Two months ago, Ray Gardner, a deputy sheriff in Garfield County, Utah, was sitting in a lecture about missing autistic children at the Utah Search and Rescue Association’s annual training convention. He remembers thinking at the time that the material was interesting, but he probably wouldn’t have any use for it.
“I couldn’t even think of anybody I knew that had autism,” Gardner said during a telephone interview. “I certainly didn’t think the training would have a bearing on any upcoming search I would be on.”
Fast forward to July 12, and Gardner found himself relying on the lessons he learned in the class–specifically the fact that individuals with autism are drawn to water. So when he got the call that he’d be the point man on a search and rescue mission to find a 28-year-old autistic man who was hiking along the Escalante River in southern Utah, Gardner devised a plan that ultimately saved William LaFever’s life. The strategy was to stick close to the river in the hopes that LaFever hadn’t ventured too far away from a source of comfort.
Gardner, who has worked for the sheriff’s department for close to 15 years, has been on dozens if not hundreds of these operations. He’d looked for missing hikers along the river before, so he was familiar with the land. The odds, however, were still quite low that they would find LaFever at all, let alone alive, because he had been missing for three weeks. Neither he nor helicopter pilot Shane Oldfield had high hopes when they took off from Boulder, Utah, and headed to the river. They would fly to the point where the Escalante flows into Lake Powell. If they didn’t find the lost hiker by then, they would turn back.
Most of the people in the sheriff’s office didn’t understand why LaFever–who was on his way to Page, Arizona, to pick up money his father had wired him because he was out of cash–would choose to hike such remote, unforgiving terrain with jagged cliffs and narrow stone ledges. The trek from Boulder was more than 150 miles. But here, too, Gardner relied on the training he received in May. He remembered learning that he couldn’t substitute his own judgment for LaFever’s. “We can’t really believe that we can reason like other people and base our decisions on that,” said Gardner, who grew up in Boulder and has lived in the town for most of his life. “We have to keep an open mind.”
About an hour into the trip, Gardner and Oldfield found a man sitting in the middle of the Escalante weakly waving his arms at the helicopter. At first, they thought it was another hiker just saying hello, but as they got closer, they could see it was LaFever. He had trekked about 50 miles but was in bad shape, having lost his dog and run out of food days earlier. He was subsisting on frogs, edible roots, and water from the river. (He may even have caught one small fish and eaten it raw as he struggled to survive.) Gardner surmised that during the day LaFever may have stayed in the river to keep cool, which slowed his rate of dehydration. At night, he would crawl to the riverbank to keep from drowning in his sleep.
LaFever had almost made it to the lake, but slowly had to jettison all of his gear as he got weaker. By the time the rescuers found him, he had only the clothes on his back. Because of his autism, it took some time to gain his trust. An EMT by training, Gardner offered him water and a granola bar, but LaFever was more interested in telling him about his ordeal. “He was so lonely,” said Gardner. “He was as much famished for companionship as he was for nourishment. We had to keep reminding him to eat and drink.”
It took about 20 minutes to convince the emaciated hiker to let them carry him to the helicopter. Once onboard, they flew him directly to the nearest hospital.
“I continue to be amazed at what the human body can endure,” said Gardner. “And I have to wonder if his autism helped him in some way. I don’t know if the idea of giving up was something that he was able to register.”