General

He was acting strangely. Then he vanished into the Virginia wilderness.

He was acting strangely. Then he vanished into the Virginia wilderness. thumbnail


National

The disappearance of 18-year-old Ty Sauer set off a frantic search in a densely wooded area of Shenandoah National Park.

A car drives through Shenandoah National Park in Virginia near Pinnacles Overlook on June 7, 2022. In April 2021, Ty Sauer, 18, ran into the dense foliage of this mountain park. He was discovered dead days later. Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez.

By Lizzie Johnson, Washington Post

SHENANDOAH NATIONAL PARK, Va. — The 911 call reached a dispatcher just after 10: 45 p.m.

Chandra Maxwell couldn’t contain her panic.

“My son just crashed his car on Skyline Drive,” she wailed. “Please! He ran out of the car, and now he’s in the woods. Please, you’ve got to help me.”

The dispatcher at the Page County Sheriff’s Office offered to transfer her to the headquarters for Shenandoah National Park. As the call beeped, Chandra, 48, peered into the darkness. Her 18-year-old son, Ty, was out there somewhere, lost in the Virginia wilderness.

Ty’s father, John Sauer, 54, swept the flashlight of his cellphone along the tree line, looking for him.

It was Thursday, April 22, 2021, and the couple had chased their son more than 300 miles from their home in Union Beach, N.J., to a scenic overlook in Shenandoah, a place none of them had ever been. Somehow, Ty — an honor roll student just two months from his high school graduation — had suddenly become one of the thousands of people who go missing in a national park each year.

It was springtime in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the knuckles of the red oaks about to burst into bloom, though the nighttime temperature still hovered four degrees below freezing. John stuffed his hands into the pockets of his thin sweatshirt, the cold knifing his skin.

How long could his boy survive out there?

Aliens at work

Ty had been acting strangely for a few days.

On Monday, he’d messaged his mom to ask why she’d sent aliens to his job at Five Below, where he stocked the shelves and manned the discount store’s cash register. Early the next morning, when Chandra texted to remind him about afternoon track practice, Ty replied that he was already there. Later, he told his aunt that he’d been speaking with his grandfather, who died in 2016.

Chandra feared that Ty might be on drugs. But before she could take him to the hospital that Wednesday to figure out what was wrong, John found Ty unresponsive in the living room, in a catatonic state as he watched cartoons. He called an ambulance. When the medics arrived, Ty had a seizure.

At the hospital, it took eight staff members to hold Ty down. He was stabilized with Benadryl and Ativan. A drug panel came back clean. Though his parents told the emergency room staff that Ty appeared to be hallucinating, he was discharged. This confounded Chandra and John, who had hoped that he’d be held at the hospital overnight.

Chandra resolved to take Ty to his pediatrician. Wanting to keep him safe until she could get an appointment, she took away his cellphone and hid his car keys. But on Thursday morning, while Chandra was in the shower, Ty stole the keys to her 2006 Hyundai Elantra. Dressed in flannel pajama pants from Christmas and a blue sweatshirt, his sneakers still wrapped in yellow hospital booties, he’d tucked the protein shake he’d just made in the car’s cup holder and backed out of the driveway.

When his parents called to ask where he’d gone, Ty told them he was driving to a nearby convenience store. More than an hour later, he still wasn’t home. Chandra and John pinged his cellphone on an app that allowed them to see his location in real-time. Ty was in Philadelphia. They immediately followed — along with Chandra’s sister and teenage nephew — in the sister’s black Jeep Cherokee.

The journey took them across five state lines. In Pennsylvania, Ty bought a sandwich at Chick-fil-A and paid $34.29 for gas. Traffic cameras in Maryland twice ticketed him for speeding. They nearly caught up to him in Washington, D.C., as he wound past the White House and the capital’s monuments, but he’d evaded them, continuing on until he hit Luray in Virginia, and his location — along with cell service — vanished.

It was a hunch that prompted Chandra and John to turn into Shenandoah. Though he hadn’t been to many national parks, their son loved being outdoors, once describing it as his “method for clearing my head.” Maybe he’d seen the park entrance sign in Luray, too.

The couple, who worked in television production in New York, wended along famed Skyline Drive, the 105-mile scenic route through Shenandoah’s nearly 200,000 acres.

A few miles up the Blue Ridge, they found Ty at the scenic overlook, listening to music in the locked car, the engine idling. Chandra hopped out of the truck and pulled on the sedan’s driver’s side door.

“Ty, it’s me! It’s Mom!” she yelled. “Let me in! Let me in!”

