Deputies continue to search for missing 79-year-old in Jennings State Forest

Hal Warth last seen Aug. 21 in Middleburg, considered endangered

MIDDLEBURG, Fla. – Investigators searched for four hours Tuesday morning in Jennings State Forest for a missing 79-year-old Middleburg who went missing 16 days ago, the Clay County Sheriff's Office said. 

Deputies searched in previously searched area around Hal Warth's 40-acre property near Jennings State Forest, Clay County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Mary Justino said.

No new developments were made Tuesday, but the Sheriff's Office will go back out to search new areas and previously searched areas whenever they have staff available to do so, Justino said. 

"We won't give up on finding Mr. Hal," Justino said in a statement to News4Jax.

Warth was reported missing by his son, who arrived to take his father grocery shopping about 4 p.m. on Aug. 22 and found the door unlocked with the key still in the deadbolt lock and his father missing.

After four days of searching over 1,000 acres of the Jennings State Forest for Warth, Clay County Sheriff Rick Beseler announced the afternoon of Aug. 26 that the search efforts had been suspended.

Warth's son, Hal Warth II, said he still goes into the forest nearly every day to look for his father. 

News4Jax crime and safety analyst Gil Smith said the continued search indicates that it's likely the disappearance isn't due to foul play.

"At one point, they did stop the search and were looking for other points within the investigation. Now, it appears to me, they must not have found any sign of foul play, any disturbance in the home. Given the case that he may have been attacked or kidnapped or lured into a vehicle or anything like that," Smith said. "So the only other option would be that he may have wandered off, especially considering his mental condition."

Anyone with information on Warth's location is asked to call 911 or contact the Clay County Sheriff's Office at 904-264-6512.

Search shifts on final day

Clay County deputies have shifted the case to an investigation into Warth's disappearance, Beseler said.

"The missing person investigation will remain open until we have some conclusion," Beseler said.

RELATED: Deputies end search for missing 79-year-old in Jennings State Forest

Beseler and Warth's son, Hal Warth II, thanked volunteers and the agencies who helped in the search and asked at a news conference on Aug. 26 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."

The search shifted Aug. 26 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 the morning of Aug. 26 and had covered 160 acres from 7:30 a.m. to about noon.

“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. on Aug. 22 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 about 8 p.m. on Aug. 21. 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 on Aug. 24 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 on Aug. 24 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 on Aug. 26, but he was able to kill it before it could bite him.

Carrying a water storage backpack, volunteer Kelly Hull, a military wife, joined the search on Aug. 25.

"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 the morning of Aug. 23 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 four-wheelers, helicopters, canoes in Black Creek, K-9 units, horses and drones.

No foul play suspected

Deputies checked 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 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 during the first four-day search. 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 also helped in the first search. 


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