72 Hours in Buckeye, Arizona: The Search for Daniel Robinson

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  • Published on June 20, 2023
  • In Originals

Father searches for geologist Daniel Robinson, his son who has gone missing in Arizona. By Brooke Muckerman and Cela Migan

This one of several articles in a series about Daniel Robinson and missing persons in U.S. To learn more, read the Publisher’s Note.

Morning

Some 60 miles outside of Phoenix in the Sonoran desert, David Robinson moved briskly through a crowd of volunteers. The cold February morning brought an unwelcome cast over the eerie desert, while Robinson again donned his combat boots, camo fatigues, holstered firearm. By 7:45 a.m., he stood in front of over 100 volunteers issuing orders and dividing them into groups. His voice rang through the crowd as all attention was given to him with only the ATV motor roaring in the background. Soon, volunteers began fanning out across the desert on a special mission. While all were commissioned to complete separate tasks, they all had one goal: to find any sign of Daniel Robinson.


Video by Brooke Muckerman.

Daniel is David Robinson’s son. He went missing June 23, 2021. At the time, he was 24 years old working as a hydrogeologist when he disappeared from a desert work site in Buckeye, Arizona. A month later, his Jeep was found about four miles away from his worksite. The Blue 2017 Jeep Renegade sat overturned. Outside of the vehicle laid jeans, boots and his orange faded company vest. Speculations of his disappearance arose as more findings were uncovered. Buckeye PD downloaded the car’s airbag control module, but it was only after Robinson hired a private investigator that a report was given. The report the PI completed found that the car had been restarted numerous times after the airbags were deployed, and that the car crashed four hours after he was last seen alive.

Photo by Brooke Muckerman.

Robinson says he gradually lost confidence in the department’s investigation. In the early days of Daniels disappearance, he went to speak with members of the Buckeye PD. Larnell Farmer, the Vice President of the West Valley NAACP and now a member of David’s inner circle, joined him. In Larnell’s opinion, the meeting went horribly with officers explaining the various theories they had. Maybe Daniel hit his head, stripped and ran off into the desert, or, he ran off to join a monastery. At the conclusion of the meeting, Larnell said a detective walked outside to the duo and handed him evidence bags filled with the items found at the scene.

“They knew they messed up. David has the vehicle, David has all the evidence they said they found in the desert from the crash site,” Farmer said. “I know they messed up when they tried to get the stuff back from David.”

The bags were never returned. David said he did not know what to do with them once he received them and they are currently in storage. Buckeye PD said in an email that they did not ask for Daniel’s “personal property” back.

A U.S. Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan, Robinson is no stranger to the desert. The rugged terrain of the Sonoran desert unnerved some with its vast silence and stretch.

NaTyshca Pickett, a journalist located in Phoenix, first visited the desert to join one of Robinson’s searches in the beginnings of his mission to find his son. As she approached the search site, she noted the eeriness of the environment.

“When you see people driving in the desert in movies and you see nothing but the road? That’s what it was,” Pickett said.

The morning began hours before the crowd of volunteers arrived. David, along with his tight inner circle, whom he refers to as his “A–Team,” were the first to arrive in the desert. At around 6 a.m. David led the group down a sand paved road he found the night before. When they arrived at what would soon become the command center, the caravan of cars was parked neatly in a line as requested by David. His team set up tents and tables illuminated only by car headlights as the sun had yet to emerge. Snacks were displayed, and water bottles made their way into coolers. By 7:00 a.m., they were ready for the search to begin.

David Robinson spent much of the morning canvasing the desert on his ATV while a crew of supervising volunteers stayed back at the command center. His team was tasked with keeping searchers hydrated and fed, if someone needed help they were the first to respond. One member of the team rode on the ATV with David. Meanwhile, other volunteers trudged in neat lines back and forth across the desert. Occasionally, a distant shout would cut into the silence and the volunteers would stop. Someone found something. Not every hold or stop merited further investigation by a forensic team; there are animal bones scattered throughout the wilderness. Sometimes, volunteers would call out for a branch, confusing it with a bone. Other times, a nestle of bones would be bagged and shipped off to a testing site to confirm if they were human remains.

