Just two years ago, Steve Voegtli was a six-foot-one retired firefighter whose athleticism until age 60 was sustained through surfing, hiking and mountain biking.
Steve was known as “The Dude” (based on the main character from the movie The Big Lebowski) and his demeanor was laid-back and friendly; he was loved by practically everyone.
So the day Steve went missing in Simi Valley at age 62 around 4 p.m. on Aug. 12, his family was baffled by his disappearance.
For the past five months — after spending endless hours scouring hospitals, homeless shelters, surfing communities and hiking trails in Thousand Oaks, Agoura and Simi Valley — his family has remained mystified about Steve’s whereabouts.
“It’s like a needle in a haystack but you don’t know where the haystack is,” said Steve’s son, Chris, 34, of El Segundo. “He could literally be anywhere.”
Prior to Steve’s disappearance, he was living at Simi Hills, a retirement community on Sunset Garden Lane near the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. The once-strapping man was considered frail at 180 pounds. He was showing early signs of dementia for less than a year, and was relocated to Simi Hills from his apartment in Thousand Oaks with the help of his lifelong friends at the fire department.
He was living at Simi Hills for only six weeks before he went missing.
“He left his wallet, his cell phone; he didn’t have any identification and no money as far as we know,” said Steve’s 68-year-old brother, Jerry Voegtli, who lives about a mile and a half away from Simi Hills.
The last time Jerry saw his brother was when they went to lunch in Simi Valley on Aug. 3. The two spoke on the phone on Aug. 5 shortly before Jerry went on vacation to Connecticut with his wife. The brothers agreed they’d go hiking upon Jerry’s return.
“I was on vacation and got a call that he was missing,” recalled Jerry, who cut the trip short and came back to Simi Valley.
Before Steve’s disappearance, his family had seen signs of his unexpected, quick decline.
“He was sort of keeping his distance,” Jerry said. “He was having some issues with his cognitive abilities. His mind seemed to be going very rapidly for a guy that young. When we went to lunch his responses to questions were one- to three-word sentences. It was obvious he was declining mentally.”
Detective Dan Swanson at the Simi Valley Police Department has helped from the beginning with the search for Voegtli.
“Detective Swanson has provided some insight on previous or current cases where Alzheimer’s patients walk and don’t really realize they’re walking; they don’t have a destination in mind,” Chris said. “They’re just walking and confused; they’re far away and then gone. They’re not thinking about eating. They walk until they drop. They’re not looking to be in a hidden location.”
Steve’s family, with help from police, has considered all scenarios, from foul play to suicide.
“There’s the potential that he still had some mental capacity. Maybe it wasn’t just a random walk. Maybe he wanted to go on an adventure. We’re left to speculate,” said Steve’s nephew, Mike Murphy, 48, of Long Beach. “There’s this hope that we have and we hold onto. He’s really a good, easygoing guy and not threatening. It’s totally conceivable he could be out on this adventure and under the care and kindness of strangers.”
“The frustrating part now is, what do we do?” Murphy said. “We’ve had friends, family, his former colleagues and complete strangers coming together to help. Their kindness has been uplifting but as we go further in, a month, two months, where do we look? That’s been the hardest thing.”
Local police agencies searched the area with cadaver dogs but found no body.
Word of Voegtli’s disappearance was also spread through hospitals and homeless shelters in San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego Counties.
Social media such as Facebook has been helpful at spreading the word. A Simi Valley Missing Persons page created by Simi Valley resident Pamela Messier has received thousands of hits.
Chris’s and Jerry’s DNA were collected by police for a database, but thankfully, they said, no match has been made.
“Once that information is in there, any John Does that the coroner or medical examiner hasn’t identified will be run against the data base,” Chris said. “That’s a reason for us to be positive. The DNA is in there and there’s been no match.”
Still, Chris said, there are days his emotions get the best of him.
“I’m a pretty rational guy so this is hard to even comprehend,” Chris said. “It’s hard to imagine where he would be but I think he’s still out there.”
Not black and white
Missing persons cases in Ventura County involve intricate details that officials must decipher once a child, adult or senior is reported missing.
People go missing for a wide variety of reasons. Some are kidnapped, while others become lost hiking in the mountains. Others are elderly with some form of dementia and go astray. There are teens — and even legal adults — who deliberately leave and don’t want to be found. And some cases with children involve parents who abduct them.
