FLORIDA CITY (CBSMiami.com) – One month after his disappearance during a camping trip, the family of an Oregon man missing in Everglades National Park still hopes he will be found safe. They have returned to their homes on the West coast without a clue about where he might be, and with questions about why the media was not called upon to help in the search efforts.
Roger Sawyer, 67, disappeared while he and his family were camping in the Everglades National Park campground in Flamingo, at the end of a cross-country trip in their motor home.
Sawyer, a retired Oregon butcher, was said by his family to be an experienced outdoorsman. He disappeared virtually without a trace on March 5th and remains missing, the search for him effectively over.
In an interview with CBSMiami.com, the family broke a month-long silence to speak about the search and their concern for Sawyer.
“Roger, his wife, and I we were all in a motor home together and we took the motor home through the Keys,” said Janice Williams, Roger’s daughter-in-law. ”
“He would often say, ‘I know yesterday I said was the best day of my life but today is the best day of my life’.”
The travelers brought the motor home to Everglades National Park. Williams said some family members went to the Visitors Center while Sawyer and his wife Paula remained behind. Williams said the two were in different areas of the campground, but as darkness fell and people started to return to the motor home Roger was not among them.
Park officials were called, and along with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, a search was started.
“They didn’t find a shoe or a hat, and they looked in the water and along the beach and everywhere he could have possibly been,” Williams said.
Initially, the National Parks Service and Miami-Dade Fire Rescue worked together on the search and provided basic information to the media. But as the search continued, that flow of information dried up. A spokesperson for Everglades National Park cited the family, saying they did not want to speak to reporters and that they were even unwilling to provide a photo.
Family members now say that was not true, a claim confirmed by a park spokesperson.
As the days-long search continued, managed solely by a US Park service “incident team”, it was that team’s decision to separate the media and the family, according to Everglades National Park public information officer Linda Friar.
Friar confirmed Monday that the incident team made the decision not to provide a photo of Roger Sawyer to the media, despite multiple requests, while making it seem the family did not want to make a photo available.
“They wanted to concentrate man hours on the search; they told us early on that they were discouraging the media,” Williams told CBSMiami.com.”It didn’t mean that we weren’t willing to talk to the media. When we saw your (CBS4 News) story, we were thrilled and we thought we may be contacted for other things.”
When that didn’t happen, Williams admits the family did not reach out on their own, even though they would have appreciated the attention on the search.
“We weren’t proactive. We were in a remote campground and wanted to concentrate on the search,” she said.
In comments posted at CBSMiami.com, responding to dozens of people who had expressed concern at Roger Sawyer’s disappearance, Williams was even more direct.
“We would have been all too willing to speak with them (the media)”, she wrote. “We feel it would have helped in finding Roger and we are so grateful to everyone who has been concerned, we wanted them to be able to know what was going on.
“They (the media) apparently spoke with the rangers offices, but we don’t know what happened there. They may have had their own reasons for keeping the media away.”
The search continued for about 10 days, Williams said, but in the end, Sawyer was not found, and family members had to return home. The family still doesn’t know what happened to him, or how a man in good health, mind unclouded by dementia, with a woodsman’s background, disappeared in a national park without a trace.
“It’s been tough. The park service did a stellar job and we were so grateful for all the agencies, and they covered every square inch of the park,” Williams said.
If he wasn’t found there, it makes her wonder if it was because he was not there to be found.
“It makes me think there’s a possibility he was taken out of the park,” she said.
That possibility was never raised by searchers. If, in fact, Sawyer was no longer in the wilderness confines of the park but closer to civilization, making a photograph of him public might have aided that aspect of a search. No official request by the search coordinators for media assistance has ever been made.
Friar, the spokesperson for the park, told CBS4 News the Park Service is taking a second look at the the way the dissemination of information was handled during the search.
For now Sawyer’s whereabouts remain unknown. Friends and strangers from around the nations post comments at CBSMiami.com, expressing hope, best wishes, and encouragement. The family is considering offering a reward for information leading to a resolution of Sawyer’s disappearance.
Paula Sawyer Ralls, Sawyer’s daughter, came to South Florida to help with the search and has now returned home. In comments shared with a CBSMiami.com comments board, she said every day she misses her father more, and wishes she could talk with him.
“I have a hole in my heart now,” she wrote. “that can’t begin to heal until we have some closure.”