In 1996 Dr. Carlos Sanchez Ortiz de Salazar vanished without a trace from the place where he lived in Cazalla de la Sierra, Spain. The disappearance would remain a mystery for decades. But then, twenty years later and hundreds of miles away, mushroom pickers exploring some woods in Italy made an unexpected discovery. Yes, though the foragers were looking for fungi, they instead stumbled upon something truly startling: a link to the doctor who had gone missing two decades prior.
A representative of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, Todd Matthews, told USA Today that there are up to 90,000 individuals missing in the United States on any particular day. Of that number, people who are over the age of 18 make up about 60 percent. The rest of the country’s missing people are children.
Why might these people vanish? Well, for a myriad of reasons. For example, some individuals may experience mental illness and memory loss, leading them to get lost if they forget who they are, where they live or other important details about themselves. Others might walk away from domestic abuse or simply hope to take on new identities elsewhere.
And people from all walks of life can be affected. For instance, none other than Olivia Newton-John has first-hand experience of someone in her life going missing. The actress and singer has been in the public eye since 1971 – the year that saw the release of her debut solo album, If Not For You. Then came her breakthrough role in the 1978 movie Grease, in which she played John Travolta’s love interest, Sandy Olsson.
But in 2005 Newton-John made headlines for something other than her musical and on-screen talents. You see, during the summer of that year, her boyfriend of nearly ten years, Patrick McDermott, suddenly disappeared. The 48-year-old cameraman had gone on an overnight fishing expedition on June 30 – but he had never come home.
About a week after that, McDermott’s family discovered that his vehicle was sat in the parking area of the San Pedro, California, harbor from which his fishing expedition had departed. On August 10 the police subsequently reached out to the public for any clues. Then the authorities took to the water to search for him.
The Coast Guard could not find McDermott’s body, though, and so three years after his initial disappearance, they concluded that he had probably drowned. However, as time went on, more details about the cameraman’s personal life began to emerge. And the information made people wonder as to whether he had died – or disappeared on purpose.
One of the strange points surrounding the case was that McDermott had gone on the fishing expedition with more than 20 other people – but that none of them had witnessed him falling overboard. Adding further intrigue was the fact that McDermott had an outstanding debt of $8,000 in child maintenance, which was due to be paid to his former spouse, Yvette Nipar. And in the event of McDermott dying, a life insurance policy would, furthermore, funnel $100,000 to their son, Chance.
By 2010 the story had gained so much buzz that the producers of TV show Dateline NBC decided that they would try to figure out what had happened to McDermott. The show therefore hired some private investigators, who began their search for the missing man using his given name, Patrick Kim. What’s more, the investigators claimed to get a hit.
You see, the Dateline team supposedly found McDermott living on Mexico’s Pacific Coast in the Puerto Vallarta locale. They claimed that, as suspected, the missing man had been using his given name. And according to the TV show’s principal investigator, Philip Klein, McDermott had apparently told his lawyers that he had a message to share with the world.
“Mr. McDermott’s wishes, according to his counsel, is not to be ‘hounded’ any longer by investigators or the media,” Klein said at a press conference. Yet McDermott’s ex-wife, Nipar, held a completely different opinion. She believed, quite to the contrary, that her former husband had met his end on the fishing trip.
And when lead investigator Klein wrote a book about McDermott’s disappearance called Lost At Sea, Nipar penned a note to Amazon’s chief exec, Jeff Bezos, asking him to remove the book from the online store’s inventory. According to Australian news and entertainment site PerthNow, Nipar alleged that Klein was “simply looking to be famous at the expense of an unfortunate tragedy.”
With that, the investigation into McDermott then quietened down – but only temporarily. In 2016, you see, the Australian magazine Women’s Day decided to take a stab at the story. The publication’s investigator allegedly found that McDermott was living in Sayulita, Mexico, with a new lover. As the sleuth put it, “Patrick’s probably now working in the yachting industry for a high-profile family down there.”
