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Read the transcript here:
It’s a November morning in the desert around Buckeye, Arizona.
The sun is just peeking above the horizon and the sky is blue with streaks of pink.
Dust-covered trucks and ATVs arrive using unpaved roads carved into the sand and stone.
The caravan passes the flat landscape dotted with low green shrubs until it pulls up to a cleared spot. And that's when people get out of the vehicles. It's fall in much of America, but during the day it's still summer here. The new arrivals are dressed for work: baseball caps to block out the sun, walking sticks, digital compasses on their cell phones.
They are here to search the desert.
Volunteer Coordinator: “Morning, everybody.”
A coordinator wrangles the crowd. Now, the climbing sun is straight in the eyeline of the people about to defy it.
Volunteer Coordinator: “Welcome to, uh, our, uh, latest search for Daniel Robinson.”
Daniel Robinson is 25. And he's not where he's supposed to be.
I'm Josh Mankiewicz and this is Missing in America -- a new podcast from Dateline and NBC News.
We began examining the cases of the missing in America as a digital series more than eight years ago with a question for our social media followers: “Do you know anyone who has simply vanished?”
It turned out, a lot of people did. We heard from worried children and frantic parents, even from some who were total strangers -- all of them seeking answers about someone who wasn't where they were supposed to be. Someone who wouldn't just vanish. Someone who was now in the wind. Of the more than 400 people we've reported on, more than a third are still missing. Those are people like Daniel Robinson. We learned about Daniel from one of our Twitter followers and featured his case in our online series in July 2021.
In this first episode, we will take you into his mysterious disappearance and the ongoing search for this young man. And listen closely, because you or someone you know might have information that can help find Daniel.
Jeff McGrath: “What makes this such a mystery is that he just up and vanished.”
Buckeye Police Chief Larry Hall: “We're always thinking about, where could he be? What else do we need to be doing?”
David Robinson: “As a father, you know, my drive is to find my son. So I’ll do whatever I -- whatever it takes to make it happen, it's gonna have to happen.”
David Robinson is Daniel Robinson's father. His living nightmare started on June 23, 2021.
Josh Mankiewicz: “When did you realize that something was wrong?”
David Robinson: “Well, you know, I was sitting back in my back porch.”
David was home in South Carolina.
And he thought Daniel, his youngest son, was safe in Arizona. Daniel had moved there after graduating college and was working as a field geologist for an engineering company.
On that June day, Daniel was scheduled to spend the morning doing field work at a development wellsite out in the desert.
David Robinson: “I get a call from my daughter. She also lives here in Phoenix. And she just simply, ‘Hey Dad, um, one of Daniel's coworkers came by the house saying that they don't know where Daniel is.’”
Daniel was last seen around 9:00 in the morning. He'd missed almost a days-worth of work.
David Robinson: “I called him immediately to try to get him on the phone to find out what's going on. It just ring, ring, ring, and then finally, you know, of course, go to voicemail.”
What began as worry quickly ratcheted to panic after David's daughter drove to Daniel's apartment.
Daniel wasn't home and his car -- a dusty blue Jeep -- was gone too. So David Robinson did what any parent would do: He called police.
Buckeye Police Chief Larry Hall: “We started a missing persons investigation at that point.”
Larry Hall is Chief of the Buckeye Police Department.
Josh Mankiewicz: “How do most missing persons investigations usually resolve themselves?”
Chief Hall: “In a lot of cases, we find people. They leave home and a lot of times they return back.”
Josh Mankiewicz: “And in this case, that didn't happen.”
Chief Hall: “That did not happen in this case.”
Police spent hours doing a ground search where Daniel was last seen -- a wellsite out in the middle of the desert. They contacted Daniel's boss and started calling his friends and other family.
They checked Daniel's apartment and reviewed traffic security cameras -- hoping to spot his car. One day passed, then another.
And like almost any parent in this awful situation, David felt as if no one could work as hard as he could to find his son.
David Robinson: “I knew right then they weren't gonna look for Daniel. Um, I had to make a decision, like, really quickly. And I just grab everything I could and threw it in my vehicle and started heading this way.”
Josh Mankiewicz: “That's, like, what, 2,000 miles? What were you thinking on that drive?”
