‘A Father’s Quest to Find His Son’ Professor writes book on missing people

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Kara Toay

It’s April, 27, 2017. Jacob Gray has gone missing in Olympic National Park in Washington state. Jacob’s father, Randy Gray, has dropped everything to search for his son and begins to live in a camper.

This is the premise of associate English professor Jon Billman’s new book “The Cold Vanish: Disappearing in North America’s Wildlands and a Father’s Quest to Find His Son,” which is set to be published in 2019.

Thousands of people go missing in national parks, wildlife and remote places, but Billman’s book focuses on a case in Olympic National Park and the father Randy, who rededicated his life to searching for his son, and the question of what it takes to have the dedication to give up your world and try to complete an impossible task, Billman said.

“That’s what’s so inspiring about, the father, Randy,” Billman said.

Jacob was 22 when he went missing. Since then, Billman spent days with Randy, living with him in his camper as they scaled sandy beaches and organic farms as well as the Olympic National forest, anywhere they thought Jacob liked or could be hiding.

Since starting the book, Billman was made aware of a missing person’s case in Israel of Oliver McAffee, a 29-year-old from Northern Ireland, that is similar to Jacob’s case. Billman added that unlike parts of the United States, it’s relatively hard to go missing in Israel because of the surveillance technologies Israel’s military has and it’s half the size of the U.P.

“It’s a real mystery because people just don’t go missing there like they do in other places,” Billman said.

Billman said the biggest challenge of the book is writing about the absence of characters, because of the vacuum that forms when a person goes missing, so he’s writing about the people who fill that void with profiles of families, law enforcement and volunteer search and rescue people.

Hanging out with Randy and getting fueled by his optimism has been Billman’s favorite part of writing this book so far.

“It’s incredible he can be an optimist after his son vanished the way he did,” Billman said.

He added he can see the father that Randy is, and he couldn’t imagine a better father for Jacob, as Randy’s focus is on finding his son, but he also manages to keeps his spirits up at the same time.

Billman wasn’t always interested in missing people. His curiosity started while he worked in Wyoming, when a woman, Amy Bechtel, who was an Olympic hopeful for the marathon, went missing three hours away. Many in Wyoming felt the impact of the case.
“Wyoming is a giant small town. It’s massive, but if you don’t know somebody, you know somebody who knows them,” Billman said. “It felt like a local disappearance.”
This led Billman into research about a serial killer in the area and down the path of researching other missing persons cases.

“When you’re attuned to a case like that, you’re made aware of other cases,” Billman said, adding that he is drawn to the most perplexing ones.

Billman heard about Jacob’s case when he was in Colorado with Alan “Duff” Duffy, a bloodhound handler, who had worked a case Billman had written a story on for Outside Magazine. Someone mentioned that a cyclist had gone missing in Olympic National Park. At the same time Jacob went missing, there was a hiker that went missing and a jet crash in the park. The hiker was found deceased, the passengers in the jet walked away, but Jacob has yet to be found.

“There’s no end to it,” Billman said. “People go missing in the wild every day. Some of them get found, some of
them don’t.”