With a spotlight back on the case, Newton-John then spoke out about her former boyfriend’s disappearance. It was clear, too, that the actress had moved on in the meantime; after all, she had tied the knot with John Easterling in 2008. But even so, Newton-John stressed that she had grieved for McDermott and that his vanishing had greatly impacted her.
Yet by the time the investigators had supposedly pinpointed McDermott’s location in Mexico, Newton-John said that she had come to terms with the fact that her former boyfriend may have disappeared by his own volition. “I mean, it’s human to wonder. But, you know… those are the things in life you have to accept and let go,” she told 60 Minutes Australia.
In 2018 Australian weekly New Idea released a long-awaited photo allegedly showing McDermott in his adopted home village of Sayulita. The publication claimed that the picture proved he had fabricated his own death. But there was one problem: the image actually showed Wes Stobbe – a Canadian bar owner who was building a house in the same Mexican village.
Stobbe told the Brandon Sun that he “burst out laughing when [he] looked” at the picture of himself in the tabloid. He and his wife also apparently chuckled at the fact that the newspaper contended that his wife was actually McDermott’s “German lover.” Of course, though, none of it, supposedly, was true.
According to some who spend time in Sayulita, the local people don’t care much about the hype surrounding McDermott’s disappearance, either. So, there may never be answers to the question of whether or not he’s there. As Stefan Brown, a Coloradan who passes the winters in Mexico, informed The Daily Beast, “The locals never were into the story… Life just goes on without much fanfare.”
Sometimes, however, families and loved ones of missing persons do, in fact, get some answers. Back in 1996 Carlos Sanchez Ortiz de Salazar was a 26-year-old doctor who had read psychology along with medicine. He spoke multiple languages, and it may well have seemed as though he had a bright future ahead of him.
The mayor of Sanchez’s town, Cazalla de la Sierra in Spain, described the then-26-year-old as “studious.” As Sotero Martín told La Razón, “Although [Sanchez] was quite introverted, he was very polite and responsible.” Yet it seems that the young doctor also had a more troubled side; he had apparently been dealing with acute depression at the time of his sudden disappearance.
Martín said, “[Sanchez] left behind friends and fellow students.” Naturally, of course, the disappearance of the doctor also affected his family – who grieved the sudden loss of their son and brother. Yet by 2010 the members of Sanchez’s family had apparently lost any hope that he would return home. And, indeed, in that same year the authorities in Spain announced that he was “presumed dead.”
But the story didn’t end there. Five years after the declaration of Sanchez’s death, a development in the case took place across the Mediterranean Sea. In Italy, where this new incident occurred, the population is particularly focused into urban centers. More rural areas, meanwhile, are often left behind. And as a result, the level of forested areas in these rural parts has been on the rise.
In fact, by 2014 at least a third of the country was covered in trees, according to a National Inventory of Forests report. And parts of the Maremma region – which straddles the southern side of Tuscany – make up a portion of this overall figure. In Maremma, the thick foliage as well as hilly landscape help create a great habitat for wild boar and deer.
And this region’s forests also harbor the promise of finding fungi. Foragers therefore often read up on the types of mushrooms that they can safely eat before heading to a given forest to pick them. And it was just such a pursuit that led a pair of mushroom pickers to visit the Tuscan woodlands in November 2015.
According to news network The Local Spain, the Italian pair had headed to the woods after a couple of days of heavy rainfall. But they had little luck in finding mushrooms – on the designated footpath, at least. So, the foragers split off from the trail. And it was there, off the beaten path, that they discovered plastic bottles and other trash strewn about.
The mushroom pickers then followed the trail of trash until they found something unexpected: a makeshift camp. Someone had hung up cans to catch rainwater alongside a tarp to provide shelter. Then, the foragers saw the person who was living there – and he had “a dirty face and large beard,” according to The Local.
