Questions raised over early handling of case; no major search mounted for weeks after Jeep SUV found disabled 22 miles off-road in remote desert locale
“Thanksgiving weekend is the busiest of the year. Tens of thousands of people were in the desert…It’s likely someone would have come across him. If it was at night and he was on foot, someone could have given him a ride.” -- Detective Patrick Yates
By Miriam Raftery
February 25, 2010 (San Diego’s East County) - Grounded for stealing his stepfather's motorcycle and going joyriding November 20th in a Riverside County park, 16-year-old Mickey Guidry (also called Mike or Mikey) took his parents’ blue Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV on Thanksgiving to join friends who were camping at 5454 Split Mountain Road in Ocotillo Wells. He left camp at 3 p.m. on Friday, November 27th—and hasn’t been seen since. Now ECM has learned that this wasn't the first time the teen has gone missing. Sheriff officials are treating the case as a runaway.
But the boy's mother, Missy Perucca, believes her son made it out of the desert alive and may now be living elsewhere--and hopes he didn't meet with foul play. "I just hope someone somewhere knows something and reports it to the police so we can finally have a direction to go in," she said.
On Saturday, the 28th, a family off-roading reported the Jeep abandoned, tire worn to the rim, along Fish Creek Wash, 22 miles along a rugged, rocky off-road vehicle trail on November 28th. They spotted it in the morning, but didn’t report it until 5:30 p.m., when Ranger Don Strampfer at Anza Borrego State Park confirmed the Jeep had been reported stolen. Guidry’s stepfather reported the Jeep stolen but declined to file a missing persons report on his son, believing the boy would return as he had in the prior joyriding episode.He'd asked permission to go camping for the weekend with friends, and when his parents refused, he took off in the Jeep.
Unaware that a teen was missing, Strampfer waiting until Sunday to visit the site by daylight. He found a key in the ignition and turned it, but the vehicle was not driveable, stuck in sand with one wheel. “The front bumper was torn off. The front tire was blown off and the rim was melted down. He was hell-bent to get where he was going (assuming Guidry was driving). He couldn’t go any further,” he said, adding that Guidry likely took off on foot—or may have been picked up by passerbys, since it was the businest weekend of the year for off-roading.
But Guidry’s wallet, with his high school ID, was left in the vehicle. His cell phone had been shut off after his parents reported the vehicle stolen. Authorities believe the teen may have tried to walk back, or cut across rough terrain around 8 miles to Highway 78.
He had no flashlight. No water. No food. His wallet, ID, and clothes were left behind in the Jeep. No working cell phone. His cell phone, though its service was cut off, was not in the vehicle when it was found.
Despite these disturbing circumstances, Sheriff’s officials have treated his disappearance as a teen runaway case. No forensic evidence was gathered from the Jeep or the scene where it was found. Only a cursory search has been done on the boy’s computer. Media was not notified of the missing teen until three weeks after his disappearance—and then only because an aerial search was finally mounted; officials say they issued a release because the public would ask questions about helicopters and dog teams combing the area weeks after the teen vanished.
“There is no explanation as to why the SD Sheriffs didn’t bother to start looking for him until three weeks after I reported him missing,” Perucca, posted in a comment on East County Magazine February 8th. They tell me that they “thought he’d been found already”…but they never verified it."
Some authorities dispute that contention; Sheriff’s representatives, Ranger Stampfer, and Guidry’s mother provide conflicting details.
On Monday, November 30th, Ranger Stampfer reached Perucca, Guidry’s mother, to inform her the Jeep had been found. He confirmed that she told him her son had taken the Jeep.
She filed a missing person’s report on her son later that same day with the San Diego County Sheriff. Detective Anthony Radicio took the report.
“At 4:50 p.m., I received a satellite call from the boy’s stepfather in Afghanistan,” Stampfer disclosed, adding that Guidry’s mother conveyed Stampfer’s request to her husband. Major Douglas Perucca had deployed to Afghanistan on November 28th, the Saturday after his son took the Jeep. “He said Mickey was familiar with that area, because he’d taken him out there multiple times,” Stampfer recalled.
On Saturday, December 5th, Stampfer next heard from family friends who came to get the Jeep.
“If it was my kid, I would have had my own search team out there 24/7—immediately,” he noted.
Stampfer then arranged a meeting with his staff and supervisor, and made flyers to post in the Anza-Borrego area. He next spoke with Mickey’s mother on the 12th. “She called me back to ask if we found a cell phone in the Jeep, and she informed me that her son, Mickey, was still missing,” he said.