Regardless of the details, local departments are diligent with their investigations and won’t close the case until the person is found — either dead or alive. Some missing persons can be found within a matter of hours, with other open cases lasting for many years.
The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, which also services Camarillo, Fillmore, Moorpark, Ojai and Thousand Oaks, reported 691 missing persons cases from January to September of this year. In 2014, there were 696 total.
The majority are categorized as runaways, according to statistics provided by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. For instance, this year’s cases from January to September included 559 runaways out of the 691. In 2014, 530 of the 696 cases were runaways.
In the city of Oxnard, missing persons cases from January to September of this year numbered 835. In 2014, there were 1,207 total cases, said Sgt. Sharon Giles of the Sexual Assault and Family Protection Unit at the Oxnard Police Department.
The city of Simi Valley averages six to seven documented missing persons reports per month, not including runaway reports taken by the Simi Valley Police Department, according to Debra Ruud, the department’s crime analysis unit manager. From January through September of this year, 55 reports were taken.
“Of these reports, over 80 percent have been cleared with a return/locate status,” Ruud said. “The majority of missing persons return or are located well within 30 days, and in many cases usually the same day or during the same week.”
Jose De Jesus Lopez Aceves, a 64-year-old Oxnard resident, was reported missing from the 400 block of Douglas Avenue in Oxnard on Sept. 9 at approximately 10:30 p.m. He returned home unharmed on Sept. 10 around 6 p.m.
Dawn VadBunker, a 39-year-old Oxnard resident, was reported missing by her family on July 10. Five days later, her vehicle was located by the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Department in Oregon outside a motel. The sheriff’s deputy contacted VadBunker, verified her well-being and had her speak to the Oxnard Police Department over the phone. She expressed her deep regret for all the worry she had caused, but assured law enforcement personnel in Oregon and Oxnard that she would be in contact with her family soon, according to police reports.
In 2007, a 15-year-old girl, Chioma Gray, went missing on Dec. 13. According to police officials, the former Buena High School student, that day, was hustled into a stolen car driven by Andrew Joshua Tafoya, then 20, who had been released from jail the night before. On Oct. 5 of 2011, Gray was reunited with her family at age 19.
Cassidy Heaven Hanks went missing from Port Hueneme on Jan. 8 of 2015, according to a release published by the Port Hueneme Police Department. On July 15, her Facebook page, “Thank God Cassidy is Home,” had an update by the 17-year-old’s grandmother, Deanne Lowe: “Cassidy has been with my daughter Nicole (her aunt) & I since she was found. We held her in our arms again for the first time on July 11th at 9:28PM.”
Reporting a missing person
People generally think they have to wait 24 hours before reporting a missing person, said Sgt. Denise Sliva of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.
“Law enforcement agencies are required by law to accept a missing persons report, regardless of jurisdiction,” Sliva said. “You can go to the nearest (police) facility or begin the investigation by telephone.”
The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office will also take a courtesy report by phone at 805-654-9511.
“Say someone is reported out of our jurisdiction,” Sliva hypothesized. “We’ll take the information and report that to the most appropriate agencies.”
When a missing person is initially reported to authorities, the first step involves a deputy responding to the home or location of the reporting party.
“It’s about fact-gathering to determine what we’re going to do, depending on the severity of the missing,” Sliva said.
The length of time a person goes missing depends on steps taken to locate the individual, according to Chip Cadman, a detective with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office Major Crimes Bureau.
“In some cases people have not had contact with a family member in several years and report them missing,” Cadman said. “The missing person’s last-known address might be within our jurisdiction, but they have since moved.”
When someone has recently gone missing, deputies take a report and have sheriff’s dispatch conduct what is called a “be on the lookout.”
“The area is usually searched by several deputies for the person,” Cadman said. “Depending on the nature of the missing person’s disappearance, would depend on the amount of resources used to locate them — search-and-rescue personnel, helicopter, tracking dogs, amber alerts, additional law enforcement agencies, immediate response from detectives, help from the media, social media.”
With a parental abduction, “If the parent fled with the child, we work with the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office parental abduction unit,” Giles said.
If it’s an elderly person with dementia or a missing child, authorities broadcast the person’s description and last-known location and encourage people to be on the lookout, Sliva said.
“We’ll notify the schools if it’s a juvenile that has been reported missing,” Sliva said. “We also have the person entered into the California and national missing persons databases.”
