Survival Story: The Little Boy Who Couldn’t Cry Help

Eight-year-old Robert was nonverbal with an autism spectrum disorder, so when he vanished in a Virginia state park and prompted the largest manhunt in state history, rescuers knew that finding him wouldn't be easy. They were right.

By Dean King from Outside magazine

Survival Story: The Little Boy Who Couldn’t Cry HelpErika Larsen
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.

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.

Become more interesting every week!

Get our Read Up newsletter

Sending Message
how we use your e-mail

Your Comments

blog comments powered by Disqus