Family of missing man who died criticizes police search

GEORGETOWN — It’s the question that keeps John Campbell Jr. up at night:

“If I had been able to search for my father sooner, would he still be alive?”

According to Mr. Campbell and his wife, Amber Vanderwende Campbell, John Campbell Sr., 70, went missing around 1 p.m. on July 14 after walking to Donovan Salvage Works, a large junkyard in Georgetown.

He’d worked at Mid-Del Auto Parts in Smyrna for 45 years. He told his wife, Rosemary Campbell, that he needed to go to the nearby salvage yard to pick out a car part for their Pontiac Vibe he was servicing.

She became concerned when he didn’t return after several hours. She went to the salvage yard around 3 p.m., but found that it had closed for the day.

So she called the police to report her husband missing.

“Two police officers showed up and searched by foot, but they didn’t find him,” said Ms. Vanderwende Campbell. “By the time we got there at 6:30 p.m., they let John in to watch security footage that showed his dad entering but never exiting the yard.”

Distressed, the family claimed they pressed the salvage yard staff and responding Delaware State Police officers to let them back into the junkyard so they could search for John Campbell Sr. in the remaining daylight.

“My husband and I were being very persistent in wanting to get back and help search for him. We just knew he was back there,” said Ms. Vanderwende Campbell.

“We said we’d pay the normal fee or be escorted by the cops or yard staff, but we weren’t able to get back there.

“Then they brought up questions about maybe him jumping into a car with someone else to go to another junkyard or meeting up with another family member or friend, but we knew he wouldn’t have done that without letting us know.”

Police continued the search of the property.

“The Delaware State Police did a lengthy search of the Donovan’s Salvage Yard looking for Mr. Campbell, including a grid terrain search of the property by state police, Georgetown Police Department and the Georgetown Fire Department,” said Master Cpl. Melissa Jaffe, a state police spokeswoman.

“Our state police helicopter with FLIR, Ocean View Police Department’s drone with thermal imaging and Georgetown Fire Department had multiple handheld thermal imaging machines that were all utilized during this search.”

Ms. Vanderwende Campbell claimed that the additional search teams didn’t show up until after dusk.

“They did bring in firemen, a helicopter and a drone with heat imaging, but they didn’t get there till it was already dark,” she said. “It’s understandable that the heat imagining wouldn’t work during the daylight because it was so hot, but our biggest concern was wanting to search for him between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. while it was still light. We’d asked repeatedly for the chance.”

Around 11 p.m. the police search was concluded, said Ms. Vanderwende Campbell.

“The police officer told us they had done all they could and that we needed to get in touch with other family members to see if he had contacted them,” she said. “But we knew that wasn’t possible — he didn’t even have a cell phone. We had to go home knowing in our guts that he was still back there somewhere.”

Shortly after midnight July 14, the state police issued a Gold Alert for John Campbell Sr., which is the state’s emergency notification when a person is missing and there is a “real concern for his safety and welfare.”

Family conducts own search

After a night of anguished second-guessing, John Campbell Jr. decided to gather a cousin and some other family members to conduct their own search of the junkyard the following morning.

“They went in around 8 to 8:30 a.m. and within 30 minutes, they found him a few yards away from a Pontiac Vibe,” Ms. Vanderwende Campbell said. “When my husband bent down to hold his dad he noticed he was still breathing and moving his hands slightly, so they called the ambulance immediately.”

John Campbell Sr. was first brought to a hospital in Seaford, then transferred to Christiana Medical Center, where he died on July 16. It was determined that he’d had a stroke and lost consciousness while in the junkyard, according to the Campbell family. No foul play was suspected.

Master Cpl. Jaffe told the Delaware State News this week, “Our condolences go out to the family for their loss of Mr. John Campbell.”

Now, almost two and a half weeks later, the Campbell family still has its misgivings about how the search for John Campbell Sr. was handled. For them, the two sticking points are not being allowed to search the junkyard themselves on July 14 while it was still light outside and the claim that police had already searched the spot where John Campbell Sr. was eventually found, said Ms. Vanderwende Campbell.

The family claimed that no one from the state police or salvage yard has followed up with them since the incident. Donovan Salvage Works staff was not immediately reachable for comment.

“What’s most upsetting to us is that he was out there all night long still breathing. We have to live with that,” she said. “We just keep asking ourselves: ‘What if it had been handled differently?” We can understand that it was due to natural causes and we’re not doctors, but we wonder if he’d been found sooner if he’d have had a chance to survive. Obviously, laying on the ground in the heat for 18 hours after a stroke wouldn’t help anyone — never mind being 70 years old. We still don’t understand why we weren’t allowed to help search for him.”

Master Cpl. Jaffe said the family was asked to stay off the property for safety reasons.

“Several family members did respond to the yard while the state police were conducting their investigation and were asked to stay off of the property at that time,” she said. “The business was closed during this time frame and based on the nature of the property being a scrap yard, there was a major concern for their safety as the property was not lit.”

Question police foot search

The Campbell family also questions how thorough the state police’s initial “on foot” search was. The police and Campbell family disagree on whether the location where John Campbell Sr. was eventually found had been searched on July 14.

“The location in which the family member later located Mr. Campbell alive the next morning had, in fact, been searched,” Master Cpl. Jaffe said. “It is likely that Mr. Campbell had gone to this location after the search had been called off.”

The Campbell family said they find that explanation befuddling.

“How could he have wandered there later?” Ms. Vanderwende Campbell said. “The junkyard closed at 3 p.m. and they didn’t search on foot until 5 p.m. Then the later search didn’t start until dark. So what are they saying? He was out there hiding from them and then just passed out after the search?

“It doesn’t make any sense. He didn’t just end up there later, we believe he was in that exact spot the whole time and they missed him. They did not adequately search or go far back enough. I remember hearing the officer who searched on foot say several times, ‘it’s a very deep junkyard.’ That kind of leads me to believe they didn’t search the whole place originally.”

The family celebrated Mr. Campbell Sr.’s life at Murray United Methodist Church in Summerville, South Carolina, on July 21, but questions remain.

“We just can’t stop wondering if things were handled better if he’d still be here with us,” said Ms. Vanderwende Campbell. “It’s been over two weeks, but it’s still just eating us up.”

Staff writer Ian Gronau can be reached at 741-8272 or igronau@newszap.com

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