Finding Lucius 

Inside the search for a missing friend

Page 4 of 5

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.

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