81-year-old sex offender in a California jail.
Officials with the Nye County sheriff's office have announced that traces of DNA collected from Maureen Fields' green Hyundai have been identified as that of Keith Holmes, a registered sex offender from Pearblossom, Calif.
Holmes was arrested in June by the Los Angeles County sheriff's office after authorities said he tried to lure a 12-year-old girl into his car near Palmdale, Calif. He was already on probation after two convictions for molesting or annoying a child.
Nye County Detective David Boruchowitz said Holmes is now a suspect in Maureen Fields' disappearance, but he stopped short of saying that the new evidence exonerates Paul Fields or anyone else.
"This is a totally separate branch of the investigation," he said. "We have not cleared anyone in this case. We still consider it an open investigation."
LIVING WITH A BULL'S-EYE
Paul Fields, 63, still lives in the house he shared with Maureen.
The couple is listed in the 2012 Pahrump phone book, but the number has been disconnected. The Hyundai is parked behind the garage with vanity plates, DGSRGR8, that Fields said he got as a tribute to his wife's love of animals.
He said he and Maureen got together when she was 19.
"A friend of mine was dating her, and I stole her away from him. And he was my best man at my wedding," he said. "I used to fix her car, and one thing led to another."
The couple moved from New Jersey to the town 60 miles west of Las Vegas about 10 months before Maureen disappeared.
Fields said he knew officers had "a bull's-eye" on him from the start. He said they came to his house 10 to 15 times in the early stages of the investigation.
"The problem with this whole case is the cops. That's the whole problem. They just keep coming back to me, keep coming back to me," Fields said. "I used to tell them every time they would come, 'I hope you arrest me. It's going to increase my pocketbook.' "
Asked what kind of toll the investigation has taken on him, Fields said, "I don't know how I've actually survived it. I can honestly see why people kill themselves. It's been almost seven years now."
Sheriff Tony DeMeo said Maureen Fields' disappearance represents Nye County's only unsolved murder, but he was reluctant to describe it as a cold case.
He said his office has never stopped searching for the woman, even employing unusual tactics such as using remote-controlled drones to fly over the desert to look for disturbed earth or other clues.
For the past few years, on the anniversary of her disappearance, DeMeo's office put out notices to remind the public about the case and try to shake loose new information.
"We exhausted every lead from the very beginning, but we still have not been able to find Maureen Fields," the sheriff said. "We don't want her family and friends to think we've forgotten about her."
Paul Fields said he wants her found too.
"It's never dead in your mind. You're waiting for her to come up the driveway because you never know," he said.
ONE AND ONLY SUSPECT
DeMeo downplayed how hard his office pushed to have Fields brought up on charges. He said his office consulted prosecutors on the case but never officially submitted it for prosecution.
Nye County District Attorney Brian Kunzi tells a different story. He said the sheriff's office repeatedly has asked for Fields to be charged in his wife's death, most recently earlier this year. There never seemed to be enough evidence to proceed, he said.
But that isn't meant as a criticism of DeMeo or his detectives, Kunzi said. They are doing their jobs, and he is doing his, he said.
Detectives seemed to have plenty of reasons to focus on Fields as their one and only suspect.
Maureen Fields' friends and family told them that their marriage seemed troubled and that she often said she was afraid of her husband. On Valentine's Day, the day before she was reported missing, her co-workers at a Pahrump bank said she was visibly upset and talked ominously about something bad happening to her.
Based on items found in her car, authorities initially suspected she might have driven out to the desert to kill herself. Eventually, though, they came to think the scene had been staged by her killer.
"They found my .22 rifle in her car," Fields said. "I don't even know if the damn thing works. I never shot it. It's 80 years old. Why she had it in the car is beyond me. I don't know. She didn't know the first thing about guns."
Scrutiny of Fields intensified again in 2009, when he petitioned the court to have Maureen officially declared dead three years after she vanished.
The sheriff's office learned about Holmes and the DNA match in August but kept the information under wraps as they investigated the new lead.
Boruchowitz said he traveled to California to interview Holmes, but the detective declined to reveal details of the conversation.
The DNA match is being disclosed now because word leaked out about it and sheriff's officials wanted to make sure the correct information was conveyed to the public, Boruchowitz said.
Nye County detectives hope the announcement will help them drum up more information about Holmes and the time he spent in Pahrump.
"That's what we're hoping for," DeMeo said. "We're still trying to close this case."
Authorities said the man began traveling to Pahrump, most likely in a 1965 Ford camper, in 2006. Anyone with information is asked to call Nye County detectives at 775-751-7000. Information also can be submitted confidentially to email@example.com.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Matt Ward is a writer for the Pahrump Valley Times. Contact reporter Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350. Contact reporter Mike Blasky at email@example.com or 702-383-0283.