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Was missing camper Bob Wildoner swallowed by the desert?

Do the remains of Bob Wildoner lie entombed in this collapsed cave?

Was missing camper Bob Wildoner swallowed by the desert?

When Bob Wildoner, then 76, disappeared in remote Saline Valley in 2021, he didn’t just vanish into thin air.

My theory is that the desert swallowed him – literally.

As seen in my blog entitled “In the desert, a simple mistake can turn deadly,” it appears Bob got disoriented on a moonless night. While trying to find his way back to camp, he took a wrong turn.

But what happened to Bob after that – dead or alive, why wasn’t he found?

In 2023, when my colleague Stuart Jeffries discovered one of Bob’s flip-flops lying on a plateau about a quarter mile from where Bob parked his truck, we examined the footwear closely.

The sandal showed signs of catastrophic failure. It was badly torn – as if pressure had been applied forcefully, and in a manner inconsistent with normal use.

The damage to Bob’s flip-flop dovetailed with my theory that in the dead of night he tripped and fell – perhaps by inadvertently stepping on a loose rock instead of level ground, applying his weight, and having his foot slip suddenly to one side.

 Bob’s wife Cindy Lee told me that her husband had become quite frail, and that falling could have been disastrous. What if Bob broke his hip, leg, or ankle?

The plateau where Bob’s sandal turned up was screened from the campground by intervening terrain. Even if Bob yelled for help, there were only a few other people in Saline Valley and it’s doubtful his cries would have been heard.

The weather was burning hot. Under these conditions, within an hour or two after sunrise, the plateau was like a reflector oven. Even if badly injured, Bob would have been desperate to find shade.

Just beyond the edge of the plateau, within crawling distance of Bob’s flip-flop, lay caves that had been carved by runoff.

Stuart and I examined the caves and found several that had recently collapsed. If Bob crawled into one these caves, then perished from shock and exposure, his remains could have been covered by a subsequent collapse.

There’s other evidence to support this theory. Retired firefighter Darrell Waltman told me that during a trip to Saline Valley in June 2021, he smelled the telltale odor of a dead body.  

“When I caught a whiff of that, I thought, “There’s Bob,’” Waltman said.

In July 2021, heavy rainfall struck Saline Valley and the wider Death Valley region, with the National Weather Service reporting “life-threatening flash flooding.”

This event might have caused the cave collapses that Stuart and I encountered.

But in May 2021, after Bob disappeared and before the deluge, why didn’t searchers find his remains?

Assuming Bob had taken shelter in a cave, he would have been hidden from the aerial search. On the ground, a limited number of searchers tried in one day to cover a vast area, and afterwards, called off the hunt because of dangerous heat.

If Bob was tucked away, finding him would have required thoroughness and attention to detail, and this never happened.

There have been many cases where missing people vanished due to landslides, avalanches, deepwater, and other natural hazards.  

My theory is that Bob’s remains are entombed – but whether this theory will ever be proven is anyone’s guess.

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