Local News

Saturday, Dec 01 2012 11:27 AM

Family grateful as search for long-missing Kernville man continues

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    By Courtesy Becky Miller

    John and Priscilla Fowler in Kernville in 2007.

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BY CHRISTINE BEDELL Californian government editor cbedell@bakersfield.com

John and Priscilla Fowler, married for more than 60 years, were an adventurous couple, frequently moving around the country -- including back and forth between Hawaii and the mainland -- making films, enjoying the outdoors and finding various ways to earn a living.

And except for those brief times when John was traveling alone, they were inseparable.

That is until April, when John, 84 and battling early dementia and diabetes, left the couple's home in Kernville bound for the nearby post office and was never heard from by Priscilla again.

Kern County Sheriff's Department search and rescue teams have been periodically but faithfully searching for Fowler ever since, including on Saturday.

Starting at about 7 a.m., 70 volunteers began combing the area where Fowler was last seen, deploying mounted, boat and K-9 teams as well as ground searchers. They scoured a mountainous area north of Kernville and along area roadways.

Fowler's family appreciates it.

"It really makes you feel wonderful to know someone cares," said the Fowlers' daughter, Becky Miller of Laguna Beach, to whom Priscilla referred a reporter's call.

On the morning of April 20, a Friday, John called out to Priscilla, who was in another room, that he was going to the post office, Miller said.

She said she heard that someone did talk to Fowler at the post office and that others saw him up on Burlando Road, by the Kern River. Those people asked Fowler if he was OK, Miller said, and he replied yes.

It was hot that day, so maybe Fowler went to the water to cool off, Miller surmised, and maybe he suffered heatstroke.

It was -- and still is -- a hard time.

A few days after her husband went missing, Priscilla fell and broke her hip, Miller said, and for a month had to stay at a facility. Priscilla hated that, her daughter said.

"She kept thinking he might come knocking at the door," Miller said.

But he never did.

John Fowler grew up in Depression-era Los Angeles and got to know Kernville as a boy. He loved it. After a stint in the Navy -- he and his twin brother joined at 17 ready, if necessary, to invade Japan -- Fowler returned there and worked for the volunteer fire department.

After rejoining his family in Montana, and while as a summer lifeguard, he met Priscilla, who was working in a flower shop. They married, settled in San Clemente, and had Miller and her brother. Miller described her dad as fun-loving, optimistic and always helping somebody.

Fowler was a mail carrier for 11 years then worked as a filmmaker and film lecturer, traveling a lot. About seven years ago, he and Priscilla moved to Kernville.

When Fowler first went missing, Miller was there to help. She, her mom and son scouted out the areas where he might have gone. Since then the family has left the work to the experts, who have sophisticated grid methods and can get to areas the family cannot, Miller said.

Miller visits her mom regularly, though.

"She's been pretty strong," Miller said. "But when you depend on someone for so long and suddenly he's not there -- it's hard."

The leader of Saturday's search-and-rescue effort was out of cell phone range and therefore unavailable to talk about it, sheriff's officials said.

But former Kern County Sheriff Carl Sparks, who led sheriff's search and rescue as a lieutenant for 10 years, explained why the largely volunteer group spends so much personal time looking for people it doesn't even know.

"They do it because it's worthwhile," Sparks said, getting emotional at times. "And the guys need that, they need to do something that's worthwhile."

And when they've met the victim's family -- and if they're caring people -- "that's another drive," Sparks said.

"The families can't move on if there's no body," he added. So the searchers think, "'We gotta find the body for the family.'"

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