Case of missing man still open after recent search

by Kate Shunney

A late January foot search of an area of eastern Morgan County did not turn up evidence of the movements or whereabouts of a man reported missing