Episode 120: Joshua Stratton

June 10, 2024

When a man suddenly vanishes from a small Nebraska town, his family and friends are left wondering: What happened to Josh?

Episode Media
Joshua Jay Stratton (WOWT)
Josh in the chainmail shirt he usually wore (Crawlspace Media)
Joshua’s mother Wendy Guida (WOWT)
The village of Alvo, Nebraska (Google Maps)
Andrew Stratton (Legacy)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a missing persons case that was recommended to me by a listener, someone who is hopeful that her friend can be found. Thanks to Jennie for sending in this case so we can share Josh’s story and spread the word about his disappearance. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

In the summer of 2018, 33-year-old Joshua Jay Stratton was living in the tiny town of Alvo, Nebraska, about 20 miles east of the capital city of Lincoln. Technically classified as a village, Alvo has a population of less than 200 people, the kind of place where everybody knows their neighbor and their neighbor’s business. Josh lived alone in a small house owned by his father Gregg. Gregg and Josh’s younger brother Andrew lived a few miles outside of town, but close enough that they saw each other often. Josh’s mom Wendy lived two states away in Oklahoma, but she kept in regular contact with her sons. They were her first babies, and she worried about them even as they grew into adulthood.

As adults, both Josh and Andrew had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and took medication to help manage their symptoms. According to the American Psychiatric Association, schizophrenia is a chronic brain disorder that can present itself through symptoms such as delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized thoughts. Without access to treatment, those living with schizophrenia can have a hard time holding down jobs and might find themselves in unsafe conditions. Access to treatment, however, can make a world of difference.

In an interview with the Missing podcast, Wendy said that both of her sons sometimes had trouble staying on their medication. In Josh’s case, it seemed to be a never-ending cycle brought on by inconsistent access to healthcare. Josh had joined the Marine Corps when became an adult, but didn’t last long. Wendy believes he was discharged because his schizophrenia had begun to manifest around that time. As a little boy, Josh had been a social butterfly, happy and curious about the world around him. But after leaving the Marines, he struggled, and he ended up spending some time in a mental health facility to get the help he needed. Thus began a cycle that would dominate his life for the next decade.

According to Wendy, Josh would get on medication and would do really well for a while. He would take care of himself and would willingly go to support meetings. But after a few months, he would stop taking his medication. It wouldn’t be long before he would get in trouble and end up in jail. The court would send him to the hospital where he would get treatment and medication and access to mental health counselors. Then, he would graduate from the program and be sent back home, and the cycle would start all over again.

When Josh was off his medication, he would get paranoid and afraid. He was known around town for wearing a chainmail shirt and shin guards with a pair of heavy boots. He often practiced shooting a bow and arrow in the yard. He believed these things would protect him, almost like a force field against whatever might come after him.

But even on his darkest days, Josh wasn’t a violent person. Wendy told the Missing podcast, “Josh was a kind, loving, gentle soul. He was different when he got off his medication.”

In June of 2018, Josh was on the upswing. He was taking care of himself and had been doing really well living on his own. His dad and brother lived nearby, and he was in regular contact with his mom. He relied on his family for financial support, but they felt confident that he could live independently while he was on his medication.

On Thursday, June 21st, Josh’s friend Dan stopped by the house to see him. Dan was surprised to find the back door wide open. When he stepped inside, he noticed that the house was a mess – Josh was usually good at keeping it clean when he was on his medication, so the state of disarray was a bit surprising. Dan called out for Josh, but there was no answer. Then, he saw two jugs of milk sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor. Dan later told 6 News, “The milk outside of the refrigerator… Josh was a pretty big fanatic about chocolate milk, and it’s not like him to leave that out [to] spoil.”

Dan went back outside and saw that Josh’s black SUV was parked in the yard as usual. Because Alvo was such a small town, Josh would often walk places rather than drive, but Dan still felt weird about it. Standing in the driveway, Dan called Josh’s dad Gregg and asked if Josh was at his house. But Gregg said he hadn’t seen Josh in three or four days.

It’s unclear what happened in the days following Dan’s discovery, but on July 2 – nearly two weeks later – Gregg Stratton finally called the Cass County Sheriff’s Office and reported his son missing. According to the initial bulletin released by the sheriff’s office, Gregg said that he’d last seen Josh on June 23rd, two days after Dan stopped by Josh’s house. Gregg said that he had taken Josh grocery shopping and dropped him off at home. But Wendy told the Missing podcast that when she talked to Gregg, he said that he last saw Josh on the 15th.

Maybe Gregg just had his dates mixed up, but thanks to Wendy’s persistence and determination, we know that Josh was actually last seen on June 20th. Wendy was able to get surveillance footage from a Dollar General store in the neighboring town of Eagle, just 6 miles south of Alvo. Around 7:30pm, Josh was spotted on camera carrying two jugs of milk, both chocolate and regular. He swiped his EBT card at the register and left the store. The only indication that something might be wrong was the fact that Josh was wearing his chainmail shirt, which he usually only wore when he was feeling unsafe.

We know that Josh made it back to his house after the Dollar General because the groceries he had purchased were there, and the chocolate milk had been opened. Also left behind was the chainmail shirt that he was seen wearing in the surveillance footage. Sometime between arriving home and Dan showing up at the house the next day, Joshua Stratton disappeared.

Investigators have considered the possibility that Josh simply wandered off. He left his medications behind; could he have suffered a schizophrenic episode that led him to walk away, possibly getting him into some sort of trouble? The rural landscape surrounding Alvo would make it very easy for someone to disappear and very difficult to find them.

