By: Joe Strupp
Missing reporter Ward Sanderson of the Daily Press in Newport News, Va., has been spotted as far away as Richmond and Williamsburg, according to editors. The paper received information on his whereabouts following a story in Tuesday’s edition about his disappearance.
“My sense is that there is still a lot of uncertainty, but no reason to think he’s not out there taking care of himself,” Ernie Gates, editor of the Daily Press, told E&P Tuesday afternoon. “But we are still concerned. He appears to be behaving oddly and it makes us concerned that he is disoriented.”
Meanwhile, one of Sanderson’s former colleagues at Stars & Stripes, told E&P that he was “solid as a rock” and one of the best reporters ever at that paper.
Sanderson, 35, has been missing since May 31, when he last showed up for work at the paper, where he covers military affairs. Editors filed a missing person’s report on him June 3, but did not publish a story about his disappearance until today.
The story, which was picked up by Associated Press and several other Virginia papers, apparently sparked action, Gates said. He noted two significant tips that came into the newsroom Tuesday. One was from a convenience store clerk outside of Richmond, about 75 miles from Newport News, who said she encountered Sanderson at 4:30 a.m. last Wednesday.
“She was concerned that he was on foot at that time of the night, so she called police,” Gates said. Prior to that incident, Sanderson was spotted at a real estate office in Williamsburg, about 50 miles from Richmond, the previous Monday, June 6. Gates said the real estate agent told the paper that Sanderson came in saying he had had an appointment, then left.
“The real estate agent called police who spoke with Ward, but the gist of his comments to the officer were that he was fine,” Gates said. “We’ve talked to the police in both places, but we haven’t dispatched people to track them down because we are still getting all of the information.”
Since Sanderson’s disappearance, speculation about why he dropped out of site has grown, including concerns about post-war trauma following his many months in Iraq. Gates said he had shown no signs of emotional problems or suicidal behavior. He sparked more concern when police found his car parked at a local bank, with the keys dropped in a night deposit box, along with a note saying he did not need the car anymore.
Someone also mailed his Daily Press employee identification card back to the paper, with no explanation. “He displayed no signs of emotional distress, which is why this is so strange,” Gates said about Sanderson’s previous behavior. “Nothing in his behavior suggested this.”
A Daily Press employee since March, Sanderson had previously worked for Stars & Stripes, where he had periods assignments covering the Iraq War while based at one of the paper’s Germany bureaus. Gates said he had shown no signs of suffering from any war-related problems or suicidal tendencies.
Terry Boyd, a Stars & Stripes reporter who worked with Sanderson in the paper’s Germany office between 1999 and early 2005, also shot down speculation that Sanderson might have done himself in or suffered in other ways from emotional effects of the war. “I can’t imagine that it was a factor in his disappearance,” Boyd said during a phone interview from Germany Tuesday. “He is not that kind of guy. He’s solid as a rock. ” When asked if Sanderson ever discussed depression or other emotional problems, Boyd said, “Nothing, never, no!”
Although both Boyd and Sanderson rotated in and out of Iraq on assignment during the first years of the war, he said the two never served together. He also did not think Sanderson saw much combat, instead spending most of his time behind the front lines on stories about everything from military chaplains to Baghdad hospitals.
Although he had not spoken with Sanderson for several months, Boyd said some colleagues had gotten e-mails from him, with no trace of stressful problems. “They had nothing troubling in them,” he said of the notes. Boyd speculated that, as police have theorized, Sanderson might have just wanted to drop out of sight.
“Everybody who has been gone [from the United States] for six or seven years has an adjustment period when they return,” Boyd said. “After being so long outside the United States, you sometimes need to adjust again.” Then he added, “We just want to find out where the hell he is, he’s got to stop worrying people.”
Sig Christenson, president of Military Reporters and Editors and a military correspondent for the San Antonio Express-News, stopped short of connecting Sanderson’s disappearance to an Iraq-related emotional problem or suicide. But he admitted that speculation is unavoidable in such a case.
“It is a very disturbing thing, and distressing,” Christenson said. “I worry that it does mean something. If it was somebody who was in Iraq, it crosses your mind. I hope that is not what it is.”
Boyd said Sanderson had built a reputation at the paper as someone who took on challenges with gusto. “He liked big projects and did a lot of great work,” Boyd said. “He was one of the best reporters who ever worked at Stars & Stripes. He could get people talking.”
He cited a 2004 story Sanderson did on the lack of equipment and parts for an Army Black Hawk helicopter unit. He said editors praised the piece as one of the first from Iraq that had many military personnel on the record. “It was one of the first to document that Iraq was beginning to stress the Army [resources],” Boyd said. “He gave it an honest evaluation.”
Daily Press Editor Gates said Sanderson had been covering a variety of issues when he disappeared, ranging from local base closings to Memorial Day plans. His last two stories, which ran May 28, concerned a locally-based Navy crew that had helped with a drug seizure in the Arabian Sea and a Navy veteran who was in a dispute with the Naval Public Affairs office over using Navy press releases on his Web site.
“I think the more the story gets around, the more people will respond,” Gates said. “The fact that he is turning up in other places is encouraging. With some luck, we will be able to find him.”