GRANGEVILLE — The Idaho County Sheriff’s Office believes that a northern Idaho man who has not been heard from since late August likely went into the backcountry to deliberately end his life.
Chief Deputy Brian Hewson said Tuesday the search for Kelly Lee Phillips, 69, whose last known address was in Princeton, has turned up no clues. Phillips was last in phone contact with friends Aug. 23 and told them he was headed out to the Newsome Creek area about 50 miles east of Grangeville for camping and mining. Phillips was familiar with the area, Hewson said, having spent many years there.
The sheriff’s office first learned of the disappearance Sept. 7 when a friend of Phillips’ called to report him missing.
“The friend typically hears from Kelly,” Hewson said. But when he hadn’t heard from Phillips for a while, he became worried.
“He knew that Kelly was in poor health — very poor health — and had gone to (the Newsome Creek area) in a white Toyota pickup and a homemade camper to do some camping and mining. Kelly Phillips spent a lot of time in that country mining. And the friend thought it was strange he hadn’t heard from him. Because of (Phillips’s) poor health, he wanted the sheriff’s office to check on him.”
The Idaho County Posse was dispatched but turned up no leads in the Newsome Creek area. Searchers, however, discovered a vehicle matching the description of Phillips’ pickup truck with a camo camper shell parked alongside State Highway 14 near Fall Creek at milepost 35.2. A license check confirmed the vehicle belonged to Phillips.
Inside the cab was a notebook with a message from Phillips that he’d had mechanical problems. The pickup keys were underneath the notebook. There were no camping provisions, clothing, food or anything else in the truck, Hewson said, and the pull-along camper also was missing. Phillips’ friends told Hewson that Phillips had lived in his camper and it was well-provisioned for extended stays in the backcountry.
The sheriff’s office notified the public of the situation through social media. Another of Phillips’ friends from Genesee contacted the office and said Phillips had left his camper there on Aug. 18.
“Now we found the camper; we found the vehicle,” Hewson said. “Where is Kelly at?”
Searchers knew that Phillips had not gotten a ride somewhere with a passerby because nobody had contacted the office, despite the media attention.
Hewson said he started to get in touch with several of Phillips’ friends and family, some of whom lived in Pennsylvania.
“And I started finding out that Kelly’s health was very bad. Very, very bad, to where recently he wasn’t even able to eat because of these health conditions,” Hewson said.
“He had made comments to friends that the sand in his hourglass is running out. He made comments in letters to his family that he was done; he was at the end of his days. I had learned that Kelly had started giving his personal possessions away. Anything that meant anything to Kelly, he was starting to give it to friends.”
He also sent bits of gold that he’d found in Idaho to his grandson living in Pennsylvania as a birthday gift.
Hewson said it seemed clear that Phillips deliberately planned to disappear.
“His friends and family said Kelly loved that area; he’d been going up there for years. That was his favorite place in the world and that’s where Kelly would go to end things,” Hewson said.
Even so, the search continued. Sheriff’s deputies, posse and backcountry search and rescue units and dog teams joined the effort, covering a huge geographical stretch, but not a trace of the missing man could be found.
At one point, Hewson said, he considered calling up an additional canine search team but was told by someone who has a trap line in the area that a pack of about 26 wolves lives in the vicinity and that would pose a particular risk for dogs.
In connecting with Phillips’ friends and family, Hewson said he learned that the man was well liked and capable.
“He was a fabulous, very talented individual,” Hewson said. “One of those guys who could do anything. He didn’t have a house, but he had personal belongings, a 1991 Toyota pickup and a homemade camper, and he would spend all of his time in Forest Service campgrounds.”
Phillips’ brother, son and others asked Hewson, “‘Why do you still want to look for him? He didn’t want to be found.’ And my answer is: It’s his mom. I haven’t talked to his mom, but I just envision his mom, before she ends her days, wanting her son recovered. And that breaks my heart and that’s why we’ve searched as hard as we’ve searched for him.”
“They are all of this same consensus, that he’s where he wants to be. They appreciate the fact that we’ve tried to find him but they understand why we haven’t found him if he doesn’t want to be found, because of how well he knows that country.
“We are assuming that, based on the conversations with friends and family, that Kelly’s health was so poor, and even in his own words to his family in those letters, that he knew his condition was really going downhill. He knew that he was at the end of his road and he went to the place that he loved to probably end his life.”
Hewson said the investigation will continue for at least the time being. Phillips is described as 5 feet, 11 inches tall and weighing 170 pounds with green eyes and gray hair. Anyone with information about his whereabouts is asked to call the sheriff’s office at (208) 983-1100.
Hewson expressed his thanks to the Idaho County Sheriff’s Posse, Grangeville Mountain Rescue, Brandy Henson’s canine search team and Phillips’ “family and friends for insight they have given us into who Kelly is. We’re going to continue to search for him through search and rescue sources. There’s always that hope that somebody’s going to stumble on something and find him.”
Hedberg may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 983-2326.