MIDDLEBURG, Fla. – After four days of searching over 1,000 acres of the Jennings State Forest for a missing 79-year-old Middleburg man, Clay County Sheriff Rick Beseler announced Friday afternoon that the search efforts had been suspended.
Deputies are shifting the case to an investigation into Hal Warth's disappearance, Beseler said.
"The missing person investigation will remain open until we have some conclusion," Beseler said.
Beseler and Warth's son, Hal Warth II, thanked volunteers and the agencies who helped in the search and asked at a news conference Friday that citizens continue to keep an eye out for anyone matching the elder Warth's description.
"If anybody sees anyone that matches the description -- everybody's got the photograph by now -- I just, I'm so appreciative of every volunteer that has come out and every agency that's come out," the younger Warth said. "(It's) more than I could have imagined for people to come out in this mass."
Search shifts on final day
The search shifted Friday to 600 acres southeast and southwest of where searchers had been looking over the last three days.
Eighty first responders and 28 volunteers were out searching the woods Friday morning and had covered 160 acres from 7:30 a.m. to about noon.
Deputies announced Friday that they were working with forestry personnel to close part of Jennings State Forest.
Investigators said they needed to keep unauthorized people out of the 39,000-acre forest, where nearly 150 law enforcement officers and volunteers had been searching for Warth.
The entrances at Nolan, Hattie Nolan and Long Horn roads will be closed, along with the Dunns Farm Trail, Powell Ford, Ellis Ford, Knights Landing and Indian Ford recreation areas. Double Gate Road is also closed.
Deputies said the closures, which were expected to last about 24 hours, were not in response to any new leads on Warth's location.
By Thursday evening, searchers had combed through 1,000-acres of land in Middleburg, using a grid pattern, but had found no sign of Warth.
“He's a very tough man, and it's very possible he's somewhere in these woods, and he's still alive,” Capt. Ronnie Gann said. “There is nothing to indicate that he is not alive."
He said that in the investigation, deputies have learned that Warth has some friends in the area, and it's possible someone picked him up.
News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith explained what the next phase of the investigation will entail.
"When they call off the search that doesn't mean that they've stopped looking for him. They're just not using a large search party. But they still have people, investigators that are still working to try and determine how he may have been missing," Smith said.
The uncertainty over how Warth went missing is what investigators will be working on moving forward, Smith said.
"It was a short period of time. You know, there's always hope because they're just not sure how he became missing. If he got in a car, if he decided to go to another state. So there is a possibility he's still alive," Smith said.
Man reported missing Monday
Warth, who lives alone on a 40-acre property near Jennings State Forest, was reported missing by his son, who arrived to take his father grocery shopping about 4 p.m. Monday and found the door unlocked with the key still in the deadbolt lock and his father missing.
“Everything looked like he was there, but he wasn’t there,” Hal Warth II said. “The door was unlocked. There was no sign that he wouldn’t be there.”
Warth said that his father enjoys the outdoors, but has never wandered off like this before. He said his father, who he last saw on Aug. 15, can't speak because of previous strokes.
"I don't know what else to think except the worst," he said Wednesday, tearing up.
When the older Warth was last seen by a neighbor Sunday night around 8 p.m., he was wearing a yellow Hawaiian button-down shirt and white khaki-style dress shorts with brown tassel loafers.
Deputies expand search
The Clay County Sheriff's Office expanded the search Wednesday for Warth, who was last seen near the Jennings State Forest and the area of Country Road 218. He may be lost and disoriented, deputies said.
More than two dozen volunteers joined law enforcement crews Wednesday in the grueling search. Two deputies had to be treated with IVs as searchers dealt with difficult heat conditions and extreme terrain.
“There’s a man that needs help, you know? I don’t know him, but if it was my family or friend, I would want people out here looking for him,” volunteer Keith Wink said. “It don’t matter how good you know this forest, if you are off road, and you’re not paying attention, you can get into a bad situation.”
A detective had a 5-foot rattlesnake after him Friday, but he was able to kill it before it could bite him.
Deputies tried to get searchers out of the sun by 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. because of the heat in the thick woods.
Carrying a water storage backpack, volunteer Kelly Hull, a military wife, joined the search Thursday.
"I’m not excited about bugs and stuff, but you do what you have to do, you know? We’ll get through," Hull said. "It’s more important to do the right thing than worry about that stuff."
Clay County deputies set up a command post Tuesday morning to coordinate their search. The post was on Scully Hill Road, northwest of Middleburg, not far from where Warth lives. They moved the command post Wednesday to Hattie Nolan Road in Middleburg when the search resumed at the entrance of Jennings State Park.
In addition to officers and volunteers on the ground, the search included 4-wheelers, helicopters, canoes in Black Creek, K-9 units, horses and drones.
No foul play suspected
Deputies checked Hal Warth's home and searched his property twice and said there do not appear to be any signs of foul play.
The Sheriff's Office said Hal Warth is considered endangered due to his age and medical condition, but that he does not qualify for a Silver Alert because he does not have a vehicle.
In addition to the command center, Clay County Fire-Rescue personnel were also on site. The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office and Jacksonville Sheriff's Office provided helicopters for an aerial search of the area. JSO also provided K-9 units.
“Well, we try to help wherever we can. And, this was an open invitation for volunteer searchers, so we decided to come out here,” said Kathleen Smith with Marion County Search and Rescue in Ocala. “Our search and rescue team is coming up tomorrow. We’ve got, I believe, 11 people coming up tomorrow.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission's Forestry Division, Northeast Florida Emergency Management and Texas EquuSearch's Florida Chapter are also helping in the search.
Anyone with information on Warth's location is asked to call 911.