More than 110 trained volunteers covered 800 acres in a “big push” to find a missing 79-year-old Preserve hiker Saturday.
One person described the area inside and around the gated Preserve at Sharp Mountain subdivision as “just searched to death.”
And still not one clue to the whereabouts of Ben Thebaut, a 79-year-old retired surgeon who left his home on October 16 to go hiking and has not been seen since.
On Saturday, the sheriff’s office coordinated a “big push” involving 110-120 trained volunteers from around the state, including 11 teams with search dogs, horseback groups and all manner of law enforcement agencies and first responders with search training. They had already used a helicopter with special heat sensing equipment and bloodhounds in the Salem Church Road area around the Preserve.
Saturday, the searchers covered 800 acres, some more than once. During the past week, officers have searched from sun-up to sun-down every day with as many as 60 people in the field, covering between 1,700 - 1,800 acres.
Chris Tucker, a very fit young deputy, said Saturday he and other officers had logged about 20 miles on many of those days and it was beginning to take a toll.
“I am sick that we haven’t found him,” Tucker said. “We just don’t know where he could be and that’s the tough part.”
In areas near Thebaut’s home and other high priority locations, different teams checked every day in case something was missed previously.
After Saturday’s “big push,” the sheriff’s office announced it was scaling back ground searches but would continue checking some areas and running down any leads that arise.
They will continue on the investigative end, though sheriff spokesman Kris Stancil said Monday they had not uncovered any evidence that Thebaut was anywhere other than in the woods around his home. Thebaut was reported to be very fit and a regular hiker who would go out for several hours at a time and could cover a lot of distance in the woods he was familiar with.
“There is no evidence at all to point to foul play,” Stancil said. “Nor is there any evidence that indicates he just left, which is technically not illegal.”
Stancil said investigators had “plowed through all his texts, e-mails, phone calls” and if he had intended to go into hiding, his planning was hidden from everyone, including his wife and children. His wallet was found at the home, which Stancil said is a strong indicator that he did not plan on taking off.
Investigators consider suicide in the wooded area a “high possibility” but they don’t list any specific theory as the top.
There are two clues which suggest suicide at a remote spot: he left his dogs that he usually takes hiking at home that day and he took a shower and cleaned up before going hiking, which his wife told investigators was unusual.
Dr. Thebaut took a handgun with him hiking, but his wife said it was not unusual for him to go armed.
“There was some financial stress on him so there is the possibility that he could have harmed himself or, at 79, there is the possibility that he could have fallen and been injured and there is the potential for a heart attack,” Stancil said.
But, Stancil said with the falls or heart attack, it would be presumed he would be on or near a trail and they have checked and re-checked all the trails numerous times.
Stancil said there is some reason to believe the man might be in the first stages of dementia, but it had not been medically diagnosed, and it appeared to be only forgetfulness. Also, Stancil said even if he were disoriented he would have been found after this time or showed up at some house.
The area around the Preserve is heavily wooded, but is cut through by several roads and homes on all sides.
The sheriff’s office received an outpouring of offers from the public to help with the search, but they used only trained volunteers due to the logistics of operating in such steep terrain and “a wealth” of trained groups came forward.
“We appreciate the public offers and if we had a case where the trained groups weren’t stepping forward, we would have used the public volunteers,” he said.
The sheriff’s office said they have received no leads that Thebaut has been seen anywhere since the search began, but if any member of the public recalls seeing anyone matching the description on the flyer, they should call 706-253-8935.
Also, hunters are asked to be on the look out for anything suspicious in the woods near the Preserve subdivision.