A Mother’s Search for Answers

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 15, 2014 19:01

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She has trooped through thickets of manzanita and poison oak, around junk cars, past piles of rotting garbage and into the rundown lairs of drug dealers, thugs and ex-cons living on civilization’s ragged edge.

For the better part of four years, this 54-year-old Sonora woman has been lied to, threatened and told to get lost by the denizens of these brush-choked, off-the-grid hovels in the hills and canyons northeast of Columbia.

But she and her husband have also collected nuggets of truth – and met caring people who helped along the way – in what has been an unrelenting quest for justice and closure.

“I just want to know where my son is and who is responsible for his death,” says Sandy Lee.

Darvis Lee Jr., her 36-year-old son, disappeared in October 2010. At first Sandy and Darvis Sr. figured he was visiting friends or on the road and would return any day to move into the Columbia rental home he had just found.

Darvie, as Sandy calls him, had only 17 days earlier come back to Tuolumne County from Oregon, where his marriage had gone bad. He had signed up for online college classes and seemed happy to be home with his parents.

Sandy and Darvis Sr. were wed in 1978. Darvie, 3, and Kristie, 6, his children by a previous marriage, were part of the package. Sandy, then 18, “loved the kids right away” and adoption followed.

She remained extremely close to her son as he grew up, and they exchanged phone calls several times a week. That’s why she became anxious when nearly a week passed in 2010 without word from her son. Her worry only increased when Darvie’s acquaintances, seeming evasive and secretive, said they knew little or nothing.

So on Oct. 24, Sandy called the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office to report her son missing. “With that call came the realization that something was terribly wrong,” she says.

The phone call is detailed in the second chapter of No Unturned Stone – A Mother’s Quest. In the more than 300 pages that follow, Sandy Lee talks to scores of people, pursues dozens of leads, and ventures into the region’s hidden and dangerous drug culture. It’s a world, sadly, where Darvie spent his last hours.

Forty-three chapters later, Sandy Lee’s harrowing tale – she worked with the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office on the still-active investigation, unearthing more than a few productive leads on her own – ends without the answers she still needs.

“I pray that someone reading this will know the truth and come forward once and for all,” her book concludes. “Perhaps it’s you.”

“I’m praying for loose lips,” Lee confirms from her home. “Somebody out there knows something and may realize it’s time to do the right thing.”

FN00189-darvis-mug-editedBut a book?

“I had to write it,” she says. “It’s been an unbelievable nightmare.”

The Sheriff’s Office isn’t yet calling Darvis Jr.’s death a murder, but the discovery of his partial jawbone in a brush-choked canyon in early 2011 leads to that almost inescapable conclusion.

“We suspect foul play,” says Tuolumne County Sheriff Jim Mele, “but nothing we have found so far tells us how he died.”

“It’s not like he went missing and just disappeared,” adds Sandy Lee. “Something terrible happened to him.”

Last year she took a friend’s advice and started to write as a way to deal with her stress.

“Once I started, I couldn’t stop,” she says. “It’s like I had a photographic memory for dates and details. It all just came out.”

Not only is it a scarcely believable tale of a mother and father’s dogged search for the truth, she says, “but it’s a whodunit. It’s a story that needs to be told.”

Part of the story is that Darvie was no stranger to the Mother Lode drug culture. He dropped out of high school in the early 1990s and began experimenting with drugs, including methamphetamine. Sandy says he would quit for a while but always returned to his addiction.

“If only no one had introduced him to drugs,” laments Lee in her book. “If only he hadn’t taken the bait they offered so freely.”

Once, after his parents found him unconscious in his nearby travel trailer, Darvie was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where a doctor warned that if he didn’t quit drugs he would be paralyzed within a year. He did stop, but later became addicted to prescription painkillers and tried rehab without success.

It took a 100-foot fall down a mineshaft six years ago to awaken Darvis Lee Jr.

In October 2008, while exploring an abandoned gold mine in the Sonora area, he fell into a hidden vertical tunnel and landed in an ice-cold pool of water. His plight soon made headlines statewide. More than 30 hours later, as TV cameras whirred, a rescue team pulled Darvie to safety and a joyous reunion with his parents.

“I was pretty sure I was going to die down there,” he said later.

The near-death experience prompted him to reevaluate his life and take a turn for the better. He quit drugs, married, moved to Oregon and began taking college classes with the goal of becoming an X-ray technician.

“I had no intent of getting back on the road I had been on,” Darvis Jr. told a reporter at the time.

Darvis-LeeFN00226But an episode from his distant past may have made that difficult. In 1986, when he was 11, three men forced Darvie into a pickup truck near the family’s Jamestown home and drove away with him. Several hours later they released the boy, fled, and despite a sheriff’s investigation, were never apprehended.

“I never found out exactly what happened,” admits Sandy. But she suspects from her young son’s accounts of that “horrible” evening that he was molested.

“I know Darvie never got over what happened to him that night … Who could?” she writes. “What they did to him eventually messed his life up tremendously.”

Were drugs an escape, and were the hazards of addiction inescapable? The thought crossed Sandy Lee’s mind in October 2010. As weeks passed with no sign of her missing son, it became obvious that he had fallen back in with a dangerous, lawless crowd.

No Unturned Stone details her quest, day by heartbreaking day. As the story unfolds, a cast of ne’er-do-wells, repeat offenders, drug dealers, fugitives and even devil worshipers emerges from the shadows.