However, the fact that Josh left his chainmail shirt behind suggests that he wasn’t in a state of paranoia when he disappeared. Friends and family insist that he would have taken it with him if he felt threatened.

There was also the possibility that Josh left home on purpose, maybe to start a new life somewhere else. But other than his EBT card, Josh didn’t have his own income. He lived in a house his father owned and relied on his family for money. If he wanted to start over, he wouldn’t have gotten far.

Wendy told 6 News that she believes in her heart that Josh has met with foul play. “I do believe he was murdered. He just disappeared off the face of the earth with no contact, and that’s not like him… It breaks my heart, and I keep wondering where the heck he is?”

Unfortunately, Josh’s disappearance wouldn’t be the only heartbreak for Wendy.

In February of 2022, nearly four years after Josh vanished, Wendy received devastating news: her son Andrew had been shot and killed.

According to court documents, Cass County emergency services received a 911 call around 9:30pm on Sunday, February 13th. Gregg Stratton told the dispatcher that his son Andrew had hit him on the head during an argument and he needed assistance. Deputies arrived first at Gregg’s mother’s house, where Gregg told them that Andrew had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and that he might have access to a bow and arrow. The deputies then drove to Gregg’s house with the intent to arrest Andrew for assault. When they arrived, they knocked on the front and back doors but got no response.

At this point, the deputies came up with a plan to enter the home. When they did, they discovered that Andrew had barricaded himself in the basement. Deputy Elliot Schmit testified before a grand jury that they tried to negotiate with Andrew and get him to surrender, but he was speaking and acting erratically. “He was talking about everything from how he was the one that killed Osama bin Laden to [how] he was downstairs strapped to a bomb.”

Just as the deputies felt they were making some progress, Andrew stopped talking. They heard a sound that made them wonder if Andrew had fallen and hurt himself, so they decided to go down the stairs and try to enter the basement. But in the dark of the staircase, they couldn’t see Andrew very well. Deputy Schmit testified that he heard a clicking sound as though someone had taken the safety off of a weapon. He saw Andrew holding a compound bow and pulling back an arrow. Schmit fired his gun nine times, striking Andrew seven times in the arm and back. The deputies attempted to perform life saving measures, but Andrew Stratton died at the scene.

Members of the grand jury questioned why the deputies had rushed into the basement rather than continuing to speak to Andrew through the door. Andrew had clearly been having a schizophrenic episode but was not an immediate threat to the deputies or to anyone else. They had plenty of time to wait for mental health services to arrive, but they hadn’t called for help and had instead forced a confrontation. One juror asked, “Where on their list of importance was preservation of life? They could’ve sat upstairs for 10 hours with him in the basement. I mean, you would’ve been in the same spot you were when you started, but he also wouldn’t be dead.”

Ultimately, the deputies were cleared of any wrongdoing, but the grand jury recommended that the Cass County Sheriff’s Office expand its training on de-escalation techniques and use of force, especially when dealing with issues of mental health.

In the years since Josh disappeared and Andrew was killed, Wendy has continued to push for answers even in the midst of her grief. She told 6 News that losing two sons was almost unbearable. “It’s just like a nightmare that never ends. I don’t even know — I just tell God, ‘I can’t do this; you’re going to have to do this for me. Right now, I can’t do it.”

Wendy has maintained that Josh didn’t disappear of his own accord, that he most likely met with foul play. Of course, in a small town like Alvo, rumors swirl, and many of them center on Gregg Stratton. I don’t usually like to speculate on this podcast, but I think it’s important to look at this case from all angles.

The biggest question is why Gregg waited nearly two full weeks before reporting his son missing. When Dan called him on June 21st, Gregg should have followed up, should have at the very least gone to Josh’s house to check on him. But according to friends of the family, Gregg didn’t tell anyone that Josh was missing or ask if anyone had seen him lately.

Wendy told the Missing podcast that Gregg also had a weird story about the milk. She said that Gregg told her he had put Josh’s groceries away for him. When Wendy asked why the milk had been left out, Gregg said that he left it outside the garage refrigerator because he didn’t want it to spoil. Wendy then told him that Dan had found the milk on the kitchen floor, not the garage. Gregg said he must have not been paying attention. For Wendy, this convoluted story was evidence that Gregg was lying, perhaps about more than the milk.

Friends of Josh and Andrew have also made claims about Gregg’s possible involvement. In the months before his death, Andrew was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Lincoln. While there, he allegedly told a hospital worker that back in 2018, Josh had taken Gregg’s truck without permission. In his anger, Gregg had hurt Josh. Andrew told the hospital worker that Gregg had put Josh with the pigs. Some friends have alleged that Gregg knew Andrew was talking and called the cops to the house on purpose.

I want to emphasize that all of these rumors are just that – rumors. Everyone, including Gregg Stratton, is innocent until proven guilty, and it’s up to investigators to figure out what the truth is. But I do believe that someone out there knows more than they’re saying, that they have information that could solve this case and bring Josh home. As Wendy said, “No matter what happened to him, he deserves to be remembered… Keep your eyes and ears open in case anybody says anything or remembers anything.”

Joshua Jay Stratton was last seen on June 20, 2018, in Alvo, Nebraska. At the time of his disappearance, he was 33 years old. He stands 6’4” tall and has blue eyes, blond hair, and a beard. He suffers from schizophrenia and requires medication. If you have any information about the disappearance or whereabouts of Joshua Stratton, please contact the Cass County Sheriff’s Office at 402-296-9370. And share Josh’s story on social media – you never know who might hold the missing piece.