Katie Harsh’s family has been going to Kentucky’s Grayson Lake for years. The man-made lake and its surrounding woods are an area her family knows so well, she said, that they continued to visit even after her father Richard Lea was diagnosed with dementia in 2015.
“[My dad] knew that area and he knew the lake,” Katie said. “He had basically a triangle of the area that he would pace which consisted of where the boat was docked, straight through the parking lot all the way to the bathroom, and then he would walk the tree line and it would circle back down to the boat.”
On September 3, 2018, Katie says she, her husband, and their children were at the Wheeling, West Virginia home they shared with her parents, Richard and Leslie. Richard and Leslie had gone down to Grayson Lake to spend time with Katie’s brother, Jacob, on his pontoon.
“On that particular day, they had all gotten off the boat,” Katie said she would later learn. “And my dad, for some reason, went outside of his normal pacing zone. [When] my brother caught up to him, he was practically out of the parking lot. So my brother started walking him back to the boat.”
On their way back to the boat, Katie told Dateline that her father spotted his wife, Leslie, and went over to her. Seeing his father was safe with his mother, Jacob went back to the boat while his parents took his kids to the playground.
“They got to the playground and my dad started walking around it. And every time he walked around it, the circle would get bigger. My mom would yell for him, and he would come back,” Katie told Dateline. “But the last time she yelled for him, he just ignored her and kept walking.”
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According to Katie, before Leslie could gather her grandchildren and go catch up to her husband, Richard had walked out of sight. It was around 6:30 p.m.
“Instantly, my mom, brother, and sister-in-law started to look for my dad. They saw a park ranger and gave a description to them and they immediately started looking,” Katie said.
Katie says her father, who has been nonverbal for the past year, did not have a cell phone, ID, or credit card on him at the time. There was no way to track him, and the family immediately grew concerned. Katie says that state and local agencies arrived that evening to help search for Richard.
“They searched for him until 3 o’clock in the morning,” Katie said. “Canine units followed his scent up to the road, but then they lost him.”
Shortly after that initial search, Carter County EMA Director Jeremy Rodgers told local NBC affiliate WSAZ his concerns.
“It's tough here. Number one, we're dealing with the lake itself. Then we're dealing with undergrowth once you get into the tree line, things of that nature. There's just this vast area we're trying to cover because we don't have a great exact direction of travel so we're having to search a large area around the lake and marina,” Director Rogers said. “It’s dangerous for searchers who are packing bottles of water with them, let alone someone who is out and doesn't have any access to fluids.”
Two days after Richard disappeared, the Carter County Sheriff’s Office wrote in a Facebook post that the search for Richard had been “scaled back.”
“He is now considered a missing person. All resources have been exhausted. County EM used search dogs, helicopters, ground pounders, divers, sonar, ATVs, firefighters, law enforcement, fish & wildlife, volunteers, and agencies outside and in Carter County,” the post read.
Richard’s daughter Katie says the case has since been moved to the Kentucky State Police, who had not replied to Dateline’s request for comment by Monday evening.
“We haven’t even found a shoe, let alone a shirt or his hat that he had on. Nothing,” Katie said, adding that her family has a few ideas on what could have happened that day near the lake. “One of our theories is that somebody picked him up. But he hasn’t been dropped off at a hospital, nursing home, or police station. We also thought that maybe somebody took him in. But that’s a full-time job to take care of him.”
Regardless of what happened to her father, Katie says she and her family are desperate for answers.
“He’s not even on camera passing a local business. It’s like he just disappeared. We need closure. We need something,” she said.
Richard Lea is described as being 5’6” tall and weighing 140 lbs. He was last seen wearing a tan shirt, blue cotton shorts, gray shoes and a camouflage hat with a “P” on it. If you have any information on Richard’s whereabouts, please contact the Kentucky State Police at (606) 928-6421.
Bianca Hillier covers missing person and homicide cases for NBC News.