David Robinson’s back patio used to be his comfort zone, a haven from the PTSD he still suffers after his time in the Army. On June 23, 2021, though, that little slice of heaven in Columbia, South Carolina, was rife with anxiety and fear when his daughter called him to tell him that his 24-year-old son, Daniel, was missing.
The younger Robinson worked as a geologist for Matrix New World Engineering in Arizona, and was, in his father’s words “a scientist — a brilliant mind.” So David was more than a little concerned when his daughter told him that one of Daniel’s co-workers showed up at her apartment in Phoenix asking if she had seen her brother. According to a police report obtained by Rolling Stone, Daniel had shown up to his work site around nine that morning in Buckeye, Arizona, west of the White Tank Mountains, where a co-worker reported that he was acting strangely, staring into the distance and “talking about things that did not make sense.” After about 15 minutes, Daniel left and hasn’t been seen since.
At first, David tried to do his due diligence, dispatching his daughter to Daniel’s apartment and calling his son’s friends and cell phone. When he realized it had been six hours since Daniel had gone missing, though, “That’s when I got a little — a lot — worried,” he tells Rolling Stone. And when the cops didn’t seem to be moving as quickly as he would have liked, “That’s when I grabbed anything I could grab, threw it in my vehicle, and drove to Phoenix,” he says. Nearly six months later, David is still in Arizona — first camping out in hotel rooms, and now in a snug one bedroom apartment — burning through his retirement money and what were supposed to be his golden years scouring the desert for his son, and uncovering still more mysteries in the process.
The elder Robinson speaks of his son with obvious pride, flipping between present and past tense as if reluctant to believe that Daniel might be really gone. “Ever since he was a little boy he’s been a go-getter,” he says. “Anything that Daniel wants to do? He does it.” Although the boy was born without one forearm, he shunned prosthetics. “Some people look at him being born with one hand as a handicap,” David says. “Daniel taught me and his mother he was nowhere near handicapped.” Instead, Daniel threw himself into an array of interests — from musical instruments to football to weight-lifting. When he began attending the College of Charleston, he decided to study geology, joining a fraternity and graduating with honors. “He is out there, trying to expand his horizons,” David says. “He wants to go to different countries. He’s an entrepreneur. He wanted to start his own business. He has a lot of dreams and aspirations that he wants to do.”
It’s not hard to see where Daniel got that tenacity. Since his son’s disappearance, David has thrown himself into the search for him, setting up the Please Help Find Daniel Robinson website and organizing a total of 18 searches since last summer — despite coming to Arizona with barely any ties. What started out as a modest operation — 20 searchers at a time — has grown. According to David, he now commands a group of between 80 and 200 people per search, who use a mapping system to break the desert where Daniel was last seen into sectors. They’ve covered about 15 miles so far and won’t stop until the young man is found.
David took matters into his own hands after getting frustrated with the Buckeye Police. “I’m very much disappointed [with the police],” he says. “I just realized I was inadvertently working for the Buckeye Police Department. As a father, without the volunteers, I wouldn’t be able to do this at all. I’m a father out here, searching for my son and they did a total of four searches and they didn’t even come up with a construction cone.” Robinson says he previously relayed all his findings to the cops in real-time, but has stopped due to what he sees as the police’s lack of initiative. He points to the Gabby Petitio case as a prime example of police properly using their resources — namely calling in the FBI — and how her remains were discovered not long after she was reported missing. “I do not blame the Petito family. They have nothing to do with this. They lost a daughter. They have a young adult, same age group around my son, and they feel the same way,” he stresses. “All I’m saying is [the cops had the resources] there quickly. The Buckeye… it’s like they’re reluctant to use the resources.”
Buckeye’s Chief of Police Larry Hall declined to be interviewed for this story; instead, the department sent Rolling Stone the following statement and a partial police report: “Daniel’s disappearance is heartbreaking. I understand the fear and uncertainty his family feels with every passing day. Detectives with the Buckeye Police Department investigate every lead in this case. I urge anyone with information to call our tip line at (623) 349-6411. This investigation will remain open and active until we find Daniel.”
The police report does, in fact, reveal that officials conducted a handful of searches for Daniel — including the use of a helicopter — and that the young man was reported missing on June 23. It also digs into Daniel’s mental state before he went missing — including the fact that David noted that his son’s Instagram was scrubbed of posts before his disappearance. The report also lingers on Daniel’s reported fixation on a woman named Katelyn, to whom he delivered groceries while working a side gig for Instacart. His sister told cops that Daniel said he was in love with Katelyn and that she told him to listen to a podcast by spiritual teacher and self-help author Eckhart Tolle that “changed the way he looks at life,” according to the police report. “The podcast showed him how to view things in the world in a positive energy and to avoid negative energy.”
