'We're sad, but we're happy': Son sees 'divine providence' in man's body being found

Published: Thursday, Nov. 1 2012 7:24 p.m. MDT

Jacob Helland, right, and his wife, Janet, look through a family photo album featuring photos of his father, Fritz Helland, in their home in Sandy, Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012.

Ben Brewer, Deseret News

SANDY — Fritz Helland and his wife, Gerda, were married for 55 years. When she died, family members say, Helland still had a network of love and support from his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

But he was lonely.

"He had resigned himself to this part of his life," his son Jacob Helland said Thursday. "But he was just plugging. He was just hanging in there because he missed his sweetheart."

When Helland heard Wednesday night that the body of a man found in Neffs Canyon was in fact his father who had been missing for a week, he said he was saddened about his loss, but relieved for some closure.

And the family is happy that their father is finally back with their mother.

"For us it's been a challenging week. But for him it's been a very happy week," he said. "We're sad, but we're happy. In retrospect, it was such a painful week not knowing where he was and how could he disappear completely off the grid?"

Fritz Helland, 80, disappeared Oct. 24 while taking a customary walk with his mini pinscher "Odin." Despite a massive three-day search by police and volunteers, they found no trace of the Millcreek resident.

On Wednesday evening, hikers in the Neffs Canyon area found the body of a man about 1.5 miles from the mouth of the canyon. He appeared to have died after falling 20 to 40 feet down a steep hill. The body of the dog was also found nearby.

Jacob Helland said his family received a call from Unified police about 7:30 p.m. that a body was found, and it was likely his father.

"They said, 'Yeah, we're quite certain it's him,'" he said.

But while the loss is difficult, Jacob Helland said, a remarkable set of circumstances came together to help bring the family closure. It snowed the day his father disappeared. But the recent spell of warm weather melted much of it away. And the weather was warm enough to allow hikers in that area.

"If we didn't find him now, it could very well have been next spring or summer, that would be difficult," Helland said. "We see divine providence in that."

As for what happened to his father, Helland said the family believes a medical condition that they had not known about may have been involved.

"We think he had some sort of condition, something was different with him that day. There were two witnesses that saw him that day, and both of them said it seemed like he was not in full control of his abilities. He seemed confused. He seemed lost," Helland said.

His sister spoke with their father on a cellphone at 3 p.m. the day he disappeared. He told her he was headed home and seemed anxious to get there. But the family now wonders if he was actually disoriented and lost.

The area where he was walking was a place he hadn't been in five to 10 years since he had gone there with Gerda. Family members wonder if something in his memory clicked.

"That may have looked familiar to him so he just kept walking up there," Jacob Helland said.

Fritz and Odin continued making the strenuous walk uphill, likely leaving both of them exhausted and adding to their situation, Helland said. When Fritz fell, police believe he was holding the dog, which also tumbled with him and was killed.

Jacob Helland said his father will be remembered as a gentle man who was also a man of faith and a wonderful father. He worked for the Norwegian Army and was assigned to disarm unexploded ordnances left around Norway by the Germans during World War II.

But after meeting Mormon missionaries, Fritz and Gerda Helland became members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and soon after decided they wanted the chance to practice their religion in America.

"He and my mom sold everything they had in their mid-20s, said goodbye to their parents for the last time, their uncles and brothers and sisters and aunts and cousins and all that, and got on a ship and came over here in 1959 because or their faith," Jacob Helland said.

Jacob was just 1 year old when his parents came to America.

"We as family feel we have been blessed because of that" sacrifice his parents made, Jacob Helland said.

Helland had overwhelming praise for Unifed police, Sheriff Jim Winder and the many volunteers who spent hours looking for his father, calling the experience a "spiritual" and "moving" event.

"We realize this was much bigger than just our family," he said.

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam

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