John pounded his fists against the vehicle’s back windows, trying to break the glass. Ty looked at them blankly. He twisted the key in the ignition, not understanding that the car was already on. Then, he floored the sedan into reverse, nearly running over his dad. He swerved around a bend in the road. At Mile Marker 37, he veered across the opposite lane and slammed into a low brick wall. The airbags poofed.

Chandra and John followed in the truck, only 30 seconds behind him. They quickly came upon the crash. The front bumper of the Elantra was twisted and mangled. The horn blared incessantly. Ty sprang from the car and sprinted into the forest. He was swallowed by darkness.

John ripped the battery connection out of the car’s engine to quiet its horn. He worried that Ty wouldn’t be able to hear their voices over its shriek. He screamed his son’s name into the woods and waited, listening for the fall of footsteps. It was almost midnight.

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Chandra waited in the truck, where she was now talking to a second dispatcher. Her voice was ragged, punctuated by sobs. The dispatcher promised to send up a ranger. She told Chandra to leave the hazard lights on.

“It’s going to take just a little bit,” the dispatcher said. “You have to be patient, okay? Because you are up in the park.”

“I know, I know, but he’s my son, and he’s in the woods.”

“Just take a deep breath. Stay with us. Someone will be there soon.”

‘Track traps’

Melissa Moses was at park headquarters in Luray when the message from dispatch sounded on her cellphone.

Just like a small town, Shenandoah has its own law enforcement division. Moses is one of the rangers who protect the park from people, and vice versa. She read the alert: A teen had crashed his car on Skyline Drive. She was the closest ranger, so she raced up the Blue Ridge in her park-issued SUV – lights and sirens blazing — to Mile Marker 37.

Moses had worked for the National Park Service for 15 years, stationed in places such as St. Louis, where she patrolled the country’s smallest national park — the Gateway Arch — and Buffalo National River in Arkansas before coming to Shenandoah in 2016. Her husband worked as a ranger in the park, too. They’d both seen people go missing.

She knew fatalities weren’t uncommon. People had heart attacks on hot days and drowned in swift rivers. They fell off ledges or intentionally disappeared into the forest, not wanting to be found. From 2007 to 2020, 3,020 people died on Park Service land, which encompasses more than 85 million acres, including monuments, rivers, battlefields, seashores, and more.

That’s one death every two days.

But more often, people were found unharmed. In the past five years, 16,077 search-and-rescue missions have been conducted, according to data obtained from the Park Service, which covers the cost of those efforts. Shenandoah had 67, including Ty’s, last year. The most important thing, Moses knew, was time. The sooner you found someone, the higher the probability that they’d be alive.

Moses has helped locate a mushroom hunter who’d lost his way while foraging for spring morels, and a few college students lugging Walmart gear with the tags still attached, confused and separated from the rest of their group. It helped to know whom she was looking for — what a person was wearing, what they were like.

“Those are the things I think about,” Moses said later. “What is this person experiencing right now? Where are their decision points?”

As she made plans to get the Elantra towed off the road, Moses asked Chandra and John about Ty. John explained that he’d been in a “mental state,” according to the Park Service incident report. He said they had photos of the teen from their doorbell camera, taken minutes before he departed on his mystifying drive.

She learned that Ty had recently enrolled at Brookdale Community College, which was nine miles from his family’s home on Morningside Avenue. He’d seen how his mom, who designed on-screen graphics for “The Drew Barrymore Show” and “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” was still struggling to pay off her student loan debt. He’d been up for a scholarship that would pay for his associate’s degree. He’d already saved $1,600 from his job at Five Below and hoped to transfer to Rutgers University someday. He told his parents he wanted to be a park ranger.

Ty loved being outdoors. It was how he’d spent his childhood in Union Beach, a seaside town of 5,000 people, where he swam and hiked and biked along the oceanfront. One summer, he devoted his time to cliff jumping, researching the most remote ledges to leap from into the water.

When he was 13, he’d gained a younger brother after Chandra adopted her nephew, Kyle, who’d been taken away from her brother and his girlfriend during their battle with drug addiction.

As Ty entered high school, he struggled with anxiety and his body image. He’d gained weight since being diagnosed with celiac disease in 2010 and was self-conscious about the acne that rashed his face. In January 2021, he’d started taking isotretinoin — the generic version of the prescription drug Accutane — to clear up his skin. At 6-3, he was naturally athletic, playing football and throwing the discus and shot put on the varsity track team. He started lifting weights, managing to drop from 260 pounds to 187. But he found the most solace in nature.

“If you ever feel as if life’s currently too difficult or even too much, getting outdoors and going for a walk on the trail or a hike through the woods can get your mind back on track,” he wrote in a school essay.

With a better sense of Ty, Moses left Chandra and John with another ranger, who’d given Chandra her coat to ward off the chill. They checked into the Cardinal Inn in Luray, where they’d wait for news of Ty.