Noon

Noon in the Sonoran Desert. Photo by Brooke Muckerman

According to police reports, the last person to see Daniel Robinson was a co-worker. The morning of Daniels disappearance offers a few clues to his out of character behavior that have been reported. On Wednesday, June 23rd Daniel arrived at work at 9:00 a.m. according to a co-worker. The morning brought rain according to the police report, and the coworker said Daniel was saying things that did not make sense, like asking various times if he wanted to go and rest. After only 15 minutes, Daniel left. The coworker spoke with their supervisor, and noted Daniels’ odd temperament but continued working. At 3:00 p.m. the coworker was made aware that Daniel had not been located, nor was he responding to repeated calls and texts so they started to search for him. The coworker said that Daniels tire marks lead into “the extremely large desert.” Daniel was reported missing by his father that night.

Traversing the desert in his ATV, Robinson focused on mostly TK area, where Daniel had worked the day he disappeared. A bit more detail here.

“There are Black people who live here, there are areas and you see them but you don’t know them,” Johnson said.

At one of the searches Johnson attended, she said she encountered racism. Johnson was brought into the search by her friend Bari Barnes, another member of David’s team. While the two were searching, Johnson said she began to feel light headed. When she said this to Barns, a couple walking by who were also a part of the search stopped and said “You know if you pass out, we can just get the dog to drag you out,” Johnson said that was the last time her and Barns went and physically searched. Other members of the A-Team include Shauna Brown and Larnell Farmer. This tight-knit group formed because of the lack of help David was receiving. Barns is a former paralegal and currently an administrator at the ASU College of Law, tends to take on the legal aspect of the searches and Daniel’s missing persons case like requesting records and announcements on their websites. Johnson said she is the “activist” of the group, pulling people into searches and arranging “meet ups.” Farmer helps out on the policing side of things because of his former work as a Detective with the Waukegan Police Dept in Illinois. Brown categorizes herself as the “paperwork person,” others in the group joked about her organizational skills and how she has forced them to also be organized in their efforts.

Daniel Robinson was born without his lower right arm, but David said that did not stop him from becoming an overachiever. From academics to sports, Daniel always excelled. He competed fervently with his siblings, wanting to outperform all of them. Some naivety was shown when Daniel was in college, David said. At times, Daniel did not notice others being racist towards him. His college nickname was an acronym for “Without Papers,” a reference to enslaved persons who were caught without their freedom papers. In 2019, after graduating from University of Charleston, Daniel relocated to Buckeye; an adventurous, smart, and occasionally naïve young man, Robinson said. He found employment working as a geologist. Robinson and Daniel spoke regularly, he said, sometimes for hours as Daniel shared stories about his workday or sought advice about his career and personal life.

In the days leading up to his disappearance, he did mention to his father a woman he met one night when he delivered alcohol to her home and was invited to drink with her and a roommate. The woman explained that Daniel seemed nice, and harmless as he “only had one arm and was short in height” according to a police report. Daniel and the woman exchanged numbers, as she wanted to share a podcast with him. Over the next few days, Daniel began to show romantic interest in the woman and even showed up to her home unannounced despite repeated rejections. In text messages obtained by investigators, Daniel’s final message to her was ominous.

“The world can get better, but I’ll have to take all the time I can or we can, whatever to name it. I’ll either see you again or never see you again.”

Buckeye PD has not classified the exchanges as evidence in Daniel Robinson’s disappearance.

By 11:00 a.m. the volunteers had searched the area Robinson wanted to get done. Many were beaten from the early morning hike they embarked on, but some stayed later to do a second search. Concluding the search, the Arizona Rangers holstered their guns, the drone returned, and volunteers broke down the tents, leaving the desert once again barren.

