Finding Lucius 

Inside the search for a missing friend

Jake Gillis knew it. There was something about that stretch of road, that patch of ground. Even though it had been scoured by dozens of volunteers, he kept going back to it.

"One more time," he said.

Climbing into the cockpit of a helicopter with Dave Everson, a pilot from Northern California, Gillis hoped this would be it--he wanted to find 21-year-old Lucius Robbi.

Robbi, a raft guide for Cascade Raft and Kayak, left Horseshoe Bend on Tuesday, Aug. 19. He was on his way to school at the University of Montana in Missoula, but he never made it.

On the afternoon of Thursday, Aug. 28, the helicopter took off with Everson, Gillis and another friend from California known as "Monkey."

The three traced Robbi's possible route to Montana again. They circled around Deadwood Reservoir, checked out the areas north of Crouch and, in one final effort, looked closely along Highway 21 from Lowman to Stanley.

That's when they spotted Robbi's vehicle.

"Monkey kept yelling, 'I found him, I found him, I fucking found him,' and I said, 'Wait, what? Bank right, I want to see this,''' Gillis said.

Sure enough, Robbi's forest-green Subaru Outback lay at the bottom of a 60-foot embankment off Highway 21, only five miles from Stanley. The extent of the impact made it clear his death was instant.

The wreck went almost undetected. Despite more than 20 of Robbi's friends, and the combined efforts of the Boise and Custer counties sheriff's offices, searching the area for almost a full week, the wreckage was invisible from the roadside.

"I even had a thought when we were about six miles from that location," Gillis said. "I thought, 'This area had been pretty well covered. Maybe we can just turn around.' But I kept my mouth shut and decided to go all the way to Stanley. There he was."

No, Not Me

When Robbi left Horseshoe Bend, he drove off with two bright orange kayaks strapped to the top of his 1997 Subaru Outback. Only a few days after his disappearance, I took my dog for a hike in the Boise Foothills. The night before, I had driven back from Missoula, where I also studied at the University of Montana and, like Robbi, came back with two orange and red kayaks on top of my black Subaru Outback--a 2001.

As I descended my usual trail, I saw a police car parked alongside my Subaru, the light bar blinking. My heart started pounding and my face felt hot. Who was in an accident? How did they find my car? What did I do wrong?

My dog hopped into the back while I kept my eyes on the patrol car.

"Jessica?" the officer said from inside. I leaned into the open passenger-side window.

"What's wrong? What happened?"

"No, everything is OK," he said. "It's just that someone saw your car and called it in as the car that fits the description of a missing person."

"Oh, you mean that kid going to Montana," I said.

It dawned on me that the pictures floating around on Facebook of his missing car looked a lot like mine. The officer and I talked for a few minutes about his disappearance, both of us speculating on what could have happened--both of us at a loss.

I drove home, thinking about Robbi, feeling guilty for giving anyone false hope that he was here in Boise. I was stuck on someone mistaking me for the missing man, a man only a few years younger than me. A kayaker like me. A student at the University of Montana, like I was.

And he was lost on a road that I have driven countless times after four years of traveling between Missoula and Boise. I took the boats off my car as soon as I got home.

The rest of the day, I spent unfocused on work, following a Facebook group called Finding Lucius, instead. When I joined, it hovered around 200 members. Within 24 hours it reached almost 2,000. As of press time, it surpassed 3,300. The page played an integral role in providing leads for Robbi's whereabouts, suggestions of where he might have gone and connections between volunteers searching for him.

One thing was known for certain: Robbi left Cascade Raft and Kayak in Horseshoe Bend on Tuesday, Aug. 19, around 2 p.m. Aside from being mistakenly identified as Robbi during my morning hike, no one had seen any physical trace of him since.

'Just Waiting to Say Goodbye'

Robbi, of Orleans, Calif., worked as a raft guide at Cascade Raft and Kayak for the past two summers. During those summers, he lived at a private campground with the other raft guides along the bank of the Payette River. He spent his nights in a sleeping bag and became part of the tribe of 20-somethings that guide every fork of the river.

