Missing man found after five days

The use of social media, good police work, numerous volunteers, a lot of prayer and a stroke of luck helped find a courageous and resourceful 87-year old man who spent six days stranded in a remote section of the Dryhead without food or clean water.

Phillip Alan Whaley
Phillip Alan Whaley

Phillip Alan Whaley of Lovell gassed up his car and picked up a salad at the Maverik convenience store in Lovell at around 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 28. It was the last time he was seen until his rescue a week later on Friday, July 5.

His daughter Janene Hatch was out of town for a few days but upon her return Monday visited her mother, who is an Alzheimer’s patient at the New Horizons Care Center. When she arrived the nurses at the care center expressed their concern that they hadn’t seen her father for a few days. Hatch said she immediately knew something was wrong because her father faithfully went to the care center every day for the past three years to help feed his wife, who because of her debilitating disease has trouble feeding herself.

“He’s so responsible about caring for mom. I knew he just wouldn’t do that,” said Hatch. “He would have asked someone else to take his place if he couldn’t be there. He would never leave her like that.”

Hatch went to his apartment to see if her father was home. When she checked his apartment he wasn’t there and his 2011 green Toyota Camry was also gone. The receipt for the purchase at the convenience store a few days before was on the table. The salad he purchased was in the refrigerator. It appeared that he hadn’t been there for a few days. The family conducted a preliminary search of common places he may have visited on Monday and it didn’t appear that he was in the area. At approximately 9:30 p.m. that evening they notified the Lovell Police Dept. and an official search of the area began.

“At 10 o’clock at night we entered him as a missing person, so that if he got stopped we would be notified,” said Lovell Police Chief Nick Lewis. “We also started looking around town for him and we couldn’t find him.”

Lewis said they ramped up their search in the morning checking places he would normally frequent like the North Big Horn Senior Center.

“The director at the senior center said she saw him on Thursday and even helped him with his tray,” said Lewis. “She said he was with three other people that day, so we checked with those people to see if he told anyone he was going to leave on a trip. They said no.”

Lewis said the police department created a missing persons flyer and posted it around town and on the department’s Facebook page on Tuesday. The news spread like wildfire with more than 20,000 hits on Facebook alone and numerous shares on other sites. Lewis said he was impressed by how fast the word got out via the social media sites.

“In this type of situation, the social media sites did exactly what we needed them to do,” explained Lewis. “They got the word out as fast as possible. It was a snowballing effect.”

Lewis said he also sent the flyer to television stations throughout the state and he said he was shocked by how gracious and eager they were to help.

The Lovell Chronicle also posted the flyer on its website and Facebook page.

The police began monitoring his credit cards and checking account and it appeared that no one was using the accounts. They also attempted to track him through his cell phone. Lewis said they contacted his carrier, Verizon, to see if they could “ping” or track him through a cell phone signal but the company said it was not possible because he did not subscribe to a tracking application like “find my phone.” Police were able to check his phone records through Verizon to see if he called someone he was planning to visit, but there was no indication that was the case. They checked with the car dealership where he purchased his car to see if the vehicle was equipped with an OnStar device, but the car was not equipped with the device.

Lewis said they even checked the LDS temple in Billings because they were told he sometimes liked to visit the temple. They called every hospital in the area and in adjacent areas like Cody and Powell. He was gone without a trace.

When it became apparent on Wednesday that Whaley was not in the immediate area, the LPD called the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Dept. for assistance in expanding the search to the entire county.

“The Lovell Police Dept. called us and requested additional resources and we responded with search and rescue, Civil Air Patrol and other search methods,” said Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn. “Given the fact that he might have been in Big Horn County and he might have not, we began a search within the confines of the county but also put the word out in the entire region and throughout the state. The problem with searches is you never know where to look. Literally, he could have been anywhere.”

Blackburn assigned Scott Allred as incident commander for the search and rescue team.

“The sheriff asked me to take over and help organize the family search effort,” said Allred. “It was hard to coordinate for a specific area since we had no idea where he was, so we set up a wide-area search.”

Allred helped the family organize 18 volunteers into nine two-man teams through a command center set up at the annex in Lovell. At the same time, three search and rescue teams, three Civil Air Patrol teams, including a helicopter, began to search every square mile of the county to no avail.

On Friday, through a pure stroke of luck two men traveling in the remote area five miles northwest of the Dryhead Ranch spotted the car. One man recognized the car from a photograph he had seen on the social media site and, in what authorities are calling nothing short of a miracle, Whaley was found alive at approximately 11 a.m. and taken by helicopter to Billings Clinic later that afternoon. (See related story.)

“Our search teams actually came so close to where he was, but we didn’t think anyone could get a car in there because it was so rugged,” said Allred.

Sheriff’s deputy Jeff Angell, who drove into the area with his four-wheel-drive truck as part of the SAR team, said he was really surprised how far Whaley was able to drive into the area in a car since he found it challenging even in his vehicle, which is equipped to travel in rugged terrain. Allred added that it took rescuers travelling at maximum speed more than an hour to reach the location where he was found.

“Even as we were driving in, we didn’t believe that it was really him because we didn’t think it was possible for a car to get that far in there,” said Allred. “We thought it must be someone else because no one could drive a car in here. It’s a heck of an ad for Toyota.”

What Whaley later told family members was that he decided on Saturday morning to take a road trip into the Pryor Mountains searching for ice caves because his wife told him stories about the caves from her childhood. He hoped to find the caves and to take her back to the caves on a surprise outing.

While looking for the caves, he became disoriented and got stuck in a mud bog. He then recounted an amazing story of survival where he used a wheelchair stored in the trunk of his vehicle to haul rocks in an attempt to create traction under the front wheels of his car, where he created a white distress flag out of a handkerchief on the end of his cane as he tried to walk out and where he was forced to drink dirty water from the same muddy bog that stopped his vehicle in its tracks. He even tied a plastic bag to the door of the vehicle in hope that someone would see it as a distress signal. Finally, he lay on the ground near the vehicle where he endured scorching hot days and bitterly cold nights until his rescue.

At press time, Whaley is still in the intensive care unit at Billing Clinic.

“The doctors can’t believe he is still alive,” said Hatch. “Although he’s not out of the woods yet, they say he is trending in the right direction.”

by Patti Carpenter