He received a call from Detective Pat Yates, San Marcos Sheriff Substation, at some point and learned that a major search was being planned. But Stampfer confirmed, “Nobody did a search in at least the first week.”
Mickey’s mother says she made numerous calls to Sheriff’s officials. “They just said, `Oh, he ran away. He’ll come home when he is ready. They pretty much just blew it off until I sent them a letter…I told them I would go higher up, up to the media, whoever was higher because they wouldn’t give it any attention,” she told East County Magazine.
Jan Caldwell, spokesperson for Sheriff Bill Gore (photo, left), says a deputy responded “immediately” after the first call was made. “The detective has tried numerous times to speak with the parents, however his calls are never returned,” she said in an e-mail to East County Magazine. “He has even left cards with neighbors.”
Caldwell suggested we invite the boy’s mother to meet with us and detectives. She declined, stating she felt it would be a waste of time and that she would rather spend time searching for her son or seeking media coverage of his case.
So ECM met with three Sheriff’s representatives on our own. In response to our request for records, we were allowed to view portions of investigative files and take notes, but not to take copies off the premises.
“I can tell you that the husband did not report the kid missing for several days, even though they reported the car stolen,” said Captain Don Crist. “There were several prior incidents like this one.”
One week earlier, detectives learned, Guidry’s stepfather reported his motorcycle stolen. Guidry had taken it joyriding on Ortega Highway in a state park in Riverside County. When it ran out of gas, he walked out and upon meeting up with a park ranger, made up a story that he’d been kidnapped, but escaped. The fib sparked a helicopter search for the kidnappers, until the teen confessed to a Riverside Sheriff’s deputy that the story was not true.
According to Detective Patrick Yates, “The Mom reported that had happened before that. Ours is perhaps the third or fourth time that he had taken a vehicle from the parents.” Perucca disputes that there were prior episodes, but did confirm the Riverside situation. “He was just stupid. He was afraid he would get in trouble, so he told them he’d been kidnapped. He didn’t realize it would be such a big problem and start a big search.”
Asked if the family got a bill for the search due to the bogus story, she replied, “They said they were going to send us the bill, but they haven’t yet.”
Crist said the stepfather was advised when reporting the Jeep stolen that the boy could be apprehended at gunpoint, since without a missing persons report, deputies would assume the driver to be armed and dangerous. He said it is rare for parents to follow through with a stolen vehicle report by a teen for that reason. “Three times they declined to report him missing,” he said.
At first, Perucca said that she and her husband believed Mickey would return home after the weekend, and assumed he was safe with friends. They had the cell phone company turn off his cell phone service as a punishment and planned to ground him when he came home.
But he never returned.
Crist defends the department’s actions. “We did take it seriously. We expended a lot of energy,” he said. “Our detective went to the house. He even left cards with neighbors. We even tried to call the father in Afghanistan on his cell phone…She [the mother] even said `Quit calling my neighbors.’”
But Perucca tells a different story. “They never said they wanted him to contact them,” she said of her husband. “They never once asked for his e-mail.” She said she stopped responding to the detective who came to the house because she didn’t believe he was taking the case seriously.
“I told him to assign the case to somebody else—he kept saying `Your son is a runaway and we’re not going to look for him. After those three weeks, I told him `Don’t call me and don’t go to my house anymore. I wanted the case to go to someone who would actually go look for my son….How do they know he didn’t get picked up by some pervert and buried in the desert?”
She said she had friends on dirt bikes go search the desert for her son. She contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and had flyers made. Guidry is listed there as an "endangred runaway." Mickey's mother said officials in local law enforcement tried to discourage her from putting up posters. “They said not to waste my time.”
On December 14th, Yates said he got a call from the boy's mother, who hung up when he put her on hold for “less than 30 seconds” to respond to Deputy Radicia. He says he called all of her phone numbers and the stepfather’s several times over the next three days, then knocked on neighbors’ doors.
He said when the boy was first reported missing, the department viewed it as a “standard runaway case.” There are more than one million missing kids, he added.
Asked how many runaways return within the first 48 hours or so, he acknowledged, “99%.” Most of the rest are parental abductions, he confirmed.
Asked why a disabled vehicle abandoned in a remote desert location wouldn’t trigger concern that the boy may have come to harm, he replied, “People dump vehicles in the middle of nowhere all the time.”
Asked why the department finally issued a press release, posted quietly on its website on December 17 or 18, he replied, “Generally when there is a lot of activity in the field, the public will ask questions.”
As for why Search and Rescue operations were not commenced until December 17th, with a major search not held until December 20--over three weeks after the vehicle was found--Yates maintained that there was a search “immediately” with “units on the ground and in the air. He said Rangers in Anza Borrego had also done some initial searching.