"They're a pretty tight-knit group," said Krista Long, who helps run Cascade Raft and Kayak with her family. "They all camp together, they all live together for the summer. The locals even get together for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's not just summer camp."

Long was possibly one of the last people to see Robbi before he disappeared into part of Idaho's vast mountain wilderness. On that Tuesday afternoon, she recalled checking some folks in for a raft trip.

"And Lucius was standing nearby," she said, "So I said, 'Oh, Lucius, do you need something?' And he said, 'No, I'm just waiting to say goodbye, so finish up what you're doing.' He was waiting, just so he could give me a hug and say goodbye. That's the type of person he is."

The type of person he was, according to his friends and family, was a genuine person. Someone who made friends with everyone. A goofy guy with a streak of responsibility uncharacteristic for most 21-year-olds. He had just finished junior college and talked for years of living in Montana. He was schedule-driven, paid his own tuition and planned to study his passion in life: outdoor recreation.

That's why it was so strange when he never checked in with his new landlords in Missoula on the evening of Wednesday, Aug. 20. It was even stranger when he missed the school's orientation the following day. Stranger yet when his professors marked him absent the first day of classes.

Sydnee Korell, another employee at Cascade and a close friend of Robbi's, started worrying Wednesday night when he never called.

"Lucius is the kind of person who, if he says he's gonna call you, he's gonna call you," Korell said. "So I kind of started making jokes like, 'Oh, Lucius hasn't called me yet. He probably, like, got axe murdered in Montana or something.'"

Jake Gillis (left) pours over maps with Robbi's anxious friends in Stanley. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Jake Gillis (left) pours over maps with Robbi's anxious friends in Stanley.

When Thursday rolled around and still no word from Robbi, Korell and other guides started voicing their concerns.

"Sydnee had been saying for a few days that it was weird he hadn't called her," said Robbie Alder, another guide. "I didn't think anything of it. I was like, 'Oh well, he's busy. He just didn't call you.' But then the cops showed up."

On Friday, Aug. 22, an officer from the Boise County Sheriff's Office paid a visit to Cascade Raft and Kayak, asking for details on Robbi and his departure, prompted by a missing person's report filed by his parents earlier that day.

"My stomach dropped. I thought I was going to throw up," Korell said.

"Because in that moment, something was wrong," Alder said. "It was an 'oh shit' moment."

Finding Lucius

There are 360 miles between Horseshoe Bend and Missoula, Mont. Robbi planned to travel north up State Highway 55, turn east at Banks and take State Highway 21 to Stanley, turn north and follow U.S. 93 through Salmon, Lost Trail Pass and the Bitterroot Valley into Missoula. He told his friends he planned to camp somewhere along the way. The road is windy and remote, and takes about seven hours to traverse.

In those 360 miles, Robbi could have ended up just about anywhere. The area is so sprawling, his search drew in several county sheriff's departments, including Boise, Custer, Lemhi and Ravalli.

For Boise County Sheriff Ben Roeber, that search started in Horseshoe Bend and spiraled outward. He ordered flyovers of the area around Garden Valley and Highway 21 during the weekend of Aug. 23-24, and once more early in the week. He sent his officers to travel a web of backroads and conduct interviews in the small towns. He looked for credit card receipts and transactions. He found nothing.

"This week, 90 percent of what I have been doing since Monday [Aug. 25] has been involved with this case," Roeber told Boise Weekly during the search. "That's probably the same for at least three other people in my office, and I only have a staff of 11. We've gotten over 300 tips, so it's a lot of information to go through."

Because the search area was so wide, no search and rescue team was ever dispatched to look for Robbi.