David Robinson: “I couldn't get here fast enough. I felt like I made a mistake. I should have been on a plane. I just couldn't get here fast enough.”
Josh Mankiewicz: “I'm guessing that every mile you're thinking, ‘He's going to show up.’”
David Robinson: “I was hoping so. I was hoping that the Buckeye Police Department, at times, was going to tell me something like that.”
That call did not come. So mile after mile, across Georgia and Alabama and Texas, David drove and thought about his son.
David Robinson: “He's always telling me he's going to live abroad. And he wants to visit all these countries, you know, that's his mindset.”
Daniel was the happy kid. The one who hunted adventure, the young scientist in flannel shirts and cargo pants who loved nothing more than climbing a desert peak to find new additions for his rock collection.
It might not have worked out that way because when Daniel was born, he was missing his right hand and part of his forearm.
David Robinson: “I would make sure of myself not to treat him any different from his siblings. Um, as in, for instance, they played video games. He figured it out, you know? And, uh, he often beat them in the games, you know, so --.”
Josh Mankiewicz: “It sounds like not having a right hand didn't really hold him back.”
David Robinson: “Oh, no, not at all. Not at all. You would never know the difference.”
Daniel played football, weight-trained. He learned the trumpet and the French horn.
David Robinson: “You know, when Daniel wanted to do something, uh, he's gonna make it happen.”
In Arizona, Daniel and his dad were separated by 2,000 miles. They closed that gap with weekly phone calls.
David Robinson: “We keep a close relationship, you know, his siblings and himself. Um, we often talk to each other. We often visit each other, um --. So, yeah, we have a very close, close family.”
Josh Mankiewicz: “In other words, if something was going on in his life, you'd know about it.”
David Robinson: “I would, I would.”
Buckeye detectives were now asking David about every detail of Daniel's life.
What was his routine? How was he acting before he vanished?
With whom had he been hanging around?
David did tell police that lately his son had seemed a little off. Something was going on. Something he didn't quite understand. Police learned in the weeks before his disappearance, Daniel had met a young woman through his side gig with Instacart.
As part of their missing persons investigation, police found and interviewed the woman who said she'd met Daniel after he made a delivery at her house. She'd been hanging out with a friend and they had invited Daniel to stay. Numbers were exchanged and the next day, texts. Nothing wrong with any of that. Then, the woman told police, Daniel started showing up to her house uninvited and she had to ask him to stay away. The day before he went missing, Daniel texted her these words: “I'll either see you again or I'll never see you again.”
So did that suggest something dark? Or did it just seem more significant because now Daniel was missing?
Chief Hall: “I mean, ‘maybe I'll see you -- maybe I'll never see you again,’ that could be interpreted a lot of different ways.”
Chief Hall’s detectives couldn't hang their case on some off-handed comment. And while David told them this didn't sound like normal behavior for Daniel, he also worried this line of inquiry was distracting investigators.
Josh Mankiewicz: “You don't really think this has anything to do with his disappearance?”
David Robinson: “I really don't. I mean, because I don't have any evidence to say otherwise.”
Detectives tracked down the last person they believe saw Daniel alive: a co-worker named Ken Elliott. Elliott is a pump technician. And he'd met Daniel for the first time at that desert site on June 23rd, to check a well. When they arrived it was raining. So they waited for the storm to pass. Elliott told police he remembered Daniel staring off into the desert and saying something strange.
Chief Hall: “He said, ‘Hey, let's -- why don't we just go over to Phoenix to relax,’ and that type of thing. And it's like, ‘Hey, we got jobs. We got work to do here.’”
Elliott checked the weather on his phone and stayed at the job site.
Daniel, he says, got into his Jeep Renegade and drove off without a word.
Chief Hall: “When Daniel was leaving, you know, the main access road to get into the job site is east of the location. And he said that, uh, Daniel went west, uh, which is concerning, because there's nothing out there.”
Nothing except miles and miles of open desert.
David heard these stories and says they should not be taken as evidence of some kind of mental break.
David Robinson: “Daniel never had a diagnosis for mental health. He’s a happy guy.”
Josh Mankiewicz: “He'd never done anything that made you think he needs to be in therapy or -- or -- or see a professional."
