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Autistic man survives weeks lost in Utah's Escalante Desert (video)

Published July 16, 2012 2:11 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It was a long shot — Garfield County sheriff's Deputy Ray Gardner recalled from training just weeks earlier that people with autism are often attracted to bodies of water.

Tasked to search for a missing 28-year-old Colorado man with autism with no idea where his last known location was, Gardner suggested that it would be best to search for William LaFever along the Escalante River.

"It was a shot in the dark to find William," said Garfield County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Becki Bronson.

But, just 5 miles from where the Escalante River dumps into Lake Powell, a Utah Highway Patrol helicopter spotted a man sitting in the river, weakly waving one hand toward rescuers.

Rescuers thought there was no way this could be LaFever.

"Sure enough, it was him," Bronson said. "He was so weak. He could not stand or walk."

Authorities believe LaFever started his trek where Highway 12 crosses the Escalante River, between Boulder and the town of Escalante. From that point to the spot where LaFever was found, the river travels about 70 miles.

LaFever told rescuers that he survived by eating frogs and roots while traveling down the Escalante River. The man was delirious and emaciated, but alive, after spending at least three weeks living in the wilderness.

When LaFever was rescued, Bronson said it appeared that the man was craving one thing even more than food — human contact.

"Deputy Gardner told me that he was so starved for human contact, when he walked up to him, he would not stop talking," Bronson said. "It was hard work to get him to stop talking long enough to get him to eat something."

Bronson said LaFever somehow hitched a ride from his Colorado Springs home to the Boulder, Utah, area to go hiking in early June. But by June 6 or 7, he called his father from Boulder, asking him for money after his hiking equipment was stolen.

LaFever's father told him to travel to Page, Ariz., and he would wire him the money. However, the details of how LaFever would get there were never discussed, Bronson said, and his father didn't realize LaFever planned to hike along the Escalante River to Lake Powell, with the idea of catching a boat ride into the Arizona city.

After his family hadn't heard from him for weeks, his sister called Garfield County authorities on Monday.

Bronson said it appears that LaFever did have proper equipment and ample food, and he had a dog with him when he started his trek. She said that he likely underestimated the journey along the river, and at some point, he ran out of food, and his dog ran away.

"He has at least enough experience to know that there was some difficulty involved," Bronson said. "He didn't fully realize what he was getting himself into."

Bronson said LaFever was flown to Garfield Memorial Hospital, where he remained Thursday evening. She said they believe the man would not have been able to survive another 24 hours in the wilderness. Authorities could not find the dog.

jmiller@sltrib.com