"To call up a search and rescue team, we have to narrow it down," Roeber said. "For example, with hunting season coming up, someone could say they're going to the Stanley area. Well even that's a huge area. Where they could be is pretty overwhelming and you don't want to blindly search. It's hard for search and rescue to deploy a mission that encompasses all of Horseshoe Bend to Missoula."

Using the Finding Lucius Facebook page, Clare Bresnahan, a family friend in Madison, Wisc., urged anyone interested to travel to Stanley, where a private search party had set up in the Stanley Community Center. Of Cascade's 40 raft guides, more than half of them headed north in search of Robbi.

Nearly two dozen of those volunteers gathered in the community center on the afternoon of Tuesday, Aug. 26. Their voices echoed off the concrete floors and wood panelling. The countertops of the community center kitchen were piled high with boxes of apples, loafs of bread, family-sized jars of peanut butter, chips, popcorn, fruit trays, blocks of cheese, cookies and salami.

Jake Gillis spread a map across the table--pens, Sharpies and highlighters stuffed in his North Face windbreaker; a radio clipped to his EMS cargo pants. Gillis was working independently from any professional search and rescue crew on this operation. He's worked with Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue for five years, going on more than 100 search missions, and currently serves as wilderness program director for the Idaho Center of Emergency Medical Training. He saw news of Robbi's disappearance on Facebook and offered his expertise to the family, which took him up on it immediately.

In front of the group of volunteers--none with any search and rescue training--he laid out what he knew about Robbi's disappearance: the last cellphone tower Robbi's phone pinged off of was the Smith's Ferry/Lowman tower at 2:40 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 19.

Gillis also presented a screenshot from the security camera at Garden Valley's Chevron station, showing a dark-colored Subaru Outback passing by with an orange kayak on the roof. It was timestamped at 2:23 p.m., matching up with the timeline of his departure at 2 p.m. and his cellphone ping at 2:40 p.m.

"There's a lot of things that tied this vehicle to Lucius, but there are a lot of things that would not tie it to him," Gillis told the searchers.

"Lucius is one of those guys who kayaks. A few of you guys kayak," he said. "When you pack your gear, you usually do it the same way each time. With Lucius, it seems like he likes to have his cockpit facing outward."

In the footage of the car passing through Garden Valley, which Gillis said he analyzed for hours, the kayak was clearly facing inward.

"But, given that he is traveling from Banks all the way up to Missoula, he might have not had as much room as he wanted to in the car, and stuffed extra gear into the kayak and faced the cockpit inward over the roof to keep gear inside the cockpit."

Gillis also zoomed into the footage and measured the difference in spacing between the front wheel well and the wheel, and compared it to that of the back. The distance from wheel well to wheel in the back was smaller.

"Suggesting that this car was loaded down and it was going for a long-haul trip somewhere," Gillis said.

Based on those observations, Gillis decided Robbi stuck to his plan of traveling along Highway 21, and didn't take a different route to Missoula.

After discussing more possible Forest Service roads Robbi might have decided to travel, Gillis assigned the pairs of volunteers to new areas to search. The vast majority of those looking for Robbi hadn't yet turned 21, so he set out a careful reminder before they left.

"Your safety is most important in this whole thing. It's not our emergency, it's Lucius'," Gillis said. "Keep your safety in mind 24/7. If you locate him and he's down an embankment, somewhere that's not safe, don't go. Call 911 if you locate anything. If you don't have cellphone service, go to the highest point. Stick to your search area. Don't go off that plan and get hurt. That makes it very tough for me to locate you guys. A search within a search is not the most fun thing to try to do."

He told the young searchers to look around tight corners, straightaways that lead to corners, washouts, registry boxes, trailheads, campsites, broken branches, skid marks on the road and "basically anywhere you can fit a Subaru."

The teams parted in the Tuesday afternoon sun, with the promise of returning to Stanley before dark.

