Open Case Virginia: Buena Vista couple anxious for answers, nine months after son’s disappearance
The winding dirt road leading to Panther Falls in Amherst County has become a familiar path for David and Ellen Austin.
"I have to come here, because I feel like I have to know where he was last seen," Ellen Austin said, referring to her son Chad. A sign posted at Panther Falls lets visitors know he was last seen here May 27.
"It draws you back just to know that this is where he was, even though it's hard," said Ellen Austin.
Chad Austin, a lover of nature and the outdoors, came to Panther Falls last Memorial Day in his mother's Hyundai Tiburon. His dog, Gunnar, was by his side.
"He loved that dog and I don't think he went anywhere without him," Ellen Austin said, choking back tears.
Something happened that holiday weekend to separate Austin from his canine companion.
After being spotted by two campers at the Panther Falls parking area, Austin disappeared. His car was found the next day, abandoned and out of gas, less than a mile away on the gravel dirt road.
Gunnar was in the vehicle. Austin was nowhere to be found.
"I don't believe he would have left Gunner on purpose," said Ellen Austin. "Unless he planned on coming back."
So far there's no evidence Austin ever returned. A few items belonging to him, including keys, were found during searches of the Panther Falls area.
In December hikers found Austin's wallet on a trail that leads to the falls.
"We do believe that wallet was placed there by someone or some other individuals," said Lieutenant Waylon Miller of the Buena Vista Police Department, who's been investigating Austin's case with Virginia State Police.
Miller said Austin's wallet, found more than six months after he went missing, wasn't weathered or damaged.
"We don't know who placed the wallet there at this point or what the circumstances were surrounding the wallet being put there, but we do believe the wallet was placed there," Miller said.
It's a puzzling development in what was already a confusing situation for the Austins. They can't point to a reason why their son might have left on his own, nor can they comprehend why anyone would want to hurt him.
"Chad was a good person," said David Austin. "He always wanted to help people out."
In the months before he went missing, the Austin's say Chad finally found a job he loved - working with animals at the Natural Bridge Zoo.
"He said he found the perfect place, because he would rather work with animals than people," Ellen Austin said with a laugh.
He was in a good place, the Austin's say; not someone trying to vanish.
"It could be that he left on his own or something could have happened," said Miller. "We don't know at this point."
In addition to ground searches, Miller said police have conducted interviews, searched social media accounts and phone records, looking for some trace of Austin.
"It's very rare for someone to go missing for this length of time without someone having contact with him," said Miller. "That's where we are today."
A $4,000 reward is available for information that could bring Austin home. His parents urge people to share any information they have with police, regardless of how big or small the tip might be.
"We just hope and pray somebody will come forward that might know something," said Ellen Austin.
Something to end their nine months of wondering.
Contributions to Austin’s reward can be made by contacting Carter Bank and Trust, 116 E. Midland Trail, Lexington VA 24450.
Austin’s friends and family maintain a Facebook page in his honor.