Night

Sunset in the Sonoran Desert. Photo by Brooke Muckerman
David joined his close friends for a meal that night after the search. Afterward, he sat down and shared a story. His faith, a driving factor for the last two years, had been central in his life from an early age. When he was a child, he lived with his mother, his aunt, his sister and female cousin. They grew up poor in Columbia, South Carolina and many nights their stomachs went unfilled because money was tight. One night, after his mother called him in for dinner he saw all the fine china sprawled out on their kitchen table. The stove was hot, but there was no food, only boiling water. His mother filled the bowls with water, and told them to eat. Not wanting to make her feel worse for not being able to feed them, he obliged. As they began to spoon the water into their mouths, a knock came to the door.

When the door was opened, it was a stranger who stood in front of them with bags of groceries. The woman said to the family, “God put it in my heart to buy some groceries.” David said, there were so many groceries that they began to place them on the floor of the kitchen as there was no longer space on the counters. Faith, David said, is an action word, and you have to put your actions to your beliefs.

Since Daniel went missing David has searched over 3,500 acres of the desert with 49 weeks of searches, started a GoFundMe to support his efforts and created a community of people in Buckeye passionate about the search for his son. This search could be the last that can be completed on the stretch of the Sonoran Desert off Sun Valley Pkwy. David said in a text that depending on what was “found” during the February search, he could host others in the future. What once was vast expanses of desert now have been excavated and cleared, something David saw when he was last there. The land that once had small bouts of vegetation is now even more desolate than before. Construction trucks scatter the terrain preparing for the next real estate development. The area will be home to the newest planned community in Buckeye, featuring homes, stores among the backdrop of the picturesque desert. David still plans to search the area, and is hoping to host another search.

Detour investigates: Searching for Daniel Robinson

David’s relationship with this area is complex. It was also where he formed his own community and friends around the searches he put on. But, it is a place of much heartache. It was the last known location of his son. It was where human remains were found that were not Daniel’s.

David’s hope will always be that he finds his son alive. He said that no matter the best efforts, you cannot search the whole desert due to its extensive size. He wished that the search would have made it to the well where Daniel was last seen, but it did not. And with this possibly being the last search, he hopes that Daniel is not there.

David embarks on these searches with conflicted anticipation regarding what he will find. There is hope and dread associated with the implication of finding evidence that could relate to Daniel in the desert. It could provide a new lead, or indicate Daniel is gone for good.

For families of missing persons, the uncertainty and loss of a loved one with no verification of life or death plagues them, resulting in ambiguous loss, a term coined by Pauline Boss, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota.

To grapple with this loss, Boss teaches a Both/And approach for families of the missing where one considers possibilities in the wake of uncertainty: the loved one is missing and they may come back.

In embracing the uncertainty, they are able to entertain both possibilities instead of being at war between the two coming to terms with an absolute.

But David’s search for Daniel was not his last effort to find his son. He’s still pushing for another law enforcement entity, whether it be the FBI or Maricopa County, to take the case. He is organizing a letter protest, hoping to fill the mail boxes of both the Maricopa County and Buckeye PD and enact change.

If you have any information about Daniel Robinson’s case for the Buckeye Police Department please contact them at their tip line (623) 349-6411.

This story was produced by the following team members from the Lost in Buckeye investigation:

Brooke Muckerman, Reporter
Brooke Muckerman is a graduate from the University of Missouri Journalism School, where she studied print and digital journalism as well as political science. As a reporter for the Columbia Missourian, she was a City Government Reporter, Government Impact Reporter and a State Government Reporter. Outside of journalism, Brooke is a member of Kappa Delta Social Sorority. In her free time she enjoys swimming and spending time outside.

Cela Migan, Reporter, Social Media Coordinator
Cela Migan holds a degree in Journalism with an emphasis in social and audience strategy, as well as a minor in sociology. She has social media management experience with Inside Climate News, Vox Magazine and NBC News.

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