Ty’s cellphone location had last pinged near a trailhead more than a half-mile away — Hannah Run — and that’s where Moses and a second ranger began what is known as a “hasty search” of the immediate area. They scoured the spring grass for footprints and examined the dew and the mud, which Moses called “track traps.” They observed the leaves and branches on the trail, to see whether they’d been pushed to the side. They called out Ty’s name.

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Moses knew he had to be nearby. How far could he have walked? It seemed likely that they would find him that night. But where?

The forest revealed no answers. The rangers pushed through thick brush and thorny vine, the moon so bright that they almost didn’t need their headlamps to see the trail. They listened for the snapping of twigs or the thud of sneakers as they hiked five miles over the course of three hours. There was only silence.

‘Look further’

The next morning, the Virginia State Police arrived with a bloodhound.

Cynthia Sirk-Fear, Shenandoah’s chief law enforcement ranger, was already on the Blue Ridge to lead operations. At 46, she had 23 years of experience and knew it was going to be a complicated rescue. The terrain in this part of the park was steep and unforgiving, the ground knotted with tree roots and studded with rocks.

She’d set up a special command team with the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, which had called in more than 65 people from 13 law enforcement and volunteer groups. They became part of a rescue mission that would cost $66,000.

Ty’s friends and family were also rushing down from Union Beach. News of his disappearance had shaken the town. They were joined by complete strangers from as far as Michigan and Ohio, who’d seen the missing-person flier distributed by the park. In the accompanying photo, Ty was dressed in his red graduation cap and gown, the white tassel falling at an angle. His skin was smooth. He’d asked Chandra to pay extra to have the acne photoshopped from his cheeks and forehead.

Sirk-Fear understood why this image was so striking. She had an 18-year-old, too. When she saw Ty’s picture, she saw promise, potential. But because the park had a formal rescue system, she couldn’t allow these new volunteers to hike in the official search area, where a half-dozen trails had been closed. This frustrated Chandra and John, who believed more people looking for their son might bring him home faster. But Sirk-Fear didn’t want anyone else to get hurt.

“We wanted to make sure we had organized volunteer groups, doing this in a systematic way,” Sirk-Fear said.

She used data from a cellphone tower 16 miles away to verify Ty’s last known location. Then the bloodhound, Mosby, smelled the Elantra and the teen’s zippered wallet, stored in a plastic bag to preserve the scent. The dog loped along the wooded shoulder of Skyline Drive. After cutting into the forest and following the Appalachian Trail for a mile and a half, the hound stopped. The trail had gone cold.

Sirk-Fear sent these updates to Ty’s parents. Chandra was so distraught that she could barely bring herself to leave her room at the Cardinal Inn. Meanwhile, John made a plan to comb the outskirts of the official search area with family and friends.

On the Blue Ridge, Sirk-Fear created a grid of where she thought Ty might be. The team began at the location where his cellphone had last pinged. Groups with tracking devices fanned out to look for clothing or footprints from his size 12 Air Force 1 sneakers.

Moses, the first ranger at the scene, was already back on Hannah Run Trail, hiking toward the park’s eastern boundary five miles away.

Sirk-Fear also relied on an 11-page questionnaire that looked at age and physical ability, personality, habits, and other information to determine what Ty might be thinking.

“If we don’t know what the person’s intent is when they go missing, it can make it challenging,” she said. “The behavior of someone who has gone missing and wants to be found is different than someone who has gone missing and doesn’t want to be found.”

Another category on Sirk-Fear’s form was mental condition. Chandra now suspected that Ty’s bizarre behavior might be tied to the medication he was taking for his acne.

The teen’s dermatologist had recently upped his dosage of isotretinoin, which has been blamed for mental health issues in complaints to the FDA’s Adverse Event Reporting System. Drugmakers have long maintained that there is no direct link between isotretinoin and depression or suicidal ideation. Even so, Ty had read a pamphlet and signed a pink waiver, called iPledge, acknowledging that he understood that these were among the risks of taking isotretinoin. Chandra had also read the form.

“I understand that some patients . . . have become depressed or developed other serious mental problems,” read the waiver’s fourth point. ” . . . No one knows if isotretinoin caused these behaviors or if they would have happened even if the person did not take isotretinoin.”

Ty added his initials in lowercase.

Even in his altered state of mind, Chandra warned the rescue team, Ty was fit. He loved hiking on the weekends and biked almost 25 miles a day. She knew he could be far beyond where the rescuers expected him to be.

“Wherever you think he is,” she told them, “you’ll have to look further.”

‘Knife in the heart’

On Saturday afternoon — about 36 hours after Ty had gone missing — his belongings were found scattered in a nearly straight line in the woods, about two miles north of where he’d crashed his mother’s car.