David Robinson: “Exactly. He could have been thinking about the young lady, I don't know. It could be anything. So -- but I don't think it was something where he was depressed and to a point where he would go disappear or something on his own.”
Still, that story of the last morning Daniel was seen provided David with important information. It gave him a starting point to look for his son.
And now almost every Saturday, he leads a group of volunteers who search around that desert spot.
David Robinson: “It seems like it’s simple, but when you're actually on the ground actually looking, it takes time. You know, even with the people that we have, it takes a lot of time, effort and money to, you know, keep things going. But as a father, you know, my drive is to find my son, so I do whatever I -- whatever it takes to make it happen, it’s gonna have to happen.”
For David, that means venturing out into parts of the Sonoran Desert more fit for beast than man. We're talking 30 miles west of Phoenix on your odometer, and 30 degrees north of acceptable on your thermometer.
Here in the hot, dry landscape outside Buckeye, Arizona, the temperature reaches 100 degrees more than 120 days a year. There are 13 species of rattlesnakes in Arizona, more than in any other state. They are most active in the warmer months, especially at night. All of that makes this part of the desert a place you don't want to get lost in. And a place you don't want to have to search for your child.
Josh Mankiewicz: “How many miles are we talking about searching? How big is that search area?”
David Robinson: “Oh, wow. Um, I would say almost about 20 square miles or something. It's really huge, yes.”
Josh Mankiewicz: “I mean, it's gigantic. And that desert is huge.”
David Robinson: “Yes.”
On this November morning, the search team’s focus is a section of Cactus Road.
Search group volunteer: “You guys are gonna be on the north side. You guys will be on the south side.”
The group fans out and looks down at the endless sand and stone, sidestepping bushes that rise past their shins.
Search group volunteer: “Try to fan out.”
They walk past the creosote and saguaro. Out here, the desert goes on forever.
And their task is like draining a reservoir with a spoon.
A few hours in and a volunteer calls out. Her Great Dane has found something at the base of a bush.
David Robinson: “It is a vertebrate and, uh, just gotta determine what type.”
Human or animal.
Is it Daniel, or some other poor creature who ended up lost in this unforgiving place?
David Robinson has been here before. Is this David's son? Is this the answer he's been chasing?
Or just another dead end?
It was one month into Daniel Robinson's disappearance and Buckeye, Arizona detectives knew one thing for sure: No one had seen him since June 23.
From that day on, Daniel made no calls to his parents or his siblings -- and they were a family so close they all shared passwords.
There were no text messages sent to his friends back on the East Coast. And no cash withdrawn from his bank account.
His cell phone -- which at first would ring and ring -- now went straight to voicemail. The only real lead was the desert.
And Daniel's father, David, couldn't stay away.
David Robinson: “I was busy with the volunteers, searching the area where my son was last seen.”
It was July 20th when David received a call from the lead detective on his son's case.
David Robinson: “He did, um, alerted me that my son's vehicle was found. Of course, my heart’s racing, because I think he's gonna tell me something else in the same sentence.”
Holding the phone to his ear, David listened as the detective explained how a Jeep had been spotted by a rancher who was out corralling his cattle.
It was definitely Daniel's Jeep and there was, just as definitely, no sign of Daniel. The car was found only a few miles from the wellsite where he was last seen.
When David hung up, he headed straight from his hotel to the police department where a detective was waiting.
David Robinson: “He pulled out a picture of the vehicle and, uh, he gave me two maps. He explained to me on the maps where the vehicle was found by that rancher. Of course, I couldn't keep myself together because it's a very emotional point.”
David could tell: If his son had been in that car, he was now somewhere in bad shape.
The Jeep had been found tipped on the passenger side at the bottom of a ravine.
Its airbags had deployed. The ground nearby was covered in small bits of broken glass and some pieces of the vehicle that had come off. The sunroof panel was kicked out, as if someone had used it as an emergency exit.
David also saw the windshield, showing an impact on the driver's side.
David Robinson: “It was a devastating moment for me to see from, uh, from that picture and seeing that damage.”
What came next was almost more difficult. The detective pointed to a spot on the photo.
Only feet from the car was an orange construction vest, work boots, and a pair of blue jeans, turned inside out. Police said they'd fished around in those pockets and found Daniel's wallet. And inside the car was his college ID, his laptop, backpack, apartment keys and cell phone.