Authorities will also check with hospitals, mental health facilities and jails. “And in some cases we involve our K-9 team and search and rescue team,” Sliva said. “We can also do a call blast-out to residents to be on the lookout for an individual.”
Detectives may also use a “ping,” which searches the last known location of the missing person’s cell phone.
“Some of our patrol vehicles also have cameras that capture license plate data,” Sliva said. “That information is stored, so if that person is associated with that vehicle, we might be able to find out where they were last seen.”
Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, have also been helpful with broadcasting information about missing persons.
“People can respond to us on Twitter or Facebook, but it’s more useful if they call our dispatch center – that way our dispatch can funnel the information to the most appropriate detective,” Sliva said.
Reasons a person goes missing
“A person with a mental illness might have gone off their meds and left home,” Sliva said. “Another person might be elderly with cognitive impairments who left home to go for a walk and became disoriented. And occasionally a despondent or suicidal person will go missing.”
Ventura County’s nature trails, especially in the mountains, contribute to reports of lost hikers by family members and friends.
“We’ll even get a call from the hiker if they are lost but can get cell phone service,” Sliva said.
When a child goes missing, “Maybe they went to a friend’s house after school and didn’t tell their parents — not to be devious but because they just didn’t think,” Sliva said. “So now the child has missed their routine and, of course, the parents become concerned.”
In some cases with missing children, the child was hiding deliberately.
“We’ve had missing-child calls where the child was playing hide-and-seek, or maybe they did something wrong and they’re hiding somewhere,” Sliva said. “We’ve also had kids crawl into an odd location and fall asleep and the parents are frantic. Fortunately, we locate their children near or inside the house.”
A runaway versus a missing person will typically come out during an investigation of circumstances.
“The deputy will want to know what the child’s routine is – have they done this before?” Sliva said. “Were there any issues in the home prior to the disappearance that might lead the child to be a runaway?”
In some runaway cases, “The kid may be hanging out with the wrong crowd and get into trouble, or get involved with substance abuse,” Sliva said. “It’s a matter of intent. Was the incident accidental or is the runaway intentionally missing?”
Runaways are generally under the age of 18 and have left their homes for known or unknown reasons, Cadman said. They go missing because of family problems, such as argument with parents, the child not wanting to follow rules, or boyfriend or girlfriend issues.
“Runaways leave on their own accord,” Cadman said. “Missing persons are generally considered adults. Missing persons can leave on their own accord or be considered the victims of foul play who have not been located.”
Kidnappings can involve either juveniles or adults.
“A kidnapping is someone being taken against their will by force or fear,” Cadman said. “Child abductions also fall into this realm and often times involve disgruntled family members taking the child away from another family member.”
The average turnaround time for finding a missing person varies greatly depending on each individual circumstance. For instance, “If the child fell asleep in the house under their bed, it can take 30 minutes,” Sliva said. “Or it could take hours or days if it’s a missing elderly person or a lost hiker.”
In Cadman’s experience, “I have people on my caseload that have been missing longer than I’ve been alive. I have people that have been missing for several years to a few days. Most runaways and missing persons are found within a matter of a few days to months.”
Cadman has also located people who have moved and don’t want contact with family and friends.
“There are people missing that live within our jurisdiction but are in the country of Mexico, and I have not been able to locate them based off of their law enforcement records,” Cadman said. “I also have a few juveniles that are missing because of violating their probation terms and are living with friends in unknown areas of Ventura County. I have been able to follow them on social media and learn they’re still around and partying — just can’t locate them.”
In the worst case scenarios, DNA technology can provide valuable information to assist in determining the source of unidentified human remains. DNA can be collected from any family member.
“If they find a missing person and they’re dead or decomposed, there is DNA technology that will help us,” Giles said.
Point of no return
When does the search reach the point of no return?
“We don’t give up. We’ll continue to do follow-ups, contact relatives and friends and run a search through our computer system,” Sliva said. “The case remains open until the person is located or recovered.”
There are several missing person cases that have gone cold, and most family members have either passed away or the living family members do not have any real knowledge of the case, Cadman noted.
“Anyone who is reported as missing remains our case load until they or their remains are located,” Cadman said. “Annually, we review these old cases and look for new leads. After reviewing a few of these cases, people have been located living in other areas of California or the U.S.”