Trail of Questions: A University of Idaho freshman wanders out of town and never returns

A trail of missed opportunities leads to a student's death



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Duke says deputies tracked Wiederrick's footprints up and over a snowy hill as he crossed through several wide fields on the outskirts of Moscow. He continued east through ankle-deep snow, away from the city.

"He walked quite a distance in snow," Duke says. "If you consider that all he had were Vans [shoes] on, then they were probably frozen [early] into his walk because he covered several miles in anywhere from 4 to 6 inches of snow."

Eventually, Wiederrick ran into Darby Road, northeast of the city, and appears to have returned to the pavement. Investigators found his footprints leading to a nearby house, but he either did not knock or no one heard him.

Signs indicate Wiederrick turned back west toward town. He followed Darby Road until it ends in a T-intersection with Mountain View Road. At this point, Wiederrick had wandered for nearly four hours. The temperature sat near 21 degrees. His shoes were frozen or packed with snow. The cold was likely taking hold of him.

As Wiederrick came to the intersection, he faced two distinct directions. To the south, he should have been able to see the city lights of Moscow. To the north, nothing but empty fields and the jagged outline of black mountains.

He turned north.

Paradise Creek, a slow, twisting stream, flows from its headwaters on Moscow Mountain down through the low, rolling pastureland outside the city. Little more than a weed-choked irrigation ditch in spots, the creek winds back and forth, skirting Mountain View Road, crossing the road under a small bridge before continuing to the Snake River.

Wiederrick appears to have followed Mountain View Road for more than a mile before breaking off to approach a farmhouse at about 4 a.m. Investigators say his tracks indicate he walked around the home, trying to get in or get someone's attention.

A woman answered the door and asked Wiederrick if he was OK, Duke says. Since the woman was alone, she asked him to seek help from the family across the street. When contacted later by a reporter, the woman confirms the encounter, but says the details are too difficult to discuss.

She says she watched Wiederrick head across the street toward the neighbor's house and returned to bed.

Allison Ryan, who lives across the street, says Wiederrick never came to her door. His tracks circle up around the back of the house, but never approach the porch. The family dog barked, she says, but they did not know anyone might be in need of help.

"We never heard him," Ryan says. "That's what I'm devastated about. He would have been welcome."

Investigators say his footprints cross the field behind their house and jump a fence. He then crossed the frozen surface of Paradise Creek as he curved back toward the road.

"The trail around the house he walked in circles," Duke says. "They weren't straight tracks."

As he tried to cross the creek a second time, he slipped and fell, Duke says. He appears to have hit his head on the ice. Snow and water soaked his clothes. He pulled himself up under the small bridge nearby, seeking shelter below the road.

Investigators believe Wiederrick tried to call a second friend at about 4:30 a.m. The friend did not hear the phone, and Wiederrick did not leave a message. Tired and cold, he lay down.

When Wiederrick's roommate woke up alone Sunday afternoon, he quickly reported his childhood friend missing. Police launched a search that same afternoon. Officers and deputies scoured campus. News reports broadcasted photos of the wavy-haired blond teen.

Authorities found Wiederrick's footprints in the snow late Sunday and followed them to Darby Road. Early the next morning, the Latah County Search and Rescue Council arrived with trackers, horse-mounted searchers and a rescue helicopter out of Fairchild Air Force Base.

Noticing the commotion, Ryan and her son decided to check their property, she says. Her son soon found Wiederrick under the bridge just as searchers closed in on the location at about 4 pm on Jan. 21.

"It's so sad," she says. "We're grieving. We're just devastated."

The Latah County Coroner later conducted an autopsy, concluding hypothermia contributed to Wiederrick's death. Duke says toxicology reports will take another two or three weeks.

Wiederrick's parents rushed to Moscow during the search. They watched with hope as officers, horsemen and helicopters combed the fields. Afterward, they stayed to collect his things, questioning how their son's life slipped through so many fingers.

"He'd been in contact with other people that night and I don't think they did the right thing," Bob Wiederrick says later. "That's been one of the distressing things for us. People need to watch out for each other."

The University of Idaho issued a statement of condolence. The national office of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity pledged to look into the circumstances leading to Wiederrick's disappearance.

His family takes some solace in the quick resolution, a small measure of closure. They hold tight to the memory of their outgoing son and brother, a dreamer of skyscrapers.

"We have no regrets," the father says. "He knew he was loved and he had a good life."

He pauses.

"Even though it was short."

In the fields along Mountain View Road, footprints still stitch the snow. The banks of Paradise Creek lie broken and trampled by searchers. But a few fresh tracks have appeared by the roadside, leaving flowers at the bridge over the frozen stream.

Editor's Note: A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of the Pacific Northwest Inlander.


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