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Man lost in Utah desert for weeks was answering desert's call

Published July 14, 2012 11:12 pm

Rescue • Autistic man was so malnourished he weighed about 100 pounds when found.
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Armed with a sword, some throwing knives, a pot and blanket, 28-year-old William LaFever headed out from the southern Utah town of Boulder to answer the call of the desert.

About three weeks and an estimated 50 miles later, search and rescuers found LaFever emaciated but alive in the Garfield County wilderness. He was in his underwear, lying in the 9-inch-deep Escalante River, in an effort to stay cool amid the desert heat.

LaFever, who is autistic, had survived by eating a frog, a raw fish and some edible roots he found along the way.

"He didn't have much strength left," said Shane Oldfield, the Utah Highway Patrol pilot who first spotted LaFever on Thursday while he and Garfield County Deputy Ray Gardner flew overhead searching for signs of the missing Colorado Springs man.

Oldfield immediately landed the helicopter near LaFever, who — it turned out — wasn't too interested in being rescued — at least right away.

"[He was] borderline belligerent," Oldfield said a day later during a Friday news conference, attributing the reaction to LaFever's autism. "He didn't want to get in the helicopter. He just wanted to eat. He wanted a minute to relax and talk to somebody."

Oldfield said the lost man was starving not only for food but for human contact.

As he chowed down on some granola bars, drank a bottle of water and ate some ready-made meals the UHP keeps in its copter for emergencies, LaFever's tale of survival spilled out.

In early June, LaFever, accompanied by his dog and carrying a few suitcases, reportedly paid some college kids $600 to drive him to Utah and drop him at the Boulder Mountain Lodge in Boulder. Someone in the parking lot gave him a lighter, which he later used to start fires during his desert journey.

"He felt the desert was calling him and that was why he made that trip in the first place," Oldfield said.

On about June 6 or 7, LaFever called his father from Boulder asking for money after his hiking equipment was stolen. His father told him to head to Page, Ariz. — about 70 miles south, as the bird flies — and he'd wire him the money. Authorities said his parents didn't know he intended to hike all the way to Lake Powell with the idea of hitching a boat ride to Page.

But the journey through the desert apparently didn't go quite as expected. His dog abandoned him. He ended up living off the land to survive, even eating a frog.

"It didn't sit too well in his stomach, so he didn't want to that again," Oldfield said.

By the time he was rescued, the 6-foot-tall LaFever was so malnourished that he weighed only about 100 pounds, Oldfield said.

During the three or four days prior to his rescue, LaFever said simply lay in the waters of the Escalante by day and on the sandy banks by night.

When rescuers found him, he was dark brown, covered in dirt and had blistered lips. He was about 30 miles southeast of Boulder, although rescuers estimate he probably wandered closer to 40 or 50 miles total.

And though he didn't know it, LaFever was only a few miles from Lake Powell, where he intended to catch a boat ride, Oldfield said.

Oldfield said no one knows what happened to LaFever's belongings — all that was on the bank nearby were his pants, shoes and a belt.

And while some people would interpret the experience a bit differently, LaFever told his rescuers "it was a spiritual experience."

Friday, LaFever was being treated at the Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George.

"I think he's lucky to be alive," Oldfield said.

Attempts to contact LaFever's family were unsuccessful.


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