Katelyn, however, told police she had no relationship with Daniel — despite another friend of Daniel’s saying the missing man told him he “hooked up with one of the girls” he delivered to — and that she and a friend invited him to hang out because they were drunk and he seemed “harmless,” since he was short and only had one arm. Still, Katelyn told cops that Daniel began to get “creepy,” showing up at her house when she wasn’t there and texting her that he loved her. When she told him to stop bothering her, he texted her one last time, the day before he went missing: “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.”
The police report paints a picture of a young man scorned and perhaps depressed, a narrative David doesn’t recognize as fitting his go-getter son. His trust in the cops withered even more when David’s 2017 light blue Jeep Renegade was found by a local rancher three miles from his work site, what appeared to be his clothes on the ground next to it, his wallet and phone in the car. “They told me that he may have just wanted to leave his family, become a monk, join a monastery somewhere,” David says of the cops. “My son is a geologist. He’s a scientist. He has a brilliant mind. He’s not dumb enough not to take money or anything with him if he wanted to disappear.”
That’s when David enlisted the help of Jeff McGrath, a former cop and vehicular crimes investigator, to take a look at Daniel’s car. When McGrath saw a photo of the car, “it immediately struck me as odd,” he tells Rolling Stone, because he says the damage to the vehicle didn’t match the location it was found in, a desert ravine. According to the police report, the Jeep had suffered significant damage consistent with a front impact that caused it to roll. The front window was shattered, and there was “substantial damage” to the lower front, as well as the windshield and roof. McGrath was skeptical of the roll theory, though, and he obtained the car’s black box, which allowed him to ascertain that the car was going about 30 miles per hour before the airbags deployed. That sent up alarm bells for the PI, who used his own vehicle to see if that speed was possible in the rugged terrain. His experiment indicated that it was not — also, the car had traveled 11 miles after the airbags were deployed. “It just raised my suspicions even further that this vehicle, whether it was by Daniel or somebody else, was crashed somewhere else,” he says.
Police did their own investigation into the vehicle in November — months after McGrath’s — disputing his findings. The car attempted to drive up the other side of the ravine and rolled, their report concluded. And those extra 11 miles? “Similar discrepancies have been noted by Jeep dealership service departments and other crash reconstructionists,” the report read. McGrath isn’t buying it, though — and he’s frustrated, in particular, by the timing of the report. “What it says is that they hired an expert to rebut my findings, not really looking for what happened. That’s concerning,” he says. “They just don’t want to look bad.”
Moreover, McGrath claims that some of the most significant findings in the police report have been his and Daniel’s work — not Buckeye PD’S — including the discovery of human remains. The first, a skull, was discovered on July 31, near where Daniel’s Jeep was found. The medical examiner determined that it wasn’t Robinson’s, as it was significantly older than just a few months. On Nov. 6, David and McGrath’s search parties uncovered still more remains: two human femurs. Again, the medical examiner deduced that they were not Daniel’s, but McGrath says he has since been contacted by a woman who believes them to be her husband’s and is close to cracking that case. McGrath estimates that they have found at least four human remains found in their search, but can’t say if they belong to two or more people. “There had been other bones that we suspect were human; the medical examiners reviewed them,” he says. “Some of them, we haven’t received an answer on if they were or not. We just got information that it’s not Daniel.”
At the moment, the PI doesn’t think the remains are connected, but he’s not ruling out the possibility: “If we keep finding human remains out there and it’s all suspicious… We don’t have anything to tie it all together now, but we’re not saying that down the road we won’t find something that ties it together.”
Meanwhile, Robinson and McGrath are leaving no proverbial stone unturned. They’re taking tips from anyone who has them, including psychics; the femurs were found in an area one such medium said to search. McGrath has his theories about what happened to Daniel — that the avid marijuana user smoked a PCP-laced joint and crashed his car. That would explain his weird behavior before his disappearance. Or that he was simply tired after a long night of gaming — Daniel was building his own computer — and, bummed about being rejected by Katelyn, drove into the desert to rest, where he met “the wrong person.”
Robinson, though — holed up in his one-bedroom apartment, miles from home — knows one thing to be true: “I believe in my heart, I don’t believe that my son wanted to be away from his family. My theory is more geared toward somebody did something to my son or somebody knows what happened to my son and is not saying anything,” he says. “I don’t think my son wrecked his vehicle, got out on his own accord, took his clothes off, and just walked off and survived out there in the desert somewhere. You know, I don’t believe that.”
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