Debbie Davis has begun the new year with a worried heart. Where has her 32-year-old son, Corey Newell, disappeared to? It's not unlike him to stay off her radar for a month or so at a time. But to not be in touch with a single friend -- not a word -- is distinctly out of character.
"Corey has a lot of friends, and none of them have heard from him," she said Friday afternoon as she was weaving her car through the streets between Palmer and Wasilla, leaving fliers about her missing son at convenience stores and other places where people might see them.
The people who love and are missing Newell have worried he was hurt and is in need of help. He'd grown up snowmachining but often traveled without a helmet, as he did on Sunday night. Maybe he'd crashed and become injured. But as each day goes by, their heavy hearts have turned to darker thoughts, and to suspicions of murder.
Newell's longtime good friend, Darryl Wellborn, shares the same sense of foreboding as Davis, Newell's mom. Wellborn last saw Newell Sunday night, when the man he's been friends with for nearly 15 years left Wellborn's house to visit his girlfriend and never came back.
Monday came. Then Tuesday. Then Wednesday, New Year's Day, and still no one had heard from or seen him. Wellborn knew something was wrong. Maybe even something really bad.
"He has never failed to call me or a family member to come and get him in any kind of peril or any situation. Even if he was just tired of being somewhere," Wellborn said while leading Newell's dad to a place within the Pittman road neighborhood of Wasilla where Newell's snowmachine had been found. "He would not have walked away from life itself in this manner. He always told somebody where he was going or where he was up to."
Things don't add up for friends
By Thursday, Davis was worried enough that she went to Alaska State Troopers to report her son as missing. Investigators haven't had much to say, only that his snowmachine was found near Cloudy Lake. They've done some interviews, but don't yet have any solid information, according to Trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters. Missing persons cases can be challenging, because being missing isn't itself a crime. People have the right to drop off the grid, go off the radar, and never offer an explanation or tell a loved one.
In the case of Newell, the trail of evidence has additional complications. Newell was missing almost four days before Troopers were notified, and Troopers also weren't the ones to recover the snowmachine -- that's something Wellborn did. And snow that has fallen since then has covered up any tracks they would have found had then been called to the site on the day the machine was discovered. Wellborn has told them what he saw there, but Troopers have no way to verify it with their own eyes.
Wellborn and Davis have wondered if Newell crossed paths with the wrong person. Wellborn says there are things about where the snowmachine was found that don't add up.
It was found wedged between two trees, headed toward a dead end. If Newell had to avoid something on the trail, it would be the last place he'd turn to avoid something or get away, Wellborn said. Driving yourself into an obstacle didn't make sense. Plus, the machine, though beaten up, was still driveable. And, the only set of tracks leading away from the machine led up to the road, not toward the lake or into the woods. A single glove was lying in the snow.
Perhaps most telling? Newell loved his snowmachine, a fast, nearly $12,000 Polaris RMK Pro 800. There's no way, Wellborn and Davis said, that he'd leave it behind. Especially in that area of Pittman, which has a reputation of being a place where things get vandalized and stolen, Davis said.
"We are finding more and more reasons to believe his snowmachine was staged there to cover up his disappearance. We no longer believe we are looking at a missing person case. We are looking at a homicide," Wellborn explained.
Alaska State Troopers have given no indication Newell fell victim to a killer, and they are actively seeking information about his whereabouts.
Struggles of a survivor
Over the years, Newell's mom has watched her son struggle with drug use, and the felonies and jail stays he's racked up as a result. But through good times and bad, he's always gotten through, and always stayed in touch.
"I am the first person he calls when he ends up in jail. He calls mom," Davis said.
Newell's family and friends have called hospitals and jails, hoping someone's got him, only to end each call on a note of disappointment.
Could he have taken his own life, the way some Alaskans do, wandering into the woods to end whatever pain they're in? Davis and Wellborn are adamant that there was nothing in Newell's life or past behavior to suggest he was even thinking about such things.
A convicted felon, finding a regular job has been difficult for Newell. He doesn't have a place of his own, and often couch surfs with friends, or occasionally drops in on mom or dad. But he's learned the art of glass blowing, and has hopes of opening up a commercial studio with Wellborn. Newell likes gold panning with his dad during the summer. He also has his own little boy to think about. He's a dad in his own right, the father of a three-year old.
He'd had rough times since he was a teen, but things now were going well, Davis said.
If his disappearance wasn't an accident or foul play, only one other option has occurred to Newell's friends: Maybe he was the victim of a hit-and-run from the roadway. That might explain why they found his snowmachine where they did. But it still doesn't explain why Newell is nowhere to be found.
"Sometimes he is like a lost soul, but he is a survivor. He just has a very upbeat personality even in times of great duress," she said, continuing her drive to another store to post another poster, as Wellborn, miles away, went over the snowmachine's supposed crash site one more time.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com