Christopher Keyes talks with Robert Koester, the renowned search-and-rescue specialist, about looking for autistic children.
The Search for Robert Wood Jr.
A BALL OF FIRE with twinkling blue eyes, Robert Arthur Wood Jr. is a four-foot-six, 70-pound eight-year-old who loves to swing. His doting grandmother, Norma Jean Williams, calls him Bud, and he gives as good as he gets when he and his brother, Ryan, a year younger, scrap over a toy. Robert can see and hear fine, but he can’t talk, swim, sit still for a movie, or use the bathroom by himself, because he is also severely autistic.
Ryan, a dark-haired version of Robert and also autistic, but less so, hugs and kisses his brother. Robert is not as affectionate. He is prone to repetitive motions, like hitting himself over and over with an empty plastic soft-drink bottle. But most of all he enjoys swinging. If you let him, he’ll do it until his hands blister and the skin on the back of his legs rubs raw. Even then he keeps swinging.
Robert and Ryan are both in constant motion, jumping, rocking, and pounding things. Like many children with autism, they are fearless. As a toddler, Robert liked to climb on top of the television and the refrigerator. He also likes to wander—or, as behavioral specialists call it, “to elope.” At Walmart, Robert’s mother, Barbara Locker, still puts him in the shopping cart. If you don’t hold him by the hand or by his shirt, he might run off.
That’s exactly what happened on October 23, 2011, a warm Sunday afternoon. After lunch, the boys’ father, Robert Wood Sr., 34, known as Robbie, and his girlfriend (Wood and Locker have been separated for six years) took Robert and Ryan for a walk at the rarely visited 80-acre North Anna Battlefield Park, in Virginia’s Hanover County, 15 minutes from the boys’ home in Ruther Glen. This was no ordinary walk in the park. The hilly green thickets of central Virginia, where Grant vied with Lee in an epic battle for nearby Richmond, are prickly and hardscrabble, with skin-ripping greenbrier and blackberry bushes, not to mention coyotes and bobcats. In this land of rivers, ravines, swamps, mosquitoes, and water moccasins, the Union general soon discovered, inhospitality was endemic.
Within the park, narrow paths tunnel through dense woods. A warren of Confederate breastworks leads to a bluff—with no guardrails—that plummets 90 feet. Below, the North Anna River rumbles through the boulders and Class III rapids of Falls Hole. Nothing separates the park’s other boundaries from a massive open Martin Marietta gravel quarry, with its clatter of industrial dump trucks, bulldozers, and freight trains and roar of controlled explosions. It’s a fantasy-land for any boy, autistic or not.
At around 2:30 p.m., while the group was resting after a mile-long walk, Robert ran down a spur trail. Somehow both his father, an avid Civil War-relics hunter, and his father’s girlfriend missed seeing him take off. Wearing a red long-sleeved shirt, blue pants, and blue tennis shoes, Robert would not have been difficult to spot. Yet he vanished.
Within five minutes of Robert’s disappearance, according to Wood and his girlfriend, they had placed a call to 911 for help. Within an hour, the Hanover sheriff’s department was searching the area with two canine teams. Hanover Hounds, a local tracking organization, arrived with two more teams.
Because of his autism, Robert probably didn’t know that he was lost. If he heard people coming through the woods, he might well have taken cover from them, thinking it was a game of hide-and-seek. Or he might not have wanted to be found by a stranger, even one calling out his name. This made efforts to locate him extremely difficult, and it’s how Robert managed to elude what would soon become one of the largest search-and-rescue operations in Virginia history.