Missing geologist was acting erratically before disappearance, witness says

The man who last saw Daniel Robinson, 24, on a job site says his behaviour shifted dramatically within minutes

Sheila Flynn
in Denver
Wednesday 22 September 2021 23:42 BST
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Missing geologist Daniel Robinson had been acting erratically in the two weeks leading up to his disappearance and, on the morning he vanished, went from behaving normally to “replying to me with answers that had nothing to do with the questions”, the last man to see him has told The Independent.

Fellow geologist Ken Elliott met the 24-year-old for the first time on the morning of 23 June, when they were scheduled to be assessing a remote drill site in the Arizona desert. Initially, Mr Elliott said, everything seemed fine as the pair discussed the weather and the job.

Within a matter of minutes, however, Mr Robinson’s demeanour changed from “normal” to distracted, Mr Elliott said.

“He was just looking off into he desert; he had a very, very distant look in his eyes,” Mr Elliott told The Independent. “Whenever he’d turn around again, I would look at him and look into his eyes – the first thing I thought was maybe it was drugs or something ... [but] his pupils were not dilated.

“From that standpoint, everything appeared to be normal,” Mr Elliott said. “Then I thought this was a medical condition or something. I wasn’t too sure. I kept watching him, but he just kept turning around and looking off into the desert.

“Then he just turned around and walked back over to his Jeep, and I just assumed he was going to get something out of his vehicle. And he opened the door, got in, sat down, put on his seatbelt, then he looked at me and just waved at me and backed up and took off.”

That was the last known sighting of the young South Carolina native.

Mr Elliott informed his coworkers by phone about the situation, assuming the younger geologist wasn’t feeling well and would call in sick. Hours later, no one had heard from Mr Robinson, and Mr Elliott went investigating – finding the 24-year-old’s Jeep tracks heading further into the desert.

“When I saw that, my heart sank, because it just told me that he wasn’t going home,” Mr Elliott told The Independent. “Something was really not right.”

Mr Robinson’s family members have travelled to Arizona from their East Coast home to search for him, even hiring their own private investigator, former police officer Jeff McGrath.

The PI said the missing man’s family told him he’d been acting unusually for about two weeks before 23 June. Mr Robinson – a keen outdoorsman, musician and traveller – had always been in close contact with his parents and siblings. But family told the investigator that, leading up to that date, he’d made odd comments, disappeared for a significant chunk of time one day and left his apartment wide open.

Still , the circumstances surrounding the man’s disappearance remain “suspicious”, Mr McGrath told The Independent.

Despite widespread searches by air and foot, Mr Robinson’s vehicle was not found until nearly a month later. The airbags were deployed, it was tipped on its side at the bottom of a ravine and not only were the geologist’s phone, wallet and keys found at the scene, but also the clothes he was last seen wearing.

Mr McGrath – who specialises in accident investigations – said that evidence from the vehicle strangely shows that it crashed, the airbags deployed, then it drove another 11 miles and was involved in another crash.

“We definitely have something suspicious here,” he told The Independent. “I don’t know if we have a crime or not, but we have enough suspicion to actually have a full investigation going on this.”

A spokeswoman for the Buckeye Police Department on Wednesday said that the missing persons case remained open, but Mr Robinson’s family and Mr McGrath have taken issue with the way it’s being handled.

“At minimum, we have an endangered missing persons case,” Mr McGrath told The Independent. “If he’s not right in his head and he just kind of wanders off, that could be a problem.”

He said: “Maybe he did just take off, but he’s got nothing. There’s no evidence that he built an account somewhere to have money; he didn’t have much money to begin with. He didn’t have a phone, his ID ... we didn’t see any of that pre-planning that you would see if somebody just wanted to just go be someone else.”

The detective added that “nothing makes sense about the vehicle and where it was and his clothes being just out there”.

He told The Independent his own theories about the case have changed at least four times since he began investigating over the summer.

The terrain in which Mr Robinson was working and where his car was found is unforgiving. Temperatures throughout the summer climb well over 115 degrees and there’s next to no shelter. Most people lost or wandering don’t last long in those conditions – and while bottled water was found in Mr Robinson’s car, it doesn’t appear he took it with him.

There has also been no sign of a body despite repeated air searches, sniffer and cadaver dogs.

The investigation did turn up a human skull which, even more bafflingly, belonged neither to Mr Robinson nor another person reported missing from the area longer ago, police spokesperson Cassie Planalp told The Independent this week.

Mr Elliott, meanwhile, remains flummoxed by the situation and said he wishes he’d met his fellow geologist beforehand to more quickly realise his behaviour was uncharacteristic.

Family, friends and coworkers “said he’s really happy-go-lucky, loves to have conversations and he’s always smiling,” Mr Elliott told The Independent. “I didn’t see any of that.”

On the day Mr Robinson disappeared, he said – particularly when their interaction had begun so unremarkably – “I was trying to just put it all together and go, why would a person drive all the way out here just to leave?”

The geologist’s family, meanwhile, are holding out hope and trying desperately to keep the 24-year-old’s case at the forefront of authorities’ and the public’s minds.

His father, David Robinson, told The Independent the family believes Daniel Robinson may have met with foul play, particularly given the odd discovery of his vehicle and the information it provided.

“It was returned to an area near where we were searching – my theory would be maybe to try to throw us off,” he said. “Buckeye Police Department, they did a search, they didn’t find a vehicle – and also my search team had been out there; they hadn’t seen the vehicle.”

He added: “I feel like it was dumped.”

As the Robinson family continues to search and hope and pray, the elder Mr Robinson said, he’s clinging to one specific personal theory.

“I believe that, somehow, God’s going to bring my son back alive,” he said.

Daniel Robinson is described as a 5’8 Black man weighing 165 pounds with black hair and brown eyes who is missing part of his right forearm, including his hand. Anyone with information is encouraged to contact authorities.

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