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The State

New Leads Give Hope for Boy Missing in Mountains

Officials have found witnesses who saw him, and searchers have found footprints that could be his. Dog teams assist in the effort.

August 04, 2004|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Rescuers followed promising new leads, including footprints and witness reports, in their search for a 9-year-old boy who disappeared from a campground in the San Bernardino Mountains, authorities said Tuesday.

The footprints closely matched those of the Size 2 Nike athletic shoes worn by David Gonzales when he was last seen Saturday in the Hanna Flat campground about 1 1/2 miles northwest of Big Bear Lake, said Cindy Beavers, a San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman.

The prints were discovered in steep, boulder-strewn forested terrain about a mile north of the campground where David had been camping with his parents, Jose and Rosenda Gonzales of Lake Elsinore.

Beavers said deputies also interviewed people who said they "were in a truck and leaving the campground to go to breakfast Saturday morning when they saw a boy walking in a northwest direction that would have taken him deeper into the campground and then into the forest."

"They noticed him because he was alone in the roadway," Beavers said. "They were shown a photograph of David, and the witnesses confirmed it was him."

Throughout the day, more than 100 volunteers fanned out from the campground, dog teams prowled through dense brush, and a helicopter and Civil Air Patrol plane surveyed the territory.

"Our search extended up to 10 miles away from the campground on the slim chance a 9-year-boy would make it that far," said Scott Armstrong of the Carda California Rescue Dog Assn.

For two hours on Tuesday, searchers with dogs examined the footprints, but could not say whether they belonged to the boy. They will return at 6 a.m. today for further investigation.

The Gonzales family huddled with friends and relatives around a picnic table at a command post established in the rural community of Fawnskin.

"We're destroyed. In pieces," the boy's father said. As search teams set out on all-terrain vehicles and horses, he added, "We appreciate all the support. But our hearts are broken."

The 40-year-old auto mechanic said he last saw his son about 8 a.m. Saturday, when David headed to the family truck parked about 25 yards from their campsite to get cookies.

About the same time, his wife went to collect water from a spigot not far from the truck, he said. "About three or four minutes later, my wife went to get David," he said. "She couldn't find him."

Gonzales said he and relatives immediately began searching for the boy, and reported him missing to a local security officer. "An hour later," Gonzales said, "I saw a search helicopter flying overhead."

"I believe somebody took my son away," Gonzales said, trying not to cry. "Now, we're waiting on God. Only he can bring my son back."

But at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Beavers said there was "no evidence at all that David was abducted. And we have no reason to believe there were family issues involved."

Beavers said a Riverside County Sheriff's Department helicopter with night-vision equipment had joined the search Tuesday night, and by today the search would include teams from eight counties.

"It is possible for David to survive a number of days without food," she said. "We also know there are several water sources in the forest. We're hoping he found them."

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