When asked about Yates’ statement, Stampfer expressed surprise. “I do circles around for about a hundred yards and follow prints, but it’s nothing like a major search with helicopters and dogs.” He was not certain when the first air search or use of dogs occurred, but confirmed, “Nobody did a search in at least the first week.”
Perucca is upset that the Sheriff has refused to conduct forensic tests on the vehicle. “They never looked at the car,” she said, adding that rain would have destroyed any prints long before the Sheriff’s searches began weeks after Mickey disappeared. “My friends brought it on a flat bed truck and took it home…They never once said can we look at the car.”
Yates said he examined the vehicle, but didn’t say where. Crist said no forensics would be taken because “there was no evidence of a crime.” He added that there could be hundreds of prints, adding “We could bog down the system looking for prints on this and prevent a rape case from getting forensics done…We’re not going to do anything further.”
Told of Yates statement, Perucca responded with anger. “He only looked at the outside of the car. He never looked at the inside. I had it locked. The alarm was set. From the time we reported it missing, they had an entire week to go out to see the car in the desert and they never did….I think what they’re realizing now is they did wrong in this initial thing and they’re trying to cover their butts.”
Stampfer said he looked inside the vehicle and didn’t note anything obviously amiss, such as blood stains. He expressed surprise when told that the Sheriff’s office has declined to take fingerprints, though he concurred with Yates’ contention that it would be hard to find a suspect’s prints when so many other people had been in the vehicle.
Donald A. Parker, sergeant in charge of Search and Rescue operations for the San Diego Sheriff, says he did not find out about the missing teen until December 16th. He and Astrea helicopter pilots flew out the next day but found nothing, other than tracks in the dirt where the Jeep had been (it was removed by friends of the family), and a white blanket that may have been Guidry’s in a wash northeast of the Jeep site.
In coming days, more searches were done by air and on foot. Searchers used Google Earth, knowing they were likely searching for a body after so many weeks. They focused on the route from Split Mountain to the Jeep’s end location at longitude N. 33, 02, 55, W. 116, 01, 54, as well as the route Guidry may have taken on foot if he’d struck out over rugged, boulder-strewn terrain toward Highway 78, visible from a rise near where the blanket was found.
On December 20th, with weather down to 25 degrees, a major search was finally launched with helicopters, Parker, Yates, and about 50 trained volunteer searchers. San Diego’s Search and Rescue has a national reputation for excellence, said Parker. “They all get training. We have one academy a year and we’re always looking for volunteers.” Volunteer searchers include the CEO of Scripps Healthcare, former police, former and current military members, nurses, paramedics, software engineers, and stay-at-home grandmothers.
The Sheriff’s department also brought three or four teams of cadaver dogs. Even after so many weeks, a body would still have a detectable odor, said Parker, who recalled finding one body after six months. They searched Harper Flat, where a searcher reported a smell, but found nothing other than numerous footprints that may have belonged to illegal border crosses who frequent the area.
Searches were also conducted using motorized units, including quad units from the west to Pinon Valley, where a drop-off is so steep that four-wheel drivers must winch theselves up from the command post. Motorized vehicles searched along the route from 78 towards where the blanket was found, but could not go the final portion due to impassable terrain.
“We found zero—except the blanket,” Parker said.
The team did spot mountain tracks, and even made efforts to find where a mountain lion might have holed up. “It’s literally a needle in a haystack,” said Parker, who added that given that Guidry is 5 foot 10 and weighed 155 pounds, a mountain lion attack would be unlikely—unless he fell and was injured.
Parker hopes to go back with a borrowed unmanned aircraft, which is less costly than a helicopter costing $1,000 an hour. The same aircraft has been used in the search for Amber DuBois—the missing Escondido teen whose disappearance has been widely publicized, even making national TV news, in stark contrast to the case of Mickey Guidry.
Parker said limited resources made it impossible to search the 200 square miles of very rugged terrain. “There are boulders the size of this table,” he said of one wash where an earthquake struck not long ago.
“Do I think he’s out there?” he paused. “I really don’t know.”
Sheriff’s say four basic scenarios are possible. If Guidry tried to walk out, he may have died from exposure or injury, and simply hasn’t been found. A positive sign is that no buzzards were spotted circling in the vicinity visible from a ranger station, and all such sightings are investigated due to border crossers and off-roaders who often run into trouble in the desert.
The second scenario is a staged disappearance, in which the Jeep was abandoned on purpose and Guidry hooked up with friends who spirited him away. But he couldn’t have known his parents would shut off cell service, and had no way to communicate with anyone after leaving the campground.
