A ball of fire with twinkling blue eyes, Robert Arthur Wood Jr., a four-foot-six, 70-pound eight-year-old, gives as good as he gets when he and his brother, Ryan, a year younger, scrap over a toy. And yet Robert can’t talk, swim, sit still for a movie, or use the bathroom by himself. He happens to be severely autistic.
Ryan, also autistic but less so, hugs and kisses his brother. Robert is not as affectionate. But like many children with autism, Robert is fearless. As a toddler, he liked to climb on top of the television and the refrigerator. He also likes to wander. At Walmart, Robert’s mother, Barbara Locker, still puts him in the shopping cart. If he’s not held by the hand or by his shirt, he might run off.
That’s what happened on October 23, 2011, a warm Sunday afternoon. After lunch, the boys’ father, Robert Wood Sr., 34, and his girlfriend (Wood and Locker are separated) took Robert and Ryan for a walk at 80-acre North Anna Battlefield Park, in Virginia, 15 minutes from the boys’ home in Ruther Glen. This was no ordinary walk in the park. The hilly green thickets of central Virginia, where Grant vied with Lee in an epic battle for nearby Richmond, are prickly and hardscrabble, with skin-ripping greenbrier and blackberry bushes, not to mention coyotes and bobcats. In this land of ravines, swamps, mosquitoes, and water moccasins, the Union general soon discovered, inhospitality was endemic.
Though Robert can’t swim, he thinks he can.
Inside the park, narrow paths tunnel through dense woods. A warren of Confederate fortification leads to a bluff—with no guardrails—that plummets 90 feet. Below, the North Anna River rumbles through the boulders and class-three rapids of Falls Hole. Nothing separates the park’s other boundaries from a massive open gravel quarry, with its clatter of industrial dump trucks, bulldozers, and freight trains and the roar of controlled explosions. It’s a fantasyland for any boy, autistic or not.
At around 2:30 p.m., while the group was resting after a mile-long walk, Robert ran down a spur trail. Somehow both adults missed seeing him take off. Wearing a red long-sleeved shirt, blue pants, and blue tennis shoes, Robert would not have been difficult to spot. Yet he vanished.
Within an hour, the sheriff’s department was searching the area with canine teams. The dogs tracked Robert going toward the river. Like many autistic children, Robert is obsessed with water. Autistic kids can be hypersensitive to certain stimuli, and some experts believe that water is soothing to them. Though Robert can’t swim, he thinks he can.
Once Robert Wood was off and running, he likely moved from one thing that provoked his curiosity to the next—boulders to climb, trees to examine, the allure of a train-whistle blast. If not for the profusion of copperheads, blacksnakes, and corn snakes, it would have been the ideal place to play hide-and-seek.
Past the age of four, children typically recognize that they are lost and will look for their parents. But Robert is different. A sprained ankle or hunger pangs wouldn’t make him cry. He’d harbor no fear of the dark or the bogeyman, so he wouldn’t get panicky at dusk. Instead, if he were to hear people coming through the woods, he might well take cover from them, thinking it was a game.
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As the hours passed without any sign of Robert, authorities called in support from neighboring counties, Virginia State Police, and local search organizations. They issued a reverse 911, using computers to send a message about the lost boy to all the landlines in the area. Neighbors started searching their yards and beyond.
Norma Jean Williams, Robert’s maternal grandmother, a dialysis technician, found out that Robert was missing on Monday morning, while she was at work. One of her coworkers had heard about it on the radio.
Williams, 58, jumped into her 2003 Dodge pickup and drove to Battlefield Park. A deputy sheriff stopped her at the entrance. No one was allowed in; the park was being treated as a crime scene. And because Williams, Locker, and Wood were emotionally distraught and the park terrain was strenuous, authorities didn’t allow them to participate in the search. So Williams parked her truck near the entrance and refused to leave until the boy had been found.
As Monday afternoon wore on, the area around Williams’s red pickup looked like Armageddon. County and state-police dog teams were dispatched in the woods and nearby fields. Tactical dive teams headed for the river. Helicopters thundered overhead, using infrared cameras designed to detect heat through smoke, fog, and haze. Because autistic children are often drawn to bright objects and certain noises, fire trucks twirled their lights and ran backup sirens, audible across hundreds of acres, hoping to attract Robert.
Tuesday morning, the frustrated sheriff leading the search handed control of the scene to an expert—Billy Chrimes of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
“Given the circumstances,” says Chrimes, a blunt, optimistic outdoorsman, “I felt like we were going to find him the first night.” After all, Chrimes had modern technology, dogs, choppers, and thousands of searchers—including equestrian, kayak, and rappelling teams—at his fingertips.
By 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Robert had been missing 48 hours. At home, he took medication to help him sleep on a normal schedule. “He would wake up at 3 a.m. and start playing like it was the middle of the day,” Locker says. That meant in the wild, he might be somewhat nocturnal, hunkering down for at least part of the daytime, when he’d be easier to spot if he were moving around.
Authorities caught their first break when sheriff’s department canine handler Matt Crist found footprints a half mile east of where Robert was last seen, on a sandy bank above the river. Robert and Ryan had been wearing the same kind of Nike shoes. The shoe print was the right size, but Ryan’s shoe had small square patterns. This track was scored with bars and flex grooves. It wasn’t a match.
If the boy hadn’t drowned, thought Chrimes, he was playing hide-and-seek.
