Survival Story: The Little Boy Who Couldnt Cry Help | Reader's Digest

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.

  • Your Comments

    • http://www.facebook.com/erlindaguzman.demicais Erlinda Guzman Demicais

      PLS SEND ME UPDATES HOW TO CARE A MILD AUTISTIC CHILD AND IS THEIR MEDICATIONS TO CONTROL TANTRUMS AND WHAT IS THEIR LIFE SPAN WE ARE SICKLY AND OLD WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF OUR GRANDSON HE WAS ABANDON BY THE FATHER AND THE MOTHER SEEMS NOT CARE HIS FUTURE

    • Daphne Davis

      Alex McClain has a younger brother, Ben. Morgan Bruner has an older brother, Thomas. Sylvester Toe Jr. has an older sister, Cassandra. I developed mild autism when I was two-and-a-half. One day when I was a five-year-old girl, I stole a book that I liked from the dentist’s office. I am autistic. I used to pull Alex Clark’s hair. Alex Clark was a girl in my church. My mom left a library book wet in the rain. That was in 1958. I was born in 1987. My older sister, Elizabeth, was born in 1985. I had social skills problems. Alex Clark is Greyson Clark’s older sister. Cassie Toe is Sylvester Toe Jr.’s older sister. Ibilola Fayemi has two older brothers. Ibilola Fayemi was a girl in my dad’s church. I was a five-year-old girl in 1992. I was an eight-year-old girl in 1995. Casey Murray has an older sister, Cara, and a younger brother, Daniel.