TUSAYAN — "We have a 13-year-old boy missing. Think about that. Think."
Those were the final words heard by searchers in a briefing Saturday morning before heading out to look for missing Tusayan teen Justin Richardson in a 64-mile area of Kaibab National Forest. At the end of the day, the 152 searchers had found no trace of the boy.
A Navajo County search and rescue mounted unit prepares to go out to search for Justin Richardson Saturday.
"We found no clues, no evidence and we did a pretty thorough search," Capt. Terry Lawson of the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office said Monday morning. "We gave it a good shot. The investigation is continuing."
Comparing the situation to finding "a needle in a haystack," Lawson said the search area features challenging terrain with little water.
"He could be 20 yards over there and we wouldn’t know it," Lawson said while looking over the area about five miles west of Moqui Lodge near the Grand Canyon Railway tracks. "If he’s out here, he probably didn’t survive. One way or another, there needs to be closure. The most difficult search you can have is to look for someone who is unresponsive."
Saturday’s search began just after 9 a.m. and went until 7 p.m., although dogs were out during the early-morning hours during cooler temperatures. National Park Service and Department of Public Safety helicopters flew the area, but only before 8 a.m. and after 6 p.m., because of the corridor used by air tours.
"It’s in the flight path of the air-tour operators," Lawson said. "They are keeping an eye on the ground. In effect, they have become a search resource."
Searchers from eight agencies were on the scene Saturday. Besides the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, others contributing were the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Department of Public Safety and search and rescue personnel from Maricopa, Pinal, Yavapai, Mohave and Navajo counties.
Sgt. Randy Servis, incident commander on scene, said there were 152 searchers on foot, horseback and in all-terrain and four-wheel drive vehicles. About eight dogs, bloodhounds and shepherds, took part in the search. More than half stayed on Sunday to keep looking.
"We have people from all over the state here," Lawson said. "All the sheriff’s offices have search and rescue coordinators ... and they network with one another."
All possibilities are being examined in the search effort. For example, searchers were assigned to keep an eye on condors to see if they are circling a particular area.
It’s possible that a lost person could fall to the natural surroundings. In fact, searchers were asked to be careful because of the area’s mountain lions and snakes, along with cliffs and overhangs. In the midst of monsoon season, lightning has been a daily occurrence. There was even a report of an aggressive pack of wild dogs roaming the forest.
Richardson was last seen in a spot near Road Tank off Forest Road 328 or Rowe Well Road in the Coconino Wash area. Coordinators segmented a 64-square-mile area and assigned searchers to those areas.
"Where he was last seen becomes our primary search area," Lawson said. "Then we expand out beyond that. Basically, it’s a bunch of little searches within a big search."
Theories on Richardson’s whereabouts vary from a possible mountain lion attack to an abduction to running away to Chicago to be with his girlfriend.
One thing is certain — the teen was familiar with the area’s terrain. As a lifelong resident, officials feel that it's difficult to imagine Richardson not being able to find his way out. The railroad tracks were not far from where he was last seen, Grand Canyon National Park lies only a few miles north, frequent air tours fly overhead and Rowe Well Road is one of the more well-traveled back roads in the forest.
Richardson went out into the woods with three friends, ranging in age from 18 to 21, on the Thursday evening of June 28. Lawson said they drove out in a car to an area near the tracks to "party," smoking methamphetamine.
From there, a series of odd events led to three of the four being found. Two of the men took off on foot. Apparently disoriented as to their location, the men walked south on the tracks toward Valle and were found the next day by Grand Canyon Railway employees.
Meanwhile, the car wouldn’t start Friday morning for the remaining man and Richardson. At about 9 a.m., Richardson’s remaining companion was coming down of his drug high and fell asleep.
"That’s the last time he saw him," Lawson said. "Friday at about 5 p.m., he woke up ... stayed the night and hiked back on Saturday. He made it a few miles up the road and was picked up."
After making it back to town, the man did not report Richardson’s disappearance and neither did the other two who were found by the railway. On the Sunday afternoon of July 1, Richardson’s father, John, reported his son missing to local sheriff’s deputies.
"They started doing inquiries and treated it as a runaway case," Lawson said. "Then it became obvious that he might be out here. That’s when the investigators got involved. They began tracking down leads ... but the problem was that we had been several days into it by then."
The father and mother, who lives in Flagstaff, were in the search camp Saturday waiting for any word. The family requested no interviews from the media.
Meanwhile, many friends and acquaintances of the Richardson family in Grand Canyon-Tusayan were talking about the incident last week, hoping the boy decided to run away and is still alive somewhere.
The sheriff's office met Monday to determine what course of action to take next.
More like this story
- Justin Lee Richardson disappeared from the Grand Canyon area in 2001 and has never been found
- North Rim rescue: Pennsylvania family, separated in winter storm, found safe
- Update: Missing Williams 4-year-old found safe
- Investigation points to homicide in case of missing teenager<br>
- Photographer appears<br>to be flash flood victim