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Search for Boy Scaled Back : Vanished: Father of mentally disabled 12-year-old remains in Sierra Nevada to look for son who was lost last week.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bob and Sharon Miller watched their only son, Kenny, nearly die of meningitis a decade ago. The high fever and brain swelling left him mentally disabled, forever 4 years old.

It wasn’t easy raising him. He had a hard time sitting still. He would see a butterfly and off he’d go. The choice was either to manacle his life or open up the world to him.

The Millers, both popular high school teachers here, chose the latter course for their 12-year-old son, friends say. That’s why the family was in the Sierra Nevada south of Lake Tahoe last week on a day hike along the Pacific Crest Trail.

Kenny was throwing stones beside a creek in a meadow. His father, mother and younger sister turned their backs for a moment. When they looked again, Kenny was gone.

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On Thursday, after 10 days of fruitless search, the Alpine County Sheriff’s Office cut back operations to a skeleton force. A sheriff’s spokesman said it was unlikely that Kenny, wearing only a T-shirt and cotton pants and denied his seizure medication, could have survived more than a week of the pounding rain, sleet and snow at the 8,000-foot level.

While Sharon Miller has come home to the open arms of this foothill community above Fresno, to scores of friends and strangers who put their lives on hold to drive into the mountains and help search for Kenny, her husband remains in Alpine County, five hours north.

Friends say Bob Miller, an English teacher and longtime football coach, continues to comb the rugged scarps and grassy meadows and hand out flyers in the dim hope that his son is still alive, that perhaps he hiked down the mountain to California 88 and was picked up by strangers.

“Bob and Sharon literally poured their lives into Kenny after he got sick,” said Dave Dooman, a shop teacher at Yosemite Union High, where the Millers have been members of the faculty for more than 15 years.

“They gave so much to the point that they literally had health problems. After all those years of sacrifice, Bob’s not going to give up Kenny easily,” Dooman said. “He’s going to keep searching until he feels there’s no point.”

Kenny got sick in 1982, on his second birthday. It changed everything for the Millers. A home economics teacher, Sharon went back to college and got her master’s degree in speech pathology. Her motivation was to help Kenny, whose ability to talk and process language was damaged by the meningitis.

Bob asked to teach part time so he could spend the rest of the day working one on one with his son. He stopped coaching football for a time. Physically, Kenny looks like a normal 12-year-old. He is 4 feet 10 and weighs 75 pounds. But his speech and actions are more akin to an autistic child.

“Kenny was really, really active,” said David Read, dean of students. “Bob would bring him in mornings and Kenny was all over the place. Nonstop movement.

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“You either keep a child like Kenny inside or you do like the Millers did and give him all the stimulation and all the world he can absorb.”

The Millers bought a condo near Lake Tahoe and spent several weeks each summer there. They were at the end of one such trip when Bob Miller, an avid backpacker, decided last week to take the family on a day hike near Caples Lake.

According to Alpine County sheriff’s deputies, the family had climbed to a meadow about three miles beyond the highway when they saw an old cabin used by ranch hands on cattle runs. Bob and Sharon and their daughter, Cindy, 10, decided to take a closer look. Kenny stayed about 100 feet behind throwing rocks into a creek.

They were apart no more than a few minutes--enough time to survey the cabin and come out the other side and notice that Kenny had vanished.

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Bob Miller ran from one trail to the next asking hikers if they had seen the boy.

Word reached Oakhurst that night. The next day, more than 50 friends, fellow teachers and strangers met at 1 a.m. at Raley’s Supermarket in town and packed a school bus and a dozen cars for the long trek toward Lake Tahoe.

“When that busload arrived, I can’t tell you how that made us feel,” Sharon Miller said. “People who I didn’t even know had come up to search for my son. We were very, very overwhelmed.”

Bob Miller told them that Kenny was strong and able to cover as much as three miles a day. Because of his disability, though, he would not answer commands. Calls for Kenny had to be delivered in a singsong voice: “Kenny, where are you? Aunt Carol wants to see you. Dr. Emily wants to see you. Are you hungry?”

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Several of the searchers had a hard time leaving.

“It’s very difficult to leave it unresolved,” said Shanon White, a member of the Madera County Sheriff’s search and rescue posse. “One day we spotted some footprints and a sock and that night everyone was euphoric. It was a real roller coaster.”

Prepared for the worst, friends are baffled as to how and where Kenny might have died. It is as if, one said, the 10 years following his near death from meningitis were a gift. And then, he was suddenly plucked off the mountain without a trace.


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