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Dad fears missing teen son vanished 'Into the Wild'

By Gabriel Falcon, CNN
August 27, 2013 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Law enforcement official says nothing to suggest foul play or danger
  • Arizona father fears teen vanished in Oregon to live off land like the film "Into the Wild"
  • Johnathan Croom, 18, has never been in the wild before, says his father
  • The teen's Honda SUV was abandoned in a small town in western Oregon

(CNN) -- In the movie "Into the Wild," a young man rejects society and disappears. Now, Johnathan Croom's father fears his teenage son has done the same thing.

David Croom of Apache Junction, Arizona, hasn't seen his 18-year-old son in more than a week. And he's worried.

Johnathan's green Honda CRV was found abandoned on a lonely road in the quiet country town of Riddle, Oregon, on Wednesday, two days after he was supposed to start college at Mesa Community College. He was last seen at a friend's home in Seattle, where he'd been visiting. His father assumed he was driving back to Arizona through Washington and Oregon.

"He's never been in the wild before," David Croom said. But he says his son has been reading Jon Krakauer's 1996 nonfiction book and watching the movie adaptation.

Krakauer's account of the life of Chris McCandless has taken on an almost cult status among countless free spirits who dream of shedding the trappings of modern life and living off the land.

"There were similarities," Croom said of his son's disappearance. McCandless "left all his stuff in the car and took off. The problem with that movie is, he doesn't make it. It's a fatal end to the story."

In the book, McCandless cut off communication with his parents and traveled to Alaska, where he lived in a school bus before dying of starvation.

Like McCandless, Johnathan Croom is apparently traveling with very few belongings: perhaps a small backpack and his phone, his father says. Left behind in the Honda was the teen's ID card, plus a sweatshirt, blanket and jug of water -- things someone might need to survive in the wilderness.

"It's not against the law for an adult man to decide he wants to get lost or take off," said Dwes Hutson, public information officer for the Douglas County Sheriff's Office. "We have nothing to suggest this is foul play, nothing to suggest he is in danger. We do have people down today doing some searches. I don't want to mislead you and suggest there is some massive search going on, because there is not."

The teen has been a main topic of conversation in Riddle, a logging and ranching community of about 1,300 with no traditional grocery store and no movie theater. People are searching their property, says one resident, a longtime rancher who asked that he not be identified. "There's nothing that makes sense."

Riddle is dozens of miles from the nearest wilderness area, residents say.

"It's 2½ miles from the major interstate; it's right in town in Riddle," Huston said of where Croom's car was found. "There are houses and people, and it's well-populated, so if he wanted to do an 'Into the Wild,' it wasn't the appropriate place."

If he is in the wild, living off the land might be possible. Overnight low temperatures are in the 50s, and there would be some food and water supply, residents say.

"There's berries and lots of places to get water," said Scott Berney, who sells fishing, camping and hunting supplies at Northwest Outdoors in nearby Roseburg. "Yeah, you could survive."

Johnathan Croom's camping experience is limited at best, his father says, not much more than camping once or twice with his car.

"I need to hear your voice": that was the content of a text message Croom sent to his son on last week when he "started to feel funny" about not hearing from Johnathan.

"We got a text back from his friend (in Seattle) saying, 'he left, and I can't get a hold of him.' "

During the past six months, Johnathan Croom's interest in the movie seems to have grown, says his father. "He's been watching the movie a lot," he said. "Maybe he said, 'I want to do it.' That's our theory, because he kept talking about the movie."

Several reports describing travelers with an apparent interest in McCandless and the abandoned "Magic Bus" parked near Healy, Alaska, outside Denali National Park have surfaced recently. In May, a police helicopter reportedly rescued three German men who had hiked into the wilderness looking for the bus. An Oklahoma teen inspired by the movie reportedly went missing in Oregon in March after telling his parents he wanted to "live in the wild."

In 2010, a Swiss woman reportedly drowned in an Alaska river during her trek to visit the famous bus.

Now joining searchers on foot and driving up logging roads in and around Riddle, David Croom hopes McCandless' story may hold some answers.

"One of the keys to that movie is that no one ever went looking for him. We are trying to change the story by injecting ourselves in it and going to find him. He can't be too far away at this point."

Police cautioned that nobody may know the reason Croom disappeared.

"The 'Into the Wild' came from his dad," Hutson said. "I think his dad has that information, and I don't know, again, if that's what he wanted to do, he kind of picked the wrong place.

"There are plenty of wilderness areas in Douglas County, but not where he's at."

Teams looking for the teen have tried using dogs "but couldn't get a scent," his father said. "I got a phone call from a logger who said he saw a young man with the same grin as my son on one of the logging roads, so a bunch of local volunteers are going to blanket the area."

But help is scarce in the small town. David Croom has appealed to local search organizations for assistance.

"They are doing the best they can, every drop of sweat, every footstep, I just wish we can do more," he said. "Time is ticking away. It's already been a week.

"My son is a kid, two states away, out in the wild with shorts and a T-shirt."

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