May 5, 2008 - 12:58AMMesa family can’t fathom man’s vanishing
Gary Grado, Tribune
Shirley Tapley has a green, three-ring binder filled with notes, fliers and phone numbers. It’s an accumulation of some of the efforts the Mesa woman and her family have made in trying to find her 51-year-old son, Michael Tapley, who disappeared Feb. 15 after leaving work as a school bus driver in Snowflake.
Tapley’s granddaughter, Christine Tapley, and her fiance have logged hundreds of hours, thousands of miles and spoken with countless people searching in rural areas of Arizona and Missouri for clues to his mysterious disappearance.
“For probably two weeks I sat at this table with this book and this phone, calling people and taking calls,” said Shirley Tapley, the binder spread out before her.
The Navajo County Sheriff’s Office has stopped working on the case, even though it remains open. But the Tapleys haven’t ended their quest to find Michael.
The family believes foul play is involved because, they say, he isn’t impulsive or irresponsible and wouldn’t just walk away from a job, property and family.
“I hope he’s all right,” Shirley Tapley said. “I know Michael hasn’t just gone off someplace. He would know what we’re going through and he just wouldn’t do that to me.”
According to the Tapley family and the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office, Michael Tapley said goodbye to his co-workers on Feb. 15. intending to spend a three-day weekend scouting areas for a hunting trip.
He was living in a primitive cabin on a 40-acre parcel in Snowflake with his wife of 3½ years, Gina, 45.
The couple met on Tapley’s bus route in Chandler where he worked for Valley Metro. They were married in Las Vegas after a brief romance.
When Tapley didn’t show for work and didn’t call in on Feb. 19, his boss called the sheriff’s office to check on him. Then on Feb. 26, he called Shirley Tapley.
“He said, ‘I think something’s happened to Mike. He hasn’t been to work since the 15th,” Shirley Tapley said.
Gina was nowhere to be found either, but the sheriff’s office didn’t immediately get involved, Shirley Tapley said.
Her granddaughter, Christina Tapley, 25, and her fiance, Justin Day, 26, drove to Snowflake on Feb. 28 to distribute fliers and start asking around about them.
Christina Tapley knew her father was planning a hunting trip in the Winslow area, so they drove there and started checking backroads for his truck.
They came upon a closed road they knew he often used and, Day said, they found tire tracks going in, but none coming out.
They called the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office and “within 20 minutes they had a helicopter up,” Day said.
By that time, the Navajo County Sheriff’s Office had gotten involved and searched the property with dogs.
Authorities also sought the public’s help in finding the couple by issuing fliers and publicizing the case in the media and on Web sites.
On March 10, Gina Tapley pulled up to the Snowflake Police Department in a van. She told authorities the couple had been in Missouri and that she had dropped off her husband at a casino in Kansas City — but he wasn’t there when she went to pick him up.
Gina, now living in Chandler, couldn’t be reached for this story.
And Navajo County Sheriff Gary Butler did not return repeated messages seeking comment.
On March 9, Day and Christina headed to Raymore, Mo., a Kansas City suburb where Gina’s relatives live.
On their arrival, a librarian helped them gather a list of several possible addresses and they began knocking on doors.
At one house they heard a dog barking inside, but no one answered.
Later, they found Gina’s mother living there with Michael’s dog, a Labrador/German shepherd mix named Lady.
They questioned Gina’s family and neighbors, all of whom had seen Gina, but not Michael.
Then they got word that someone in Adrian, Mo., had Michael’s truck, which he prized, so they made the hour drive there.
Christina said she’s seen a note transferring the truck to the Adrian man. It was unsigned but had “Mike Tapley” printed at the bottom.
“I’ve taken a look at this note and it doesn’t look like it’s his,” Christina said.
They hadn’t been in town long before a sheriff’s detective called to ask them to pass out fliers in Wichita, Kan., in the area of an auto repair business where Gina last used her credit card.
They made the four-hour drive and met with Matt Caster, owner of the auto shop.
Caster said Gina was traveling with a dog and that she came in to repair her truck, saying she was on her way to visit her sick mother.
He said the truck’s cab and bed were so packed full with items there wouldn’t have been room for anyone else.
“We saw no one with her,” Caster said.
Day said police and the family also checked the casino where Gina said she dropped off Michael — there is no record he was there and he doesn’t appear on surveillance video.
Day said that since their return to the Valley, they have been back to Snowflake “too many times to count” to pass out fliers and question people.
“We go on until we find him,” Day said.