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Where’s Joe?

Search continues for elderly man

August 24, 2008
By JOHN PEPIN Journal Munising Bureau

PARADISE - What has become of Joseph Robert Clewley, an elderly retiree who mysteriously vanished six weeks ago near his cabin at Tahquamenon Falls State Park?

So far, the answer to that question has escaped the best efforts of what sheriff's deputies are calling the largest missing persons manhunt in the history of Chippewa County.

"You never know what could have happened. He was 73 and had health issues," said his son Joe Clewley Jr. of downstate Mason. "We're missing a piece here somewhere. We need new clues. Any information is good information, anything that could help."

Based on telephone records, the elder Clewley was last known to be at his 1920s era cabin on the morning of Saturday, July 13. The rustic two-room camp situated along the north bank of the Tahquamenon River - called the Chippewa Hunting Post - is where Clewley spends summers doing daily chores, fishing, hiking and watching wildlife.

Clewley's wife Lorraine works as a part-time bookkeeper downstate near Higgins Lake at Industrial Control Resources, the company Clewley founded.

Less at ease without the comforts of home, Lorraine visits the cabin infrequently, while Joseph would spend weeks at a time there on his own. The couple winters in Florida.

Clewley was described by his children as a fit and resilient off-trail hiker who knew the rugged wilderness terrain of the Tahquamenon River mouth country "like the back of his hand."

But he had been slowed down over the past year with chest pains, blocked arteries and stomach aneurysms, his son said. He'd lately limited his hikes to about a mile, staying on the North Country Trail and visiting beaver dams on Lynch Creek, where he'd sit silently on stumps watching for moose and other animals.

"He had endless patience," said his daughter Laurie Tupper of downstate Grand Rapids.

Lorraine Clewley was the last person known to see her husband. She had been up at the cabin and left on July 10. He promised her if he went hiking, he'd stay on the trails with his loyal and constant companion, a chow-springer mix dog named Chip.

Lorraine then talked to Joseph on the phone two nights after she'd left the cabin and later told family members he "sounded good."

The next day, Joseph missed his 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. check-in times, as he had done on occasion in the past. But after he missed the July 14 morning call, Lorraine worried and called other family members, who initiated the first well-being checks by police.

Clewley was missing. The cabin was locked. His dog was gone too. Clewley carried no cell phone, wallet, watch, walking stick, backpack, compass or water bottle. He was likely wearing a short-brimmed hat with fold-down ear flaps, a blue short-sleeved, collared, button-neck polo shirt, a blue zippered jacket and gray or tan khaki pants.

Clewley's 1992 Oldsmobile van was found about a mile from his cabin at the North Country Trail trailhead, which is about five miles west of M-123.

Police said there were no obvious signs of foul play found at the vehicle or the cabin. But the van was unlocked, the keys were inside and the gas tank was near empty - all things Clewley's children said were uncharacteristic for their father, a disciplined "creature of habit."

"My dad never would have done that with his keys," said his son Russ Clewley of downstate Bay City. "Leaving the vehicle unlocked at the trailhead is something he would not do."

Joe Clewley Jr. said the family theorizes his father likely took his regular walk and afterward was giving Chip a dish of water at the van when something happened - perhaps a medical emergency or something else.

"It's questionable how this whole thing went down," Joe said. "Something pulled him away, but what?"

Over the next few days the area was searched intensively by numerous agencies. Searchers concentrated efforts on an area within a mile radius of the trail. Thirty-five prison emergency response team members aided the ground search, while the U.S. Coast Guard and Michigan State Police flew airplanes with special human detection devices.

There eventually would be cadaver dogs, state police, tribal and U.S. Border Patrol K-9 units, fixed wing aircraft, off-road vehicles, global positioning satellite units plotting searched areas on maps, river searches, with the sheriff's department logging more than 3,000 man hours.

The official search was suspended after the fourth day. But the case remains open, awaiting new leads. Family and friends continue to look for Clewley. Missing person posters are up from Sault Ste. Marie to St. Ignace.

Retired state police crime lab worker and 20-year wilderness guide Michael Neiger of Marquette has volunteered time to mount a series of 72-hour search missions, looking deep into the dense countryside for audio, visual or scenting clues.

"We're looking at 10,000 acres potentially to search," Neiger said. "We'll be doing several more of these before the snow flies."

This weekend, Neiger was searching the Camp 10 Lakes area where some searchers thought they might have heard a dog bark during one day of the search.

Three weeks after Clewley was last seen by his wife, a curious twist in the case emerged when arriving family members found Chip outside Clewley's cabin at 2 a.m. on Aug. 1.

Though he had lost about 20 percent of his body weight, the dog was healthy and clean. After a vet check, family members came to believe the 9-year-old dog had been cared for by someone over at least some of the time he was missing.

The vet said the dog lacked the bug bites, ticks and dirty appearance expected after three weeks in the woods. But Chip also lacked his characteristically loud, sharp bark and he carried a sad demeanor.

"He didn't bark for three days," Tupper said. "I definitely feel from his behavior he had been in the woods for a week or more."

Family members want the public to know that tips on Chip's whereabouts during that time could provide new places to look for Clewley. They theorize the dog could have wandered up to a campground and been fed or brought into a home.

"I think the dog was cared for by someone and then just dropped off," Russ Clewley said.

So far, no additional clues to Joseph Clewley's whereabouts have been discovered.

Joe Clewley Jr. said either searchers hampered by rain showers washing away tracks and scent, or dense canopy and ground cover, might have overlooked his father. Maybe he walked in a different direction, away from the area being searched or perhaps he got a ride.

"It's quite frustrating," Joe said. "For somebody that was supposed to be on a trail."

Russ Clewley said so far, his family is holding up pretty well through the deepening ordeal, spending as much time as they can still searching.

"My mom is having a hard time, but she's doing all right," he said. "It's tough having nothing to go on."

Anyone who saw Joseph Robert Clewley or his dog Chip along the North Country Trail on or after Sunday, July 13, observed any activity, vehicles or subjects around his van at the trailhead on the Tahqua Trail, or have any information on his whereabouts, is asked to contact Chippewa County Sheriff's Department Det. Sgt. Mike Bitnar at 440-3297.



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