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‘Just so unforgivable’: Veteran still missing after Death Valley visit

Updated March 20, 2023 - 7:13 pm

When Bob Wildoner set out on May 4, 2021, to repair a disabled vehicle at remote hot springs in Death Valley National Park, he told his wife to expect him home in a few days.

Wildoner, then 76, hasn’t been seen since.

On May 5, a campground host at the hot springs, located 150 miles northwest of Las Vegas, spotted his pickup truck parked in a dirt roadway.

Early the next morning, with the truck still sitting unattended, a campground host alerted park rangers.

Three days and two nights passed before rangers contacted the sheriff’s office in Inyo County, California. Meanwhile, daytime temperatures reached into the 90s.

“To have that much time go by before reporting him missing — it’s just so unforgivable,” Wildoner’s wife, Cindy Lee, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “This was someone’s life they were ignoring.”

But park spokesperson Abby Wines defended the rangers’ response time.

“Abandoned or disabled vehicles are a common occurrence in Death Valley National Park,” Wines said. “Most unattended vehicles do not indicate a missing person.”

Five days after Wildoner left home, the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office launched a search and rescue mission. But the ground search was cut short because of extreme heat.

Since then, little has been done to find the missing Vietnam veteran. His family believes authorities shortchanged the case because of his advanced age.

“If he was young, they’d be all over the place trying to find him,” his nephew Chris Wildoner said. “They haven’t given him much attention because they figure he’s an old dude at the end of his life.”

The Sheriff’s Office disputes this.

“There was a massive amount of manpower, airtime and dog teams that went into the search with no clear signs he walked away from the springs,” spokesperson Carma Roper told the Review-Journal.

Soaking pools and palm trees

When Wildoner said goodbye to his wife on May 4, 2021, he was bound for a hot springs oasis that has long been a draw for adventurers, hippies and eccentrics.

The oasis sits in the middle of Saline Valley, a desert wilderness ringed by tall mountains and accessible only by rough dirt roads.

Although Saline Valley was added to Death Valley National Park in 1994, the difficult access keeps most tourists away.

Despite Saline Valley’s isolation, or perhaps because of it, Wildoner became a hot-springs regular.

Known by his handle “Badwater Bob,” he loved to pop a beer, lounge in the soaking pools and swap stories with his best friend, Chuck Stowman.

History of disappearance and death

Despite the laid-back atmosphere at the hot springs, Saline Valley has a history of disappearances and deaths.

In 1986, Barry Berman, 35, heir apparent to the Kahlua liqueur fortune, and his wife, Louise, 52, left camp at the hot springs for a morning walk and never returned.

Despite a massive search and rescue effort, the hunt came up empty.

Three years later, a hiker stumbled across the Bermans’ remains. Their bodies had been secreted in a desert dry wash and covered with rocks.

Classified by authorities as a double homicide, the Berman case remains unsolved.

In November 2019, Rolin Bruno, 76, drove into Saline Valley and parked at the base of the Inyo Mountains, which rise nearly 2 vertical miles above the valley floor.

Bruno planned to hike up a canyon, cache water for a future trip, then drive to the hot springs for Thanksgiving with his family.

When Bruno failed to arrive, the Sheriff’s Office undertook a ground and air search, but a sudden snowstorm hampered the effort.

To date, no trace of Bruno has been found.

Man on a mission

Three days before Wildoner’s ill-fated journey into Saline Valley, he started packing his Ford F-150 pickup truck.

The prior month, Wildoner had driven a Dodge Ram pickup into the valley. But the Dodge blew its radiator, so he left the pickup with the campground host and hitched a ride back to civilization.

He planned to drive his Ford into Saline Valley, replace the Dodge’s radiator, then return with Stowman on another day to shuttle the Dodge home.

Around 7:45 a.m. on Tuesday, May 4, his wife left their home in Apple Valley, California, to babysit a grandson. Wildoner was still loading supplies into the Ford pickup.

In keeping with his usual routine, Wildoner promised to call his wife when he reached Big Pine, California. Beyond there, he expected to lose cell service.

At 2:29 p.m., Lee’s phone rang. It was her husband, saying he was about to head into Saline Valley.

Pitch-black night

Sometime after dark, a camper spotted Wildoner’s Ford pickup arriving at the hot springs.

It was a pitch-black night — the waning moon wouldn’t rise until the wee hours.

The next day, Lee Greenwell, aka “Lizard Lee,” a volunteer campground host, noticed the Ford pickup parked in a dirt roadway near a bathroom.

Wildoner’s keys were in the ignition, and his cellphone was on the seat. His camping gear appeared to be untouched.

At 8:19 a.m. on May 6, Greenwell emailed park rangers about the abandoned pickup. He sent a second email at 10:37 a.m. the following day.

A pair of rangers arrived at the hot springs late in the afternoon on Friday, May 7.

Around midday on Saturday, a ranger phoned Cindy Lee and confirmed that her husband hadn’t returned home.

She said she called the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office, only to be told that park rangers needed to complete their investigation first.

At 7:51 p.m. on May 8, park officials contacted the Sheriff’s Office to report Wildoner missing.

At that point, 60 hours had passed since Greenwell first alerted rangers about the abandoned pickup.

Search was cut short

On May 9, ground searchers from Inyo County’s search and rescue team began looking for Wildoner in the vicinity of the campground.

Helicopters dispatched by the California Highway Patrol and U.S. Navy flew over a wider area.

Over the next four days, as the search expanded, more ground and aerial teams joined in the hunt.

The prevailing theory was that on May 4, after a long day’s drive, Wildoner parked his Ford pickup, became disoriented in the dark and wandered off.

But this theory was never proven because the ground search was cut short by hot weather.

When the search ended on May 13, ground teams had covered a 3-square-mile grid without finding any trace of Wildoner.

‘Didn’t get a fair shake’

Tina Wildoner, the wife of Bob’s nephew Chris Wildoner, believes the Sheriff’s Office should have done more.

“This search didn’t get a fair shake,” she said. “It has a lot to do with his age.”

In October 2022, after Cindy Lee requested a copy of the case report, the Sheriff’s Office sent her an incident log showing no activity since June 2021.

Last month, when she asked if the case was still open, a deputy emailed her saying there had been “no additional searches” but added, “We do incorporate searches on open cases with our training operations and will do so in the future.”

This didn’t sit well with Wildoner’s aggrieved wife.

“I think he is replying just enough to satisfy me and nothing more,” she said.

‘Somebody knows something’

A map of the search grid reveals that ground teams didn’t cover areas of springs and vegetation starting about 1.5 miles downhill from where Wildoner parked his Ford pickup.

“I have a feeling he’ll be found in that area,” said Yubert Fang, a regular visitor to Saline Valley who’s familiar with the terrain. “He might’ve just started walking in the wrong direction.”

Cindy Lee thinks authorities should consider other possibilities besides the theory that her husband wandered off.

She points to the fact that after he vanished, someone scrawled a creepy message into the dust on the Ford pickup’s windshield.

According to Lee, the writing said something to the effect of, “You’re searching for me but I’m not here.”

Her daughter Carrie Mastin, who started a Facebook page called “Help Us Find Bob,” told the Review-Journal she’s “almost 100 percent certain it’s foul play.”

Lee agrees there’s more to the case than meets the eye.

“Somebody knows something,” she insisted.

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