The sight of the man apparently struck fear into the foragers, as it was enough to make them run away. Later, however, they came back with a forest ranger. At this point, it seems that the man approached and greeted the group. And he reportedly said, “I’m Spanish, my name is Carlos, and I’ve been living here since 1997.” Yes, the man was, it appears, the missing doctor in our story.
How someone could have survived in the woods for nearly two decades – as he reportedly said he had – remained unclear. Some, though, have theorized that he gathered the materials for his shelter from Tuscan beaches, which lie about an hour away from the spot in the woods that he called home. He might also, it’s believed, have foraged and raided trash cans in nearby towns after nightfall.
“I don’t want to live among people,” the man reportedly said upon being discovered. “Now that you have found me, I need to get out of here.” Fortunately, though, the park ranger and the foragers asked him if he could substantiate what he was saying. And it seems that the man then whipped out his tattered old passport. The name on the forms of identification? Carlos Sanchez Ortiz de Salazar.
Now, although Sanchez had supposedly vowed to leave the area, the mushroom pickers did have the idea to snap photos of his forms of I.D. With the pictures, they could, after all, alert the authorities as to whom they had apparently just seen and where. So, soon afterward, the responding organizations tracked down Sanchez’s family.
After learning the news, Sanchez’s relatives made the trip from Spain to Italy to try and find their long-lost brother and son – who, if it was indeed him, would have been 45 at the time he was found. Sanchez’s then-65-year-old mother, Amelia, felt ecstatic when she heard the news. She told the Italian press, “It was as if our son had been born again.”
Amelia knew, however, that finding her son did not mean that he would necessarily come home or even want a relationship with his family. She said, “He’s alive, and that is the important thing. We will respect his wishes and his freedom, but we won’t go home until we have at least given him a hug, even for a few moments.”
Meanwhile, Sanchez’s sister Olga took to Twitter to express her gratitude for the new break in her brother’s case. She wrote, “Thank you for having given us this new hope, which alleviates the tremendous drama that we have had to endure.” And with that, the search for Sanchez started afresh.
A search team formed to scour the area where the mushroom pickers had reportedly seen the missing man, and Sanchez’s parents soon linked up with them. However, it seemed as if the hermit had stayed true to his promise and shifted his camp elsewhere. There was no sign of him in the Tuscan woods.
According to The Local Italy, the man’s camp location lay somewhere between the settlements of Cala Violina and Scarlino. Marcello Stella served as the mayor of the latter town, and he told The Telegraph, “We checked the place where he had his shelter, but there was no trace of it any longer. Who knows where he might be now.”
All the search party did discover was an enormous pile of trash. The old plastic bottles, tarp, shoes, buckets, umbrellas and jerry cans did, indeed, seem to prove that someone had set up a makeshift camp. But whoever it was had left the area without a clue as to his new whereabouts, and so the local authorities soon decided to abandon their search.
Mayor Stella promised that he and others would be diligent, though, even if the formal search had ended. He told Il Tirreno, “We will continue to keep an eye out in the forest, but we won’t be actively searching for anybody. This is not the responsibility of the council; and after all, he is hiding of his own free will.”
Despite the mother’s pledge, Sanchez’s parents left Italy a few days after they had arrived. Perhaps the search had for a time renewed their hopes of finding their son. But in the end they decided that it would probably be impossible to locate him in the nearly 35 square miles of woods – if indeed he was still there.
It seems, moreover, as if the parents’ decision to leave might have been the right one. After all, according to The Local Italy, no one has seen Sanchez since the mushroom pickers made their report. And following that time, it appears that no news on Sanchez’s present whereabouts has been reported. So even if he was discovered that day, it looks as though he has once again disappeared without a trace.
Nevertheless, those who sought to find Sanchez presumably continue to hold out hope that he will once again be found. Nicodemo Gentile, the head of a missing persons group in Italy, certainly expressed as much to The Local Italy. “We will continue to follow this case and help [Sanchez’s] family, with the hope that one day they can embrace the son who left them… all those years ago.”