First was Ty’s Nike hoodie, spread on the forest floor, a flash of navy beyond a cluster of spindly saplings. Then came his blue pajama pants — printed with igloos, snowmen, and polar bears — with his left Air Force 1 sneaker.

A ways further was his right sneaker. It was wedged in a tree trunk, as if it had gotten caught mid-step, and he’d continued without it.

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Finally, at 4: 55 p.m., his red cellphone, sheathed in its black case, was discovered on a hill choked with mountain laurel. A police officer attempted to turn it on, but the screen was cracked and the battery drained. Still, there’d been enough power for the phone to send out an alert. At first, Chandra and John had been hopeful it was Ty reaching out for help.

A Park Service official told Chandra that this was good news. There were 15 ground teams, including seven search dogs, looking for him. The official guessed rescuers would find Ty within a few hours.

But they didn’t.

As night fell again and temperatures dropped into the 30s, there was still no sign of her son.

“Hope,” Chandra said later, “was like a knife in the heart.”

Found

By Monday morning, the search was entering its fourth day. The teams of professionals — dressed in thick brush jackets and balaclavas — had covered roughly 1,000 miles of land. But they remained stumped. So did the search dogs, who’d been thrown off by rainfall. The bad weather had shortened a helicopter flight over the area, which park officials worried wouldn’t be effective anyway, given the thick forest canopy.

John continued combing the fringes of the search area, in case Ty had walked even further than anyone expected. He told Chandra it was 50-50 whether their son would be found alive. They had to have hope. But from her hotel room, Chandra could only picture him freezing to death.

At headquarters in Luray, the Park Service had called the preeminent expert on lost-person behavior. Based out of Charlottesville, Va., Robert Koester had pioneered the field of study, writing the first book about how to find people who have gone missing.

“I call it probabilistic thinking,” Koester explained. “I don’t expect our missing subjects to make rational decisions. You’re in fight-or-flight mode. You’ll never know exactly where the subject is, but you’ll figure out a bunch of different likely places. The land nudges people into what is usually a path of least resistance.”

Based on where Ty’s possessions had been found, Koester helped the team analyze the mountainous terrain to create rings of probability for where the teen might be. The land to be searched grew more vast with each additional ring, resembling a dartboard.

Looking at “decision points” within each ring on the map, Koester helped hypothesize where Ty might have walked next. According to his research, that was likely to be along the easiest path, such as a trail or a ridge.

But rather than following the curve of a geographic feature, like a stream, steering toward a mountaintop, or simply staying put, Ty had bushwhacked straight through wilderness. He’d traveled nearly three miles from where he’d crashed the Elantra and a mile from his discarded sweatshirt.

At 2: 53 p.m. on April 26, one of the search teams discovered him northwest of Catlett Mountain and Hazel Mountain trails, about 200 yards off the pathway, hidden by a screen of tall brush.

He was reclined against a fallen tree in his boxer briefs, his arms plunged through the legs of the Nike shorts he’d been wearing beneath his pajama bottoms and tried to use as a makeshift shirt for warmth. The right side of his head rested against the tree, the hospital booties covering his socks.

When they called his name, he didn’t respond.

Lost again

Chandra knows how much her son’s heart weighed: 290 grams. His brain: 1,540 grams. She knows that his right lung was heavier than the left, and that when he was found, he had larva in his left eye. She knows he died of hypothermia, with blunt force injuries. At first, the coroner hadn’t been able to tell her when it happened. Only later did she confide to Chandra that he’d probably died that first night he had gone missing.

But there was so much she and John didn’t know — would never know — after they returned to Morningside Avenue without Ty.

As they grieved, they considered suing the drug company that manufactured the isotretinoin he was taking. But it would be nearly impossible to prove a link between the medication and the behavior that led to his death. Two lawyers had told them as much. And Ty had signed the waiver saying he understood the risks, which released the company from liability.

Chandra and John thought about suing the hospital, too, for discharging Ty so soon after his seizure. But the lawyers didn’t think that was a strong case either.

And so every morning, Chandra wakes up and re-watches Ty’s old Snapchat stories. In those few seconds of video, her son is returned to her. There he is, gesturing to the full gas meter on his car, or chatting about philosophy and final exams with his friends, or riding his bike on a trail near their home, flipping the camera to show the ground whipping by beneath his tires.

She keeps the brown paper evidence bags in his locked bedroom, which still smells like him. The bottoms of the bags are thick with mountain dirt. In labeled plastic bags are the gas receipt, the Chick-fil-A bag. His white Air Force 1s and his flannel pajama bottoms, the fabric ripped and stained with blood and earth.


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Courtesy of Amanda McNabb

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