Gila County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Cole LaBonte wasn’t surprised to hear three people were missing one weekend in July.

“Four or five times a week in the summer we get calls about missing people,” he said. “On a daily and weekly basis, people send vague suicidal messages or people are overdo from a camping/hiking trip — or people aren’t wanting to be found ... such as those seeking to avoid child support.”

LaBonte has an idea why they come to Rim Country.

“They come up to this beautiful country to get away for psychological reasons.”

Some of those reasons include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression — even “the heat causes psychological problems,” said LaBonte.

But it is not always easy for rescuers to find the missing and injured with poor cell service in rural areas.

“There is not good cell phone coverage in Rim Country. Then, when we ping phones, it’s in a large area ... it could be 122 square miles. That’s a big hay field to find a needle.”

The sheriff’s office always answers the call to help even if resources are stretched.

“If they need help, we would like to help them,” he said, “Or if they are deceased, we need to find the body.”

They prioritize calls.

“We need to decide if this person needs help right now — such as if they are dehydrated or are in need of rescue,” he said.

In one recent case, a camper sent text messages to his wife, then went off-grid.

“His wife said he had PTSD,” said LaBonte. “He sent suicidal messages to his wife. Then his phone stopped working while he was camping on the Rim. Then, his phone started working and he saw a bunch of messages. He called someone and said, ‘I’m fine.’”

That same weekend, another woman called when her husband was two days overdue from a camping trip. He ultimately turned up at the Grand Canyon, having decided to extend his trip without contacting his wife.

When GCSO contacted the man, he said, “I’m fine. No, I don’t want you to come talk to me.”

That was also the weekend a New Mexico man went missing after stopping at the Mazatzal Casino.

Later, two men used his Home Depot credit card in the Valley.

He has still not been located.

And that was all in one weekend.

“Once we determine they are not suicidal, not lost and don’t need law enforcement help, it kinda leaves our wheelhouse,” he said. “Yet, we want people to feel that this is a good place, so we look for them all.”

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I cover the Town of Payson, courts, wildfire, business, families, non-profits, the environment and investigative reporting

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