So Many Places

The teams took hours to pour over the Seafoam area, Redfish Lake, Stanley Lake, Dagger Falls, the Deadwood Reservoir and along Highway 21 from Lowman to Stanley. Not everyone looking for Robbi had actually met him. Drew Nienstedt, a longtime Boise area kayaker, took up the search to gain experience for becoming a firefighter.

He and his partner tackled the area around Deadwood Reservoir. They started down the dirt road at 4:23 p.m. and turned back onto Highway 21 at 8:06 p.m.

"You feel like you're the one that's going to find him," Nienstedt said. "At first, you spend more time looking at every nook and cranny, then you start realizing you have a lot of ground to cover so you get more analytical. As we started going up this extensive dirt road, I thought, 'Would he have gone down this road?' My Subaru doesn't like it. He was cautious about his car from what I hear."

Even though Nienstedt wasn't trained in search and rescue techniques, he didn't think his efforts were a waste of time.

"Even the best search and rescue person can't think of all the scenarios at every inch and every point," he said during the search. "Could we be missing something? Absolutely. But I think we're doing the best we can for the resources we have. For our ragtag crew."

Part of that crew included E.J. Duarte, who owns Thrust-UAV, a Boise-based company that makes quadcopters that can be fitted with cameras. The machine is then controlled via remote, and Duarte can watch the footage in real-time from the ground. He brought two of the drones to help gather more viewpoints of the area.

Duarte flew his camera five times along Highway 21, coming up empty each time. But he said it was useful when a cliff was too steep to safely peer down.

click to enlarge Footage of the rugged Payette River taken by a drone used in the search for Robbi. - E.J. DUARTE
  • E.J. Duarte
  • Footage of the rugged Payette River taken by a drone used in the search for Robbi.

"I took some video along a trail that would have taken us 20 minutes to hike up. We could just buzz up it real quick," he said. "In this situation, these are useful. It could take you two or three hours to hike down a canyon, but you can take this thing and buzz down and be back in less than 10 minutes."

The irony didn't escape Duarte--his product is popular with kayakers to gather footage of themselves while they run rivers like the North Fork of the Payette. In this instance, it could have been helping to locate one of the paddling community's own, too.

To help in the search efforts, a Gofundme campaign was started online. It raised more than $18,500 in three days. Korell, the raft guide who ditched her first days of college to look for Robbi, yelped in excitement.

"When we find Lucius alive, we are buying a ton of kegs," she said at the time, laughing.

But after returning again from a day full of searching, the group seemed deflated and tired. They kept running into the same feeling: There are only so many places he could be, right? Right, there are so many places he could be.

"Too many green Subarus with too many kayaks," said Jeremy Shoemaker, another guide skipping class to search for his buddy. The guides told their professors this is where they would be, and if they were going to be dropped for missing the classes, so be it.

"Priorities," Shoemaker said. "Our friend is missing."

Boise County Sheriff Roeber wasn't on the ground with these young adults, but he understood how they felt.

"Everywhere you are searching that he is not, frustration mounts," he said. "But the more areas we can cross off our list, it is still deemed a success."

Into the Mind

Gathered again in the Stanley Community Center on Tuesday evening, after the sunlight was gone, the frustration had mounted. More than 20 volunteers had gone out on close to 10 different forays that day; despite searching from sunrise to sunset, they felt even farther from Robbi than before they started.

They circled around the maps and spread out on metal folding chairs, heads propped up by hands, smiles gone. The buzz of florescent lights filled the room.

"Just because we came up with nothing doesn't mean it didn't give us something," Gillis told his weary searchers. "We know where he's not."

So much of the search for a missing person involves trying to get into that person's head. What was he thinking? Did he have a plan? Did he stick to his plan? Was he heartbroken and hiding off the grid? Had he chucked his responsibilities and hightailed it to Washington for more river running? Did he feel overwhelmed with the thought of college and decide to skip Montana altogether? Could he have made it across the border into Canada? Would he be OK with letting his family search relentlessly for him? Would he have gotten lost checking out some new kayak runs? Did he lose control of his vehicle? Was it a deer, or a drunk driver? Was he looking down, changing the song on his iPod when his vehicle went off a sharp turn? Was he in the habit of speeding? Did his brakes give out? Had he eloped? Did he even know anyone to elope with?

