GRAYSON, Ky. — Where is Richard Lea?
Lea was last seen Sept. 3, 2018, at Grayson Lake in Grayson, Kentucky. The now-65-year-old, mostly nonverbal man who had been diagnosed with dementia in the years before he went missing had spent the day with family on the lake before walking off and disappearing within minutes.
Three years later, with countless hours of searching and waiting, his family wonders what happened to their father and husband, who left without a trace — not an article of clothing or anything found since.
The family has experienced a lot of “nevers” in the past few years — never did they think a family member would be diagnosed with dementia, nor that he could have disappeared so quickly. They never thought they would be three years out with no leads as to his whereabouts, no clothing or personal items found. They never thought they would not have a final resting place to visit their loved one.
Never did they think they would be pleading through the media for answers, but together his wife, Leslie, daughter, Katie Harsh, and daughter-in-law, Heather Harrah-Lea, did that during a video chat earlier this month.
Holiday gone awry
The family had spent the Labor Day holiday boating at Grayson Lake, a familiar place, while they were not from the area. Their son, Jacob, and Harrah-Lea had been living in Huntington at the time. While a good swimmer who did not mind being on the boat, Lea did not want to be in the water, Leslie Lea said. He just sat back and enjoyed watching his family play.
When they docked that night, the family scattered, some at the park playing with kids and others on boat cleanup duty. Lea said every part of the area was visible and she saw her husband walking from the boat area.
“I yelled for him and he saw, and I said, ‘Come on back here.’ He looked at me for a minute and then he turned around and kept walking,” she said.
She said she went to ask family members to help her get him, but within a short period of time, five or 10 minutes, he was gone.
Not finding Lea was not for lack of hustle.
Park rangers were already on scene and within minutes were looking and had called in backup. Within 45 minutes, the State Police and sheriff’s office had joined the hunt, but they found nothing during a week of searching, Leslie said.
“The lead person of the group, (the next day) he was like, ‘Guys, I really didn’t think we’d be here. I felt positive we would find him by noon today,’” she said. “He was completely, I don’t want to say flabbergasted, because that’s not the right word, but he was kind of in shock that we hadn’t found him yet.”
Volunteers and law enforcement searched by helicopter, boat, on foot and more, even going door-to-door to talk to area residents.
Richard Lea did not have his wallet, cellphone or anything else that could identify him at the time.
Harsh said there is only one way in and out of the park. While dogs tracked his scent to the main road before it disappeared, Leslie Lea believes the scene was tainted due to the amount of traffic and people searching the area.
“I think he would have turned around and came back,” she said.
While police and investigators responded quickly and the search was thorough, the family said the team had a hard time viewing the search through the eyes of someone with early-onset dementia.
“Something that was very hard to get people to understand was that he was healthy. He didn’t have high blood pressure,” she said. “He didn’t have any muscle problems, but he had dementia. That was it.”
Who was Richard Lea?
The youngest of four brothers, Lea grew up in Pittsburgh and became a licensed airplane aircraft mechanic, but retired due to his medical issues. He was a handyman, a jack of all trades, who not only did remodeling and repairs for his family home and vehicles, but also projects for neighbors and friends.
“He was a great guy that didn’t deserve to be lost. That is my most sorrowful emotion — that he was lost in my care,” Leslie Lea said. “We were to grow old together. Just when life was getting back to us, dementia took that away.”
Her husband, who went by Rich, was involved with coaching little league with his son, softball with Katie and traveled for swim teams to watch them swim, or kung fu tournaments to watch them fight.
“My brother and I truly had the best years with him, and it hurts knowing our children won’t have that,” Harsh said. “One thing he taught me is family is everything, and that showed.”
Harrah-Lea and her husband stressed the importance for people with family members who have dementia to have a game plan and be able to care for their loved ones as best they can.
Lea’s diagnosis was fairly new at the time, and the family was still getting to know about the disease. While it affected his mind, his body was as strong as ever.
In the weeks after the initial search and recovery process, Texas EquuSearch, a search and recovery team, volunteered to help.
“When they got the information, they wanted to come right over, but weather kind of hindered their hopes of helping us find him, and that was so difficult,” Harsh said.
The detective has been working continuously on the case and even took DNA swabs and fingerprints of family members to put in a national database.
Leslie Lea said she contacted all the churches in the area, sheriff’s departments and businesses to tell them about her husband. The Catholic church sent his poster nationwide.
They have reached out to national groups and media, even getting a “Dateline” online story once.
“I wish there was something else to do. I don’t know what to do,” Leslie Lea said.
Detective Jeff Kelley with the Kentucky State Police is investigating and can be reached at 606-928-6421 with leads.
Where is Richard Lea?
The family consensus is that he is still in the park.
“I really don’t think that he would have gone back to the water because he didn’t want to get into the water. He didn’t want to do anything with the water,” Leslie Lea said.
He had slip-on shoes and a hat, which would be easy for him to lose, but weren’t found.
Harsh said her dad has missed out on so much, including watching her young children grow, and it eats away at her.
“I don’t like to think like that, but I feel in all reality that he is gone,” she said. “I just want to be able to say, ‘This is where my dad is.’ I just want to be able to say that. I want to be able to go somewhere.”
Through this story, all they seek is closure. They hope it sparks a memory of him for someone.
He went missing on Labor Day weekend at a crowded lake about 6 p.m., Harrah-Lea said, with boaters leaving the lake and night fishermen headed to the water.
How did no one see him, she asked.