Authorities say the search for missing teenager Joey Peterson is now a recovery effort, rather than a rescue, and that all circumstances suggest the 16-year-old did not survive his disappearance.
Natrona County sheriff’s investigator Taylor Courtney made the announcement Wednesday, as a new winter storm descended on Casper. It came 10 days after Peterson walked away from his family home.
Courtney said that authorities are asking volunteers to stop their search, as much of the area is now private property. He said searchers have collected a large amount of information that needs to be analyzed and then searchers can be more “methodical” in their combing of an area near the base of Casper Mountain.
Footprints suggest Peterson traveled as many as 6 miles in bare feet, often in below freezing temperatures, Courtney say. All evidence indicates the teen was headed toward Casper Mountain, but snowmelt ended the trail of his footprints. The tracks were several days old and Peterson likely made them soon after he left home, Courtney said.
A previous set of tracks, found near his family’s home, corroborated a witness’s report that Peterson was running through a field nearby.
Light bleeding in the tracks show Peterson had an injury to his left foot.
“It was most likely from running across the prairie barefoot,” the investigator told reporters.
Courtney said the lack of food, the clothes Peterson was wearing and the length of time he had been gone all factored into the decision to now classify the search as a recovery effort. A recovery effort is undertaken when authorities determine a missing person is not likely to have survived their situation, he said.
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Still, the search will continue. But Courtney asked people not to look for Peterson during the storm because the sheriff’s office doesn’t want volunteers to become lost as well. He said the storm may halt authorities’ own search but that no one was suspending the search.
Courtney said there were “a lot of exhausted people” in the sheriff’s office, though he said “none of them would tell you that.” He said authorities were committed to finding Peterson and bringing him home. He declined to describe how Peterson’s family is doing, saying that he didn’t want to speak for them.
Peterson, 16, disappeared after leaving his home in the area of Goose Creek Circle and Hat Six Road before noon on Nov. 10. He was wearing pajama pants and a red sweatshirt. Peterson has high-functioning autism and is not self-sufficient. He did not leave home with a cellphone.
More than 150 volunteers and several local, state and federal agencies joined in the search over the past 10 days. Authorities used a Black Hawk helicopter, drones, horses and dogs to try to locate Peterson, who disappeared into the rural land around his family’s home as temperatures dropped well below freezing and snow began to fall.
The weather has stabilized in the days since, though the incoming snow storm posed a significant obstacle, both to searchers’ safety and to the likelihood of finding the missing boy.
The announcement on Wednesday came five days after searchers discovered footprints they determined to be Peterson’s. Some tracks were found in a field. More footprints were found at the base of Casper Mountain.
The search has so far covered more than 250 square miles.
Peterson has blond hair; is 5 feet, 9 inches tall; and weighs 120 pounds. Anyone with information about the boy’s disappearance is asked to contact authorities at 307-235-9300.