Third, he could have met with foul play. Perhaps someone met him at a gas station and forced or convinced him tp go 22 miles into the middle of nowhere. Or he drove on his own, got stuck, then set off on foot or got a ride with someone who had bad intentions. If so, he could be anywhere--killed, or held captive, like Steven Staynor or Jaycee Dugard.
The fourth possibility is that he hiked out (or got a ride) and left voluntarily with whoever picked him up. If he made it to Highway 78,depending in which direction he went next, he might ridden to Julian, Borrego Springs, Brawley, El Centro, the Imperial Valley or points further east. It is also possible that he returned to the San Diego area, or headed out of state.
Crist thinks Guidry may well have been able to reach Highway 78, or get a ride. “He could have gotten out of there easily. There were several options,” he asid.
“We’re sure he made it out,” Perucca told East county Magazine, “but what happened after that? All the things that cross your mind…He’s very impressionable. There were no troubles with drugs or alcohol,” she said, adding that she has searched his room in the past to make sure. She believes he had help to steal the motorcycle, and doesn’t believe he would plan to runaway on his own.
She said she has spoken with her son’s friends, who continue calling and texting her. “I have all his phone records, everyone he called.” She said she spoke with the girl and her family that Mickey camped with, and that the mother confirmed her daughter’s version of events. Mickey’s mother referred to the girl as his “girlfriend.” She confirmed that Mickey had reportedly told that family a tall tale, indicating his Dad was going to Iraq.
“I don’t know where he came up with this stuff—it’s totally out of the blue,” she said. “He wasn’t always like that. He wasn’t a big liar other than little stuff, like did you clean the cat box? Yeah Mom, if he was feeling lazy.” She said Mickey was slated to have a meeting with a psychiatrist, however, because of the earlier stolen motorcycle incident, but never made the appointment since he disappeared before.
Perucca said the family told her Mickey was wearing a white jacket, a detail she found puzzling. He didn’t own a white jacket and had no money to buy one, she noted.
ECM called the”girlfriend”, who declined to speak with us. We did speak with the girl’s mother, who asked that the family’s names not be published. Sheriff officials say the girl’s family was cooperative, but the girl’s mother seemed less-than-candid with ECM.
“He was there with us,” the woman said. Asked when he left the camp, she said she couldn’t remember the day, but noted, “As far as we know, he was going home.”
Asked if they had any reason to believe he would runaway, she replied, “Absolutely none, not a thing…We just met him so we had no clue what he was like, didn’t know anything.” She insisted that her daughter barely knew Mickey and that they were just school friends.
Yates said the family told authorities a somewhat different story. “They were snowed—led to believe by Mickey that his family was abandoning him; he told them they were splitting up and he was going to a brother in Los Angeles. There is no brother, no siblings, and according to his family he was not told to get out.”
Mickey showed up unannounced at the family’s campsite at the Ocotillo Wells trailer park, he said, adding that the family told authorities they gave Mickey gas money to get home. It is unknown whether or not he stopped for gas before heading out on the rugged road, which ran right by the campground, or whether he might have met up with someone – a stranger, perhaps—at a gas station or someplace else before heading out into the rugged terrain—if in fact he was still driving the vehicle at that time.
ECM asked the girl’s mother what date she learned that Mickey was missing. She said she didn’t recall. We asked when she was first questioned by authorities. “I don’t recall if it was a day or two later, or two weeks later,” she said. She claimed she didn’t remember if she had talked to Mickey’s Mom. “I don’t recall talking to her directly. She talked to my daughter,” she said. “I feel really bad that he hasn’t shown up. As a mother I would be going crazy,” she added.
She said she found it odd that there was so little media coverage, noting that an article in the Borreo Sun didn’t run until three or four weeks after Mickey disappeared. “As a Mom, I would have been on the news two or three days after my daughter was gone; after one day I would have been calling trying to find out.”
A Google search has turned up no other media reports on Mickey’s disappearance, other than East County Magazine’s December 22 article. Not one. (Note: Our story indicates the Sheriff announcement of Mickey being missing was made December 18. The Sheriff’s office has since removed that press release from its website. The Sheriff declined our request for written records on this case, citing a pending investigation and the fact that we requested records more than 30 days after the disappearance. )
Josh Watkins, a friend of Mickey’s, said he last saw Mickey shortly before Thanksgiving, about a week before he disappeared. “He’d ridden his Dad’s motorcycle to school,” he said. “I don’t know who he went camping with; normally he calls me to invite me to stuff like that.”
He said Mickey was a loner who didn’t have many close friends and hung out with “random” people after school.
