Woman’s quest for missing dad leads to Utah desert

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — It was supposed to be Kenneth Schneider’s goodbye to the world, the last solo road trip the 78-year-old would take, from Washington state back to his native Utah.

No one knows just how or why the trip ended as abruptly as it did. But, more than five years later, as she clutched her father’s skull in the harsh southern Utah desert, Leslie Schneider finally felt an odd catharsis and relief that her family’s own emotional quest for answers also had come to an end.

“I was holding this small skull that was supposed to be my dad and trying to make a connection,” Schneider said, recalling her help last month turning up her father’s remains after a hiker’s grisly discovery reopened the missing persons case. “To be there to be a part of that experience was such a privilege and it was amazing how much we found ... It was a complete shock.”

Family members weren’t concerned when Schneider set out on his journey in his beat-up Nissan Sentra in October 2005. He knew Utah well.

The World War II veteran meandered through Oregon, California, Nevada and finally across Utah to Canyonlands National Park, where he ran into trouble. San Juan County authorities found his car on a dusty road in Cottonwood Canyon near the park. He’d left a note saying he was walking to a ranch about eight miles away. He was never heard from again.

Crews scoured the area for days, using helicopters, horses and dogs but didn’t turn up any clues. The search was eventually called off. His family back in Seattle didn’t know what to think.

“We had considered foul play, but I don’t think any of us believed that,” said Mari Schneider, one of his five children. “I had even thought that it could have been suicide because this trip was like his goodbye to the world. He had visited with fellow veteran soldiers in Las Vegas ... Many of them said he didn’t look well.”

Over the years, his children figured the mystery would never be solved, that their dad would remain just another missing person.

“We had pretty much lost all hope of finding him and even though we had a memorial, nothing ever felt complete,” Mari Schneider said.

Then came that telephone call about a month ago. A hiker found a skull in the desert near the spot where the man’s car had been abandoned years earlier.

Sheriff’s Deputy J.J. Bradford thoughts immediately turned to Kenneth Schneider, whose missing-person photo still hangs in his office. As he prepared to mount another search, the sheriff called Leslie Schneider.

“When I first heard they were looking for my dad, there was a voice in my head that said, ‘I don’t just want other people picking up his bones, I want to be there,”’ she said. “That probably sounds bizarre to most people, it’s your dad and these are his skeletal remains, but it was really important to me.”

So she hopped on a plane with her partner and 14-year-old son and headed for Utah.

After they arrived at Cottonwood Canyon on April 16 and met up with Bradford, she held the skull and tried to come to grips.

She joined the search team, searching the dry sagebrush and scrub scattered across a valley beneath towering red rock cliffs. She tried to imagine why her father would have descended from the steep, rocky ledges where his car was found, and how he died out there.

What were his last moments like? A thunderstorm hit the first evening Ken Schneider would have been alone in the canyon. She hoped he didn’t suffer or freeze. She prayed his death was swift, perhaps a heart attack.

They fanned out across the area, looking for any more clues. Then someone pointed to a piece of fabric.

“Sure enough, it totally looked like my dad’s shirt,” Leslie Schneider said.

Her son found the first bone, a piece of an arm. Others came across more scraps of clothing, her dad’s wallet with his driver’s license and library card, remnants of a notebook he always carried with him. And his watch, the Timex he always wore.

“It was a shock because I didn’t think it was going to be so easy to find stuff. The skull was emotional but it wasn’t like I immediately felt my dad’s presence,” she said. “But I really did when I saw the watch ... It was just so him. That was him just as much as the wallet was, because it was so familiar, that distinctive watch style. Finding the wallet was huge. You could read his name, so seeing his name on something there was amazing.”

She broke down in tears, then kept looking. Throughout the daylong search, they uncovered more skeletal remains. A tattered hat found a few days earlier was the one her dad received at a 50th reunion of fellow Marines who were with him during the invasion of Japan.

As Leslie Schneider stood in the desert sun, her father’s bones scattered out on a blue tarp, it struck her how bizarre it all was.

“It’s like you’re watching a movie of your life or something, you’re just asking yourself, ‘How did I get to this place?”’ she said. “It’s just so outside the realm of what most people expect to have happen in their lives.”

A medical examiner will soon be reviewing the bones for any injuries while trying to determine a cause of death, but for now, the experience has brought the family closure they never thought they’d find.

They plan to return, all the children, in August to resume the search for the rest of their dad, his lower jaw bone, hands and feet, and to gather for one final goodbye.

“We all loved him madly,” Mari Schneider said. “What a most perfect ending to a life, he was at home and in the desert.”

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