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 HelpHal JespersenDrewry's Bluff, part of Virginia's National Battlefield Park
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.

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.

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.

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.,

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