A lot of people found the scene puzzling, including Police Chief Larry Hall.
Josh Mankiewicz: “Nothing on his phone suggesting he tried to call for help after the crash?”
Police Chief Hall: “No. No, his phone was downloaded. There was nothing there.”
If Daniel Robinson had left the scene and walked out into the desert, he had done so with no money and no way to call for help.
And perhaps most ominously, he had left behind a whole case of bottled water in his Jeep.
Experts will tell you a person can only survive without water for about three days. Less than that, if it's very hot. So what was Daniel up to? Where was he going?
It is possible that even he couldn't answer those questions.
Josh Mankiewicz: “Plausible that after that accident, Daniel was disoriented in some way and wandered off, not knowing really where he was going or believing that he was closer to civilization than maybe he really was?”
Chief Hall: “Yeah, it's absolutely plausible.”
This brings us to a place that's familiar to many of the families of the missing in America. Police departments are set up to find people who are thought to have committed a crime, or to find people thought to be the victim of a crime.
To Chief Hall, Daniel Robinson's case did not appear to be either one.
Josh Mankiewicz: “You didn't find anything at that crash site that suggests that Daniel Robinson was the victim of a crime?”
Chief Hall: “Yeah, we didn't -- we didn't find anything that would make us believe that his disappearance was at the hands of another individual.”
There were no bullet holes in the body of the car. No shell casings found amongst the sand and stone.
And no visible blood. Still, the scene was puzzling. So police contracted a company to prepare a collision report.
That company’s experts said it looked as if Daniel's car was driven at an angle into the ravine and then rolled over on the way down.
There were two curious things noted. An 11-mile difference between when Daniel's airbags deployed and the reading on the odometer, suggesting that Jeep was driven after the initial crash.
The collision expert contacted a local Jeep dealership, and was told an 11-mile difference was not that unusual, because the vehicle has a number of sensors which are constantly feeding information to the car's internal systems and sometimes there can be a lag, like one large game of telephone.
David Robinson read through that report and could not accept the scenario it suggested.
He’d already hired his own expert -- a private investigator named Jeff McGrath.
Like David Robinson, Jeff McGrath is a father. Jeff spent 15 years as a police officer and a detective, then became a PI specializing in accident reconstruction.
He was out of town testifying at a trial when David first called him to look at his son's case.
Jeff McGrath: “He advised his son is missing, he needs help to find his son. And I said, ‘We don't do missing persons. That's not -- that's not what our company does.’ And uh, he explained that they found the vehicle. And I said, ‘Well, when I get back into town, I'll take a look at what you've got.’ And so I met with him, he showed me a picture of the -- what the police took of the vehicle in the ravine. And at that moment, I knew that there's something -- something wasn't right with it.”
As he studied the picture, the dents and damage did not seem to match the topography of the ravine.
Since Jeff knew the ins and outs of car accidents, even ones as strange as this, he thought maybe he could help.
And that's how Jeff agreed to take his first missing persons case.
Private investigator Jeff McGrath was in the early days of his investigation when Daniel Robinson's father moved his son's Jeep to a secure location.
Jeff downloaded the vehicle's onboard information system, which he said held a cache of valuable information.
Jeff McGrath: “So what I believe is -- and what the data and the vehicle supports is -- that there was a collision somewhere else. That -- that it was enough to deploy the airbags in the vehicle. The vehicle was then driven after that. And it was ultimately driven up onto this ravine out in the desert, which is about 3.5 miles from his work site.”
Jeff couldn't say if Daniel was driving or if it was someone else. He did know police are not labeling this a criminal case.
Jeff McGrath: “They didn't find any evidence that supports the crime. Uh, neither have I, at this point. But I also haven't found any evidence that -- that dismisses that, also.”
Jeff has poured hundreds of hours into Daniel's case, and along the way found what seemed like new evidence. It was an eyewitness account that changed the timeline of the day Daniel went missing.
A man came forward to say he'd been in the desert in the early afternoon looking for a wide-open place for some target practice.
The man said he remembered seeing Daniel in his undamaged Jeep. They had a pleasant conversation and then the man drove off. We spoke with this man and he told us the same story.
