SALT LAKE CITY — A missing Kansas man spent his final days trapped in the wreckage of his van in a rural Utah ravine — writing goodbye letters to the family he unexpectedly left in early September.
David Welch, 54, was found on Oct. 18 by a hitchhiker who spotted the crash in a desolate stretch of eastern Utah more than 50 miles from any town, said Utah Highway Patrol trooper Gary Riches.
They found Welch trapped inside his mangled minivan at the bottom of a 50-foot ravine — with hand-written notes to his wife and four adult sons.
What's in those letters, though, is not being made public. The Welch family declined comment for this story and the Utah Highway Patrol isn't sharing what they call very personal.
The discovery brought a tragic end to a difficult several weeks for Welch's family that began on Sept. 2 when they reported him missing from his home in Manhattan, Kan. The family said Welch, a retired salesman, left in a 2000 Pontiac Montana without telling anyone where he was going, said Riley County Police spokesman Matt Droge.
Over the next several days, Riley County Police of Kansas did several searches of the area that came up empty, said agency. Welch was put in the national missing persons database.
As the days went on, the family struggled with not knowing what happened.
They posted missing signs around the city and started a Facebook page to bring attention to the search, Droge said.
On the Facebook page, "Find Dave Welch," they asked people to drive two extra blocks each day in hopes of finding him somewhere in Manhattan. On. Oct. 17, the day before he was found, there was a post written directly to Welch, perhaps in hopes he might read them.
"Dear Dave, it has been 7 weeks since you left. Your wife, children and grandchildren miss you more than the sky is high. Your classmates and friends are concerned for your health and want to help. As we sit at home tonight with tears welling up; Our hearts aching, we wonder where you are. We only pray that you see this message and ask God to bring you home soon. We love you!"
Investigators believe Welch fell asleep at the wheel of his minivan as he approached a curve on Interstate 70 in eastern Utah around Sept. 3, Riches said. His minivan sped off the road and went airborne, smashing into the side of the ravine. It came to rest upside down, resting on the passenger side, he said.
Evidence suggests Welch was injured and unable to get out of the van, Riches said. The medical examiner has not yet determined his cause of death. Even if we would have been able to get out, the nearest city, Green River, was about 50 miles west.
Thousands of cars sped by on the nearby interstate without a clue — Welch's van couldn't be seen from the highway, Riches said. He may never have been found if not for the hitchhiker walking on the side of the road.
"It is very desolate," Riches said.
They believe he survived for days, maybe weeks, keeping a journal and writing notes to family in Kansas.
In his obituary, the family said Welch was a salesman at Pepsi Co. and later Frito-Lay until he retired in 2009. He liked landscaping his yard, being outdoors and scuba diving in the ocean. He had been married to his wife, Kelly Welch, an assistant professor at Kansas State University, for 31 years.
He was looking forward to the upcoming birth of his second grandchild, the obituary said.
It remains a mystery why he left his home state in the first place, said authorities in Utah and Kansas.
"I wish it would have turned out better for the family," said Droge. "It was an unpleasant turn of events for them."
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