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Painful Waiting to Learn Loved One’s Fate

When people talk with Simone Ward about her husband, John, the choice of verbs often creates hesitation. Simone understands. Either present tense or past is OK, she says, since she isn’t sure herself.

John Ward is, or was, a sturdy man who stands, or stood, 6 feet tall. He has, or had, a shock of white hair that is, or was, so striking that Simone and her sons do a double-take whenever they spot such locks.

“It doesn’t matter if the guy’s 5 feet tall,” says Dave Ward, 34. “I have to see the face.”

Nearly 17 months have passed since John F. Ward, an avid hiker, set out on foot from his Chatsworth home for a sporting goods store a couple of miles away. John, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease five years earlier, apparently forgot his way home.

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Early on, they thought John would turn up. He had disappeared twice before. Once, authorities found him near Magic Mountain, a hike of more than 20 miles. Another time, Dave found him walking late one night on De Soto Avenue, down from the foothills of the Santa Susana Mountains.

Five and a half hours after John left for the sporting goods store, Simone reported him missing. In the next few days, many people paid attention. TV news stations did reports and newspapers ran stories. The Wards and their friends put 2,000 fliers on telephone polls and in store windows. Dozens of friends helped Dave and his brother, Greg, search the hills. When Simone chartered a helicopter to help with the search, the owner tore up her $700 check.

And early on, there was one glimmer of hope that, mishandled by the Los Angeles police, became the source of abiding anger.

A day or two after John’s disappearance, an equestrian exchanged greetings with a man lying near a log in Brown’s Canyon, in those same foothills he often hiked. More than four hours later, she was surprised to see the man lying on another log nearby.

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Later, she heard about the missing man. Her report was promptly referred to the missing-persons unit of the Los Angeles Police Department, but six days passed before a detective contacted the woman, only after he’d returned from vacation and found a note on his desk. “They really dropped the ball,” Dave says.

Shown a photo of John Ward by Los Angeles police, the woman said she was almost certain that was the man she’d seen in the hills. But searches over the next two days turned up nothing.

Now months have passed. Sitting with Dave at the dining room table, Simone Ward reflects on the fact that she doesn’t know whether she’s a wife or a widow.

She met John in high school back in Massachusetts. Love blossomed later. John, she says, was a highly intelligent man who had a career as a civilian employee with the Air Force. Later, it was difficult to witness the effect of Alzheimer’s, but John loved to go out for his walks. She and her sons had rejected notions of placing him in a board and care facility.

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Simone knew it was a risk to let him leave the house. She was always careful to make sure he carried a wallet filled with identification, just in case.

“It’s a tough call to make because he loved to walk,” Dave said. “How could you take that away from him? Do you chain him to the couch and strip him of all his dignity?”

As time passed, Simone grew more desperate. On two occasions, she consulted psychics. “This may sound crazy, but at time like that, you do crazy things.”

The first suggested he might be in the San Bernardino area, so Simone sent fliers to authorities there. The second suggested that he was no longer alive and was “near water.”

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Simone also contacted the Salvation Army, which has a missing-persons service. Workers there told her that one man was discovered alive five years after he was reported missing.

And one day, a friend pointed out a grim story in the newspaper. The torso of a man had been found in the Angeles National Forest, the head and hands missing. Simone drove to the county coroner’s office and provided the information, wondering whether her husband had turned up as a John Doe.

There was no match. Since that early possible sighting, there has been no trace. If he’d been robbed, it would seem that at least his credit card or Social Security card would turn up somewhere. But nothing.

They wonder about the possibilities. Did he fall and die in terrain so remote that his remains haven’t been found? Dave wonders whether his father is an anonymous soul in some sort of asylum. Is he living on the streets somewhere, unable to remember his own name?

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The image is difficult for Simone.

“He wouldn’t know enough to look for food in a trash bin,” she says, voice cracking, eyes welling with tears. “We have so much--food, shelter, clothing. And it’s all due to him. . . . I don’t want him to die, but at least he wouldn’t be hurting. . . . And if he’s dead, he deserves a decent burial.”

Her older son, Greg, remains optimistic that his father is alive. Greg, she says, is having a difficult time accepting the possibility that he may not be. Simone and Dave are more pessimistic. They are convinced that coping with John’s disappearance has been more difficult than the prospect of coping with his death.

“Everybody dies,” Dave says. “At least we’d know.”

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If they knew, they wouldn’t have such an awkward time talking to old friends who call out of the blue and ask for John, or answering Christmas cards that express the hope that everybody’s well.

And if they knew, they wouldn’t be so startled by a shock of white hair.

Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to Harris at the Times Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth, CA 91311. Please include a phone number.


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