Asked if there was anyone Mickey was close to, he named the girl whose family Mickey camped with the last night he was seen alive. He described her as “really close to him” and added, “She sits next to me in class. She was calm about it; she seemed worried but she wasn’t extremely freaked out.” He said the girl told him she hadn’t seen Mickey since about a week before he went missing. “I asked her if she knew anything and she said she didn’t.”
He said he didn’t believe Mickey was involved with drugs or gangs, and that Mickey had told him how he and his stepdad “always rode motorcycles together; it sounded like he was having fun.”
No one interviewed for this story expressed any knowledge of any serious problems for Mickey at home, other than the vehicle thefts. But Watkins noted, “He hung out with some trouble-makers; he just liked to get into trouble, do like dumb stuff.” Asked for an example he said, “Like making bombs out of household items just for fun,” but added he never thought Mickey would do anything threatening or “too dangerous.”
He said a Sheriff’s official called him about a week after Mickey’s disappearance, but he didn’t return the call. A couple of weeks later they called back and talked with him.
Sheriff’s officials don’t know what happened to Mickey Guidry. But they assured, “nothing lends itself to foul play involving the family, because the kid dictated his own moves.” Nor do they suspect the family that Mickey Guidry camped with on the last day he was seen alive.
Mickey did not yet have a driver’s license. The Jeep, registered in his stepfather’s name, was a gift for his birthday in August and was to be transferred to his name once he obtained his license.
“That he made it this far is amazing,” Yates said of the place where the Jeep became stranded. Strampfer concurred that it would take considerable driving skill to navigate the treacherous dirt off-road for so many miles.
Mickey’s mother expressed frustration that school officials at San Marcos High School have refused to give her information. “They won’t talk to me at all,” she says. “They say talk to the principal, but he won’t talk to me either.”
Sheriff’s officials say that teachers and school officials have been cooperative.
East County Magazine called the school and asked to talk with school officials, teachers, and anyone else who knew Mickey. We also asked for public records on when the school was contacted by Sheriff’s officials, or whether the school reported Mickey missing. One official returned our call, only to inform us that tersely, “I’m not going to share any information. You can speak to the parents. You can’t speak with any of the staff members here on record,” he added, citing board policy. “And I don’t want to be quoted in any publication I will take you to court if it’s public.”
Mickey’s mother expressed frustration, and said she’s more than willing to have records on Mickey made public if it could shed any light on his whereabouts, or anyone who might know. “At this point, to me, he doesn’t have any privacy. He needs to be in the media. Somebody has to have seen him at some point.”
Asked where he might have wanted to go, if he left voluntarily, she said he had wanted to go back to the family’s former home in Arkansas. But she’s notified a realtor there to keep an eye on the home, which was vacant for a couple of months, with no results. Mickey enjoyed Future Farmers of America (FFA) and ROTC courses at school, though his grades had slipped, prompting the grounding before he took off on Thanksgiving, she said. He enjoys working with small engines—lawn mowers and cars—so possibly could seek work in a repair shop if he did run away, which she believes is not likely.
Sheriff’s deputies recently came to the home to take DNA samples of her son and herself, also requesting dental records. Sheriff’s officials say they have searched hospitals and morgues in adjacent counties, but no match has been found.
They recently took Mickey’s computer and a cursory-level search found nothing. Asked when a deeper search would be completed, they would not give a date. “It’s a slow process…very bogged down, and we have to prioritize our cases,” Yates said.
He suggested that putting up flyers for Mickey Guidry could be counter-productive for the department. “You start putting these out with every runaway and it hurts,” he said, suggesting that the public would stop responding to posters for children believed in imminent danger if too many runaway cases are publicized.
He suggested that Guidry, like the fabled boy who cried wolf, may have been responsible for his own fate—and for law enforcement not considering foul play a likely motive.
“Mickey was the last one to have control over his life,” Yates concluded. “The last person who spoke to him told him, `Mickey, go home.’”
Mickey has sandy hair and blue eyes. His birthday is August 3, 1993. He may have been wearing blue or black shorts or Dickies jeans with blue high-top tennis shoes.
Asked what would happen to Mickey if he should return home, Yates “Probably nothing,” added that it’s unlikely the family would press chargers for the stolen vehicle, as they would merely be glad to have their son safely home.
Perucca, a scuba diving instructor (photo, right), says she is not working because of Mickey’s disapearance. Mickey’s stepfather asked for and received permission from the military to come home early on compassionate leave, and was slated to arrive home last night.
“I just can’t handle this anymore,” Mickey’s mother said, her voice breaking.
Detective Yates said he has “zero leads” and encourages anyone with information to call him at (760)510-5233.