Speculations cropped up in everyone's minds--those actively searching for Robbi, those investigating his disappearance, those reading about him from home. When he wasn't immediately found on the main highways, the hypotheses became weirder, even more unlikely.

But figuring out how Robbi operated was part of Gillis' job as the search coordinator. So, during the debriefing on the night of Aug. 26, he started posing questions to those who knew Robbi best.

"How many of you knew Lucius personally?" he asked. All but two or three of the volunteers raised their hands. "I mean very personally. I'm the kind of guy where when I'm traveling places, I don't put my cellphone on airplane mode or turn it off. I plug it into the charger and leave it charging the whole time I'm driving. If you're thinking about Lucius, what would he do?"

"He doesn't have a phone charger in his car," said one volunteer.

"Yes he does," said a few more.

"What I'm looking at with this question is the possibility of his phone just dying," Gillis said.

That would have explained why it wouldn't have pinged at any other cellphone towers outside of Smith's Ferry/Lowman. If he continued on his journey, it should have pinged at Stanley, Salmon, and farther north as well.

"He did not have an alarm clock. He used his cellphone to wake up to. It was his all-purpose device," said another volunteer.

The group continued to analyze Robbi's cellphone habits, looking for answers, and decided it would have been turned on.

Throughout the day of Tuesday, Aug. 26, while Gillis had his crews searching the southern area, Robbi's family was searching farther north in Challis. They talked to someone at a gas station in Salmon that swore she saw Robbi, and even had a conversation with him. After what the family thought was such a promising lead, they started urging Gillis to pack it up and head north as well. But he couldn't get past the cellphone ping at Lowman.

"Do you guys understand where I'm at?" he said, addressing the volunteers.

Many of them had suggested throughout the day that the area had been pretty well covered, and that Robbi probably did go farther north.

"I want to go up there because the family is really confident in it, but at the same time, I really want to stay here," he said.

"What if he got into trouble really, really early on?" Nienstedt said. "I mean, it could have happened really close. It would make sense with the cellphone tower, but it would rule out the Salmon sighting."

Robbi's friends didn't realize it, but he was only five miles from where they sat that night, wondering where, in so many places, he could be.

Detection in Haste

As the search for Robbi wore on well into a week after his disappearance, emotions ran high among his friends and family.

According to Boise County Sheriff Roeber, searches conducted by family members create a double-edged sword.

"We never want to discourage the family," he said. "It is an extremely daunting emotion that they're going through. But some of the things we want to do is sometimes very frustrating to others looking at it."

He explained that thoroughly vetting leads and investigating sightings takes time--time the family of the missing person often feels isn't there.

Gillis said that started to happen in the search efforts up north, in Challis.

"Sometimes people can become emotionally charged and want to base their search off of nothing but hasty techniques. It's hard to convince them to slow down sometimes and put one foot in front of the other instead of taking a big stride and skipping over a large section of terrain," he said during the search. "Picture the next 20 feet in front of me right now. If I get up and walk it, it's going to take me 10 seconds to go that far. If I get up and run it, it's going to take me five seconds. Cool, I can cover a lot of ground really quick, but my probability of detection is super low. If I slow that pace down and take 10 seconds to go that far, my probability of detection jumps double. I believe taking those small steps is crucial to finding Lucius."

Another danger search parties can fall into is forming theories about what happened to the missing person.

Roeber said he is cautious never to form theories of where a missing person ended up, because then he would risk ignoring clues that don't support his theory. Both Gillis and Roeber agreed all search efforts played a role in locating Robbi. The sheriff said the family put in more hours looking for Robbi than anyone.

