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Years after disappearing, missing son heading home

Charles Daniel Samek celebrates one of his last birthdays with a cake his mother bought him. “No matter how far he traveled, he always tried to get back home to celebrate holidays and birthdays with us,” his mother said. (Courtesy of Betty Samek)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nearly four years ago, Mary “Betty” Samek said goodbye again to her son and tried not to worry – again – about his chosen life on the road.

She was used to seeing him go, pack on his back, thumb in the air, caution well into the wind.

But Charles Daniel Samek – Danny to her – was 65, many years from his youthful days when her popular, proud Southern son dazzled people with his intellect. He had been a National Merit Scholarship recipient, a gifted pianist and a Boy Scout.

But now cataracts and time had left him legally blind. His body was weary and bloated. His mind was still sharp but sapped by schizophrenia, which sometimes made him paranoid, agitated, unable to stay in one place doing one thing for too long.

It’s one reason that he hitchhiked, that he kept on moving from place to place, that his mother kept saying goodbye.

“He was a very different person,” she said. “He was a sensitive person, a brilliant person, and yet he had a temper. But I loved him, and he loved us. And even though he kept leaving, he always made sure to come back to us for birthdays and holidays. He always called.”

Photos of items found at the scene where Charles Daniel Samek is believed to have died include images of a skull and copies of official documents bearing his name. (Courtesy of Betty Samek)

But that day in August 2014, as he embarked on his journey from her home in Albuquerque to Moab, Utah, she could feel in her bones that this goodbye was different. This goodbye, she feared, was for good.

She was right.

I introduced you to the Sameks in a column published Oct. 15, 2014, two months after Danny disappeared. Authorities had been of little help to his mom. He was a vagabond, they said, an adult who could make up his own mind whether to travel or phone home or stay gone.

One of Charles Daniel Samek’s favorite photos of himself was taken at the Coolidge Dam in southern Arizona. Samek often hitchhiked across the Southwest. (Courtesy of Betty Samek)

A column, she thought, could help spread the word that he was missing.

What we knew was that Danny had been traveling with a young man, a Hopi artist with dark hair, who could neither be identified nor found. He had last used his ATM card Aug. 30, 2014, in Farmington, where he had also called his mother.

A few readers believed they saw him back then, walking along U.S. 191, the road to Moab, in southeastern Utah.

But none of the tips led anywhere.

Then, this January, highway crews cleaning a stretch of U.S. 191 about 15 miles north of the Arizona line found a human skull, bleached white by the sun and caked with red earth, about 12 feet from the western edge of the road.

Nearby was a jawbone embedded with wire, two empty bottles of Coors Light, clothing remnants, the scorched ground of a small campfire, Bugler tobacco, a plastic travel toothbrush, a Smith’s grocery card and old papers.

Among the items released to the family of Charles Daniel Samek by Utah authorities were photos of the articles found at the scene off U.S. 191 where it is believed he died. (Joline Gutierrez Krueger/Albuquerque Journal)

The papers bore the name Charles Daniel Samek.

Albuquerque police officers and a chaplain showed up at Betty Samek’s home with the news.

“Only they weren’t sure it was him,” she said. “But I suspected it was.”

Nancy Sutton, Danny’s sister, suspected it was, too. She had seen her older, only sibling in dreams, sometimes as a murky shadow, sometimes as his jovial, ponytailed self.

“One night that September, after he went missing, I stood outside, stared at the stars and shouted, ‘Brother, where are you?’ ” she said. “And I had this feeling that this was the night he died.”

In April, members of the Samek family traveled to the spot along the lonely stretch of sandstone and sagebrush on U.S. 191 where the remains were found.

Sutton felt the soft dirt beneath her and imagined her brother lying there comfortably, warmed by a campfire, enjoying a couple of beers and staring out at the stars sparkling above.

“He would have loved that,” she said. “I imagine him out there looking at the stars when natural causes took him. Maybe his heart just gave out.”

That’s how they’d like to think it ended – peacefully, painlessly, out there among the stars.

Detective John Laws of the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office, the Utah agency that assumed jurisdiction of the case, said dental records were used to confirm that the remains were Danny’s. Confirmation was completed June 15, he said.

The wire jutting from the jawbone was a substantive clue – years before, Danny’s jaw was wired after being injured in a brawl.

Cremation is expected to take place July 20 in Salt Lake City. The family has planned a celebration of life for July 25, his birthday.

Betty Samek said she is thankful for those who comforted her through the long, grueling years of not knowing the whereabouts of her wandering son.

And, yes, many questions may never be answered, but she knows now that Danny is coming home. His journey is at its end, and so, too, will be her goodbyes.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg

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