Family looked 30 years for man found dead in woods

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Jerry McDonald’s family tried to find him for 30 years, but nothing worked.

“All these years, we wondered whether he was alive or dead,” said his sister-in-law, Mary McDonald. “Then, there he was, on TV.”

He died frozen and starving in a pickup truck last month. His story gained national attention after he spent his final 68 days in the vehicle during a brutal winter before succumbing to the elements and his lack of food. He was only three miles from the nearest town and carrying $5,000 in cash when his body was found.

Family members including his children and a brother were stunned to learn of his whereabouts after not seeing him since he walked out on them three decades ago.

“He just wanted to be by himself,” his son, Terry McDonald, told The Associated Press. “He kind of left our lives 30 years ago. He didn’t want contact with us.”

He kept a calendar — a reused log from the 1970s in which he had crossed out bygone dates and filled in the current year — providing a look at his final days, with entries like “Snowed in” and “No (food).” The journal also had reminders to renew his car registration and noted when camping season began on the Oregon coast.

Authorities considered the 68-year-old McDonald a transient. The only listing for him anywhere was a post office box in Eastern Oregon.

He had been a welder and a logger and quit his job at a timber company before he disappeared and began collecting checks from the federal government for a case of schizophrenia so severe it prevented him from working.

His family tried to reach him through a letter-forwarding program offered by the Social Security Administration, but it didn’t work.

Jerry McDonald’s brother, Gary, tried fruitlessly to bring him back for major family events. When their mother died, when their father was dying, when Gary got married 16 years ago — all of it was sent in letters.

His family never got a response.

“We tried everything to find him,” said Jerry McDonald’s cousin, Nancy Humphries. “Nobody ever gave up looking for him.”

Humphries hadn’t seen McDonald for years before he left. She remembers him as an outdoorsy youngster, who — along with his brother, Gary, and a number of cousins — would hunt, fish and camp in the northern Oregon woods near Scappoose.

In the years before he took off, Jerry McDonald divorced his wife. He became less and less involved with the kids and would disappear for longer stretches at a time.

Before he left, he passed down some of what he knew to his children.

He taught his sons how to catch steelhead in rivers and rock fish on the Oregon coast.

“He was from the era where you do everything yourself, where you need something, you build it,” said Terry McDonald, who is now 48.

Terry McDonald says his mother got a call from police May 12, saying U.S. Forest Service employees had found the body of her husband.

Gary McDonald is in the early stages of dementia. His wife says he hardly speaks, and is lucid only periodically.

But she showed him the articles about his brother’s death and he saw the report on television, his brother’s hair gone white, wrinkles on his face where the skin was once taut.

“I think he’s aware of what happened,” Mary McDonald said.

Now, Terry McDonald is waiting for the release of his father’s possessions.

“All I can say is it doesn’t surprise me he chose to go out that way,” Terry McDonald said. “I don’t think, though, that he meant for it to be the end.”

———

Nigel Duara can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/nigelduara

Comments

Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Please review our Policies and Procedures before registering or commenting

News Tribune - comments