Professional search and rescue teams usually wind up their searches once they feel like they've scrubbed the area clean and no more leads come in. For the family of a missing person, they don't stop until they've run everything dry.

The worry started to mount for Krista Long, at Cascade Raft and Kayak--not only for Robbi, but for her other employees out in the wilderness trying to find him.

"We had some of our staff run off in the middle of the night to go up there," she said at the time. "We have at least 20 or 30 people up there who are very close to us who we care about, driving on dirt roads with no cell service.The staff members who have come down, you can tell they've been up all night. It's hard to watch. This is not a group that gives up. This is a group that will go until there are answers."

After sending his crews to bed and figuring out his plan for the next day, Gillis headed to a bar down the street, one of the only open signs in the town with a population under 70. Over a whiskey and Coke, he wracked his brain for where Robbi could be.

"I haven't slept from the time I woke up at 8 a.m. on Monday," he told Boise Weekly before heading to his hotel room, shared with four other volunteers. "I haven't slept since Sunday night. I feel like I know him now. He seems like a very smart young man. I know where he was on Aug. 19. That is ground zero. The question is flowing through my head every single time I get new information: Where the fuck is he?"

There He Is

Robbi's friends paddle the Payette River in his honor on Aug. 30. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Robbi's friends paddle the Payette River in his honor on Aug. 30.

Two days after sharing a drink with BW, Gillis boarded that helicopter with the pilot--Dave Everson, whose friendship with Robbi went back to California. They took off at 1:15 p.m. It was Gillis' last day searching for Robbi before other obligations took him away from the area.

They looked again at areas already searched on the ground and with fixed-wing airplanes, but the helicopter gave them the ability to slow it down, to hover--to take those "small steps."

Around 6:30 p.m., they made one last loop up to Stanley from Garden Valley, where they spotted Robbi's Subaru down a 60-foot embankment.

This stretch of road wasn't curvy like the rest. It was flat and straight, only five miles from Stanley--near the turn off for Stanley Lake. On this road, a visitor can see the Sawtooth Mountains towering to the west and old wooden fencing zig-zagging to the east.

Robbi's vehicle had drifted into the northbound lane, and ended up off the road.

"He probably didn't hit the brakes until he was in the air," said Nienstedt, one of the searchers. The car hit a few large pine trees before coming to rest, upright, with the kayaks nearby--in a spot that every search volunteer had traveled past countless times.

"It was plain," Gillis said. "It was sitting right there."

How it ended up there, the Idaho State Police are still investigating. But suddenly, the biggest question mark vanished.

"I felt like the majority of the time, I had a feeling that I've got to be able to find him," Gillis said. "I felt so strongly about the area I had narrowed down in my head."

When the news sunk in among the other search volunteers, Nienstedt said this was the most likely scenario. He figured the volunteers probably drove at least 2,000 miles of dirt roads in Idaho's backcountry, looking for an accident that could have happened to any of them right there.

"It's the only thing that made sense," Nienstedt said.

It could have happened to anyone, but, it happened to Lucius Robbi.

In his honor, the University of Montana held a moment of silence on campus at noon Friday, Aug. 29. A professor offered her condolences on the Finding Lucius Facebook page.

On the evening of Saturday, Aug. 30, more than a dozen of his friends took to their kayaks and paddled down the North Fork and the Main Payette River in his name. The group wasn't deterred by the thunder and lightning overhead, or the pouring rain.

A close friend of his, John Webster, refused to complain about the rain or the darkness falling on the group. "This float isn't for us," he said.

He looked up in the rain.

"Lucius is just jealous he can't paddle with us," he added.

There's a memorial for him now, off of Highway 21. It's a knobby treetrunk with wildflowers tucked inside and a pair of hiking shoes. Sprinkled over the memorial, is water from the Payette.
Friends built a memorial for Robbi off Highway 21. - JESSICA MURRI
  • Jessica Murri
  • Friends built a memorial for Robbi off Highway 21.
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