By Kim Ring TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
NORTH BROOKFIELD- Those closest to retired state police Capt. Ronald S. Gray are hopeful that the man who survived a brutal attack in Vietnam will be found safe in the woods of northeast Idaho, where he vanished last month while hunting.
"If he's just lost, he can fend for himself," said retired state police Lt. Col. John Cunningham, who is Mr. Gray's longtime friend. "But if he got injured ... I'm afraid that by this time, he could be running out of resources."
Mr. Gray, 62, was on an elk hunting trip with at least one other person from his hometown of North Brookfield. When the trip was slated to end, Mr. Gray indicated he would stay on a few more days to hunt on his own. It was something he had done before because he was retired, North Brookfield Police Chief Aram Thomasian Jr. said.
But since Sept. 23, no one has seen or heard from him. Mr. Gray was supposed to meet up with others at Otter Butte in the Selway area of the NezPerce National Forest that day but he never arrived.
There have been unconfirmed reports of a radio transmission in which Mr. Gray said he had injured his knee and was trying to get back to camp, but it does not appear he ever returned. The date of the transmission is not clear. There is no cellular telephone service in the area, but Mr. Gray may have had more than one GPS unit with him.
He was reported missing Sept. 26 and was last known to be hunting in the Bitter Root Selway area from a remote camp on Mirror Lake Ridge.
The Idaho County Sheriff's Department has been searching the area on the ground and from the air for five days. Hillcrest Aviation and the Idaho Army National Guard are assisting. The Sheriff's Department Posse, a group of trained volunteers, is combing the area on foot, horseback and ATVs. About five searchers are on the ground and while that number seems small, it's normal for a search in the area where the terrain changes drastically, Idaho County Chief Deputy John J. Nida said.
Some searchers are camped out in the area, tending a campfire all night in the hopes that Mr. Gray can find his way to them. Yesterday, a Black Hawkhelicopter was used in the effort.
While the search is extensive, covering about 5,200 square miles, some retired state police personnel who worked with Mr. Gray are having a hard time sitting at home waiting for word.
Retired Trooper Robert Benoit will fly to the area today. Mr. Cunningham is considering making the trip, as are other friends.
"The best-case scenario is that he's out there having the time of his life," Mr. Benoit said. "But it's not good when you don't communicate for so long, and he's not the type who would create any cause for worry."
Still, there is a chance that Mr. Gray isn't missing at all.
"We spoke to the last person that saw him and he said, 'Tell everybody not to worry about me. I'll walk out when I'm ready,' " Deputy Nida said last night, adding that if Mr. Gray doesn't know he's the subject of a search, it will probably be harder to find him.
Both Mr. Benoit and Mr. Cunningham said they want to be close by to be sure Idaho officials have everything they need to find their friend and to offer any assistance they can.
A Massachusetts State Police spokesman said the department knows Mr. Gray very well and officials there are monitoring the situation.
Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray spoke with Idaho's lieutenant governor to urge officials there to use all available resources to find Mr. Gray.
Deputy Nida said the county's search teams have a 90 percent success rate and it's been about two decades since someone was lost and never found in the wilderness there.
He said his department is aware of Mr. Gray's extensive survival training and that there is evidence that someone has used food caches stashed in the area by hunters, though it's unclear who might have done so.
But searchers are also worried because while he has equipment needed to build a fire, they have seen no signs of smoke, which they would expect Mr. Gray to use if he were trying to signal for help. Wildlife in the area includes grizzly bears that can weigh as much as 1,200 pounds, wolves and mountain lions.
Mr. Gray served in the Marine Corps and fought in Vietnam with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. The unit's members were known for turning down Purple Heart medals and staying to fight alongside their comrades.
"They were known as the Walking Dead," said Mr. Cummingham, who also served as a Marine.
"We rescue our own and that's why we want to help. We know he'd do it for us."
Mr. Gray also worked for the former Metropolitan District Commission police as a canine handler and joined the state police when the two departments merged in the early 1990s. Friends said his training with those departments would also help him if he is lost in the wilderness.
He is also a member of the North Brookfield Conservation Commission.
The area of the search is remote and the terrain rugged with steep mountains and deep draws but weather there has been "unseasonably warm," which had aided in the search, Chief Deputy Nida said.
Thunderstorms are expected to move in today and tomorrow through overnight; temperatures are not expected to drop below 50 degrees.
Chief Deputy Nida said he has been fielding calls from Massachusetts and said one way people can help would be to make donations to fund the helicopter searches.
He expects to have more information on how that can be done today.