Sandy Lee, with a seeming disregard for her own safety, has questioned nearly 200 people. Most of them, you might say, were not in her social circle.

“I was way out of my element,” Lee concedes. “I went where angels have never trod. I heard unspeakable things. I was told of Hell’s Angels and drug cartel operators. But I wasn’t scared – finding out what happened to my son trumped all that.”

A moment later, however, she remembers going off on her own to question a man who reportedly knew something about Darvie’s demise. She entered his ramshackle house through a garage door, which was immediately shut behind her. She had no idea how she might get out.

The bedroom, where a curt discussion took place, had some unusual décor: a hangman’s noose dangling from the ceiling. “It was about then I thought that, yes, I should have told my husband where I was going,” recalls Sandy.

“My wife has gone to places and talked to people I would have locked her up to keep her away from,” says Darvis Sr., shaking his head.

Like the guy who told her to quit asking questions.

“People don’t really like you snooping around,” the man told her. “You should watch out so nothing happens to you. I’m sure your husband wouldn’t want to lose a wife.”

Throughout her quest, images of a devoted, loving son kept Sandy going.

“Darvie was a very caring little boy,” she remembers in her book. “He liked to curl up in my arms, and boy did I love kissing his soft little forehead each night as I tucked him in bed.”

Even during his later, more troubled years, she adds, “Darvie always had a love for me that gave me no doubt how special I was to him. He truly was my biggest fan.”

That, she says, is what keeps her going amid the lies and unanswered questions. And she does so while working as a part-time caregiver for the elderly.

“Sandy has the determination, faith and strength to continue,” says Darvis Sr. “I’m so proud of her. There’s no way I could have written a book about this – it’s all in my head, and I don’t want to relive it – but I’m with her 100 percent.”

The Lees, says Sheriff Mele, “have done everything to help us and have never done anything to hamper the investigation. They’ve come up with some key evidence, which we appreciate.”

It hasn’t been easy.

“I’ve talked to people I’ve trusted, people I’ve heard may know something,” Sandy Lee says. “But when I reach them, they tell me they know nothing.

“Some people give me information, but when I have questions, they don’t call back.

“Other people have told me things, but add that they will deny everything if anyone else asks. I’ve heard a lot of horrible stories and would think, ‘Well, thank God all these stories can’t be true, because they contradict each other.’

“Some people have told me they know everything, but just can’t remember the names.

“We had trouble keeping track of all the people we couldn’t trust.”

But Lee says she is not discouraged, noting, “There is some truth in every lie.”

Some leads did pan out. A woman in late 2010 led Sandy, Darvis Sr. and a sheriff’s detective to an isolated, brush-choked mining claim miles from the nearest paved road. On its locked gate, in foot-high letters, were the words “Keep the F— Out,” “You Will Hurt,” and “You Will Bleed.”

Worse than that, she says, was what she saw hanging on the gate: a pair of work boots Darvie had bought just days before he disappeared.

That night and in the days that followed, his jeans – with car keys in the pocket – as well as his shirt, sweatshirt and socks were found along the steep, downhill dirt road leading to several mines on the property. The boots and jeans were riddled with bullet holes, Lee writes.

Despite these discoveries, Sandy held out hope that her son could be alive and somewhere nearby. That hope was dashed in a January 2011 community search in the canyon below the mine property. “We found something!” came a friend’s cry from down a steep, brushy slope.

It was a jawbone without teeth – which, because Darvie wore dentures, almost surely was his. Dental records later confirmed it.

“Our hearts were absolutely broken,” Sandy writes. “Our son was really gone and he wasn’t coming back.”

Which didn’t mean their mission was over.

Lee suspects a man said to have taken Darvie to the mining claim shortly before his disappearance may have killed him. Alas, that man later died in prison.

The mining-claim owner told sheriff’s deputies he found the boots on his land and had posted the signs, aimed at keeping trespassers away, weeks before Darvis Lee Jr. disappeared.

Yet Sandy Lee insists the full story has yet to be told. Yes, Darvie’s jawbone, boots and clothes have been found, “but we still don’t really know what happened,” she says. “None of this means he’s not buried somewhere.”

Officially, the case remains open. “But at this point, we’ve pursued all the leads and talked to all the persons of interest,” says Mele. “Until some new leads come up, there’s not a lot we can do.”

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Darvis Lee, Sr. and wife Sandy want to know who killed their son

Sandy Lee is determined to find those new leads and credits her faith for helping her through this horrific ordeal.

How long can she carry on?  The now-retired sheriff’s detective first assigned to the case, she says, suggested about a year ago that she abandon her marathon quest.  “He said Darvie wouldn’t want me to keep searching and not have any peace in my life.”

Sandy’s response? She and her husband hiked the reward for information leading them to their son’s remains from $25,000 to $50,000.

“I know Darvie, and this is what he’d want me to do,” she says. “I’d rather hear the truth, as horrible as it might be, than not know what happened.”

Anyone with information in this case is asked to call the Sheriff’s Office non-emergency line, (209) 533-5815. Callers may remain anonymous.

Sandy Lee has released her book through her website, amothersquest.com. “Part of the proceeds of every book sold,” she says, “will go toward scholarships at our local high school for students interested in studying criminal justice or forensic science.”

Copyright © 2014 Friends and Neighbors Magazine
Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman September 15, 2014 19:01
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