When it comes to a lost child, communities will rally in astounding numbers. Wednesday morning, people began registering at the volunteer center before daybreak. Other well-meaning neighbors combed the grounds and the river on everything from ATVs to horseback to paddleboards. In all, 940 volunteers were deployed that day. This was a blessing and a curse, since the extra traffic tramples footprints and contaminates the scent pools that tracking dogs are trained to find. On the other hand, the vast number of volunteers allowed them to search a larger area.
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On Wednesday, hundreds of volunteers walked in grids for miles through thick, swampy woods, many squeezing empty plastic bottles, making a crinkling noise Robert was known to like. They fanned out in long lines, combing woodlands and harvested cornfields, climbed over Civil War trenches, and crawled under farmhouse porches.
Many of the volunteers were themselves parents of autistic children. A Dallas businessman, the father of an autistic child, skipped his return flight after a meeting in Richmond, bought jeans and boots, and joined the line.
Two o’clock Wednesday afternoon marked the 72nd hour that Robert had been missing. Chrimes believed that if the boy hadn’t drowned, he was playing hide-and-seek and playing it well. He thought the boy was mobile, meaning that the areas they’d swept could be considered clean for only a short time.
Early Wednesday evening brought another glimmer of hope. Search and rescue specialist Scott Forbes’s Dutch shepherd, Da Wu, found a human scent. “Dogs are huge—just one can cover what a half dozen searchers can cover,” says Chrimes.
But Da Wu was getting thrown off by some other smell. Then Forbes saw something he didn’t like: a coyote shadowing them. “The boy would be an easy opportunity for a pack of coyotes,” Forbes recalls. An awful thought crossed his mind: Maybe they took him and buried him somewhere.
On Thursday morning, the mood turned darker. At around 11 a.m., an explosion shook the ground under Norma Jean Williams’s truck. The quarry had delayed a scheduled blast next to Battlefield Park for as long as it could. Officials said they had searched the area twice that day and needed to go ahead with the detonation.
For Robert to be found alive at this point was going to take a miracle.
Then, around 8:30 that evening, two trackers heard vaguely human noises coming from the woods. Chrimes responded with everything he had: canine teams and searchers with night-vision goggles and thermal-imaging cameras. They scoured the area for four and a half hours. At 1 a.m., they gave up. If it was Robert, he had pulled another vanishing act.
That night, it started to rain, and it got colder. Williams had to turn on the heat in her truck. It was her fourth night in her cramped Dodge, and her nerves, her body, and her will were shot. “I gave up hope,” she says. “I cursed the Lord. I told him he wasn’t any God to children.”
Friday afternoon, authorities finally let Wood, Locker, and Williams into the park. The three hurried down the paths calling out “Robert” and “Bud,” his nickname. There was no answer. For Robert to be found alive at this point was going to take a miracle.
That morning, a Richmond-area man told his wife he wanted to go look for the boy. On the way, he stopped at a store to buy a coat, gloves, and a hat.
The man drove to the volunteer processing center to join the search. But he was too late for that day’s training session and was turned away. Instead, he drove to the search area, parked, and followed his instincts. They led him to a dusty road beside the quarry.
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Less than a mile from where Robert had last been seen, the man walked between an agricultural field and the quarry. At some point, he either climbed a wire fence posted with no-trespassing signs and topped with two strands of barbed wire, or he found one of two openings where the fence had been breached by fallen trees. The man won’t say. Either way, he then pushed his way through scrub brush and onto the backfill from the quarry, scrambling over soft, gray earth toward a vast, deep quarry pit. He scanned the pocked, gravel-piled, eroded quarry moonscape. There, near a sheer chasm, in a deep, wet gully, he saw a figure lying on its left side, tucked into the fetal position.
The man in the new coat found Robert still dressed in all his clothes except his shoes. The boy was cold and scared. His hands and feet were purple and swollen. He had been mauled by insects and spiders and inhabited by chiggers and ticks. His body was covered in dirt, bruises, and scratches, and his head was skinned up. But he was alert. The man took off his new hat—a stocking cap—and put it on the boy’s head. He slipped his new gloves over the boy’s bloated hands and wrapped him in the new coat. He gave Robert some water, which he gulped down. Then he called 911.
Soon, several men formed a chain and passed the boy out of the gully to where others stood with a stretcher. Robert was airlifted in fair condition to a nearby hospital. By that evening, his condition was upgraded to good.
Barbara Locker let out a shriek when she found out Robert was alive and well. When Norma Jean Williams saw a sheriff’s car speed up and then heard that Robert had been found, she dropped to her knees. “I thought he was going to tell me he was dead,” she says. And when the volunteers were summoned back to their base stations and learned the good news, there were hugs and tears and shouts of joy.
Robert is back home with his mother and going to school. He still can’t tell where he was all that time or what he was doing. He and Ryan now wear transmitters around their ankles that send out a signal that can be tracked by law enforcement.
But Robert has also changed. “You can touch him now. You can hold him,” says Williams. “Before, he would never let you. When I say, ‘Give me a kiss,’ he gives me a kiss. And he doesn’t run off like he did.”
The man who found Robert insists on remaining unidentified and wants no credit for finding him. Instead, he issued this statement: “I was guided by the Holy Spirit. To take any recognition for finding Robert would take credit away from God.”
Another mystery was how Robert had beaten the odds and, for five days, evaded multiple searches of the area where he was ultimately found. “A dozen dogs on the ground … I’m still baffled by it,” says tracker Scott Forbes.
The only explanation is that anytime Robert heard someone nearby, he ran and hid. And he was darn good at it.
From Outside (August 2012), copyright © 2012 by Mariah Publications Corp., outside.com