If you believe him, it makes a truth-teller out of Daniel's co-worker. And it gives David's volunteer army an area to more thoroughly search. No one can really tell how useful or how accurate this man's account might be. Not Jeff, not police, and not David Robinson. This is one of the things the families of the missing have to endure: people who inject themselves into the case. Some provide valuable information. Others are trying to help, but they're simply wrong. Some are drawn to publicity. And others, just evil. And sometimes it's hard to tell them apart.
Josh Mankiewicz: “This is a real mystery, isn't it?”
Jeff McGrath: “Yes, it is. Yes, it is. It's -- of all my years of doing any type of, uh, vehicular crimes, this is the most mysterious case I've ever worked.”
On that, Jeff McGrath and Chief Hall agree.
Chief Hall: “This is what I've been living, you know, since last summer. This is every day. We wake up every day, we are thinking about this. We're talking about it and, you know, driving home from work and thinking about, ‘OK, what did we miss on this? Where else could we have searched? What -- what are the other theories?’ I mean, we're racking our brains on this.”
Daniel’s father, David, has been outspoken. He doesn't feel the police have done enough to find his son-- a young Black man.
And he believes Daniel's case only started getting attention after Gabby Petito’s case went national.
Petito was the blonde young woman who went missing, starting a nationwide search which involved many levels of law enforcement. Her remains were found in Wyoming and investigators believe she was murdered by her fiancé who later died by suicide. At the time of Petito’s disappearance, many news outlets were once again criticized for ignoring missing persons cases involving people of color.
One difference between that case and this one -- is that to law enforcement, the Petito case was pretty clearly a serious crime from the get-go. Daniel's case is somewhat harder to understand. His father is not arguing that. He just wants to see the same resources that were used to find Gabby Petito, deployed to find his son.
David Robinson: “A lot of times they make excuses about resources. And I'm advocating for that, too, for the police department. Like, Buckeye is a small police department.”
He's right. There are only 113 officers on the Buckeye force. A spokesman for the police department told us they conduct thorough, unbiased investigations and that fair and impartial policing is at the heart of their service.
It's also clear the department worked hard to provide answers to Daniel's family but, as with a lot of departments, new cases of all kinds are called in each day.
Chief Hall: “We still go out there and do that job. But this thing is, one of the things that's just hanging out there, that we’re just like, ‘OK. What else can we be doing? What else should we be looking at?’”
After months of pushing by David, Buckeye police reached out to the FBI.
Chief Hall: “As to what we have, to see if they could critique the case and see if there's anything that, uh, you know, that -- that we could probably better investigate, or better look at, or they might have technology that could assist us.”
The Bureau recently told us, they're still assessing the case. So far, they have not gotten involved.
For Daniel's family, help and hope are still both needed here. Jeff McGrath is no longer on the case because he says his investigation into the vehicle crash is complete. And David is looking for a new private investigator who specializes in missing persons cases.
Now, remember those bones found on that Saturday morning in late November? Those turned out to belong to an animal.
David and his volunteers have found human remains over the last months.
Police have confirmed they did not belong to Daniel, but they're still unidentified.
The Buckeye Police Department is asking anyone with information about Daniel's case to call them on their tip line.
Chief Hall: “Our phone number for the tip line is (623) 349-6411. We'll take anything. Any sightings. And we'll take any leads that are out there.”
Again, that phone number is (623) 349-6411. David Robinson has also set up a website -- PleaseHelpFindDaniel.com -- with photos of Daniel, updates on the case and a form volunteers can use to sign up.
David Robinson at a search: “If you have FRS radios, get on channel 8. That's the channel that we'll be monitoring.”
So until something breaks in this case, David Robinson plans to keep on searching, in the desert, under that sun. He is convinced he and his son will be reunited. Others are less certain.
David Robinson: “I'm a man of faith and, uh, I am always gonna believe that, despite what I see or hear or know. I’m gonna bring my son home alive.”
Of course, we hope Mr. Robinson is proven right. Because in that world of the missing in America, the one with so many questions, so few answers and so much frustration and heartache... sometimes hope is all we have.
Thanks for listening. To learn more about other people we've covered in our Missing in America series, go to DatelineMissingInAmerica.com. There, you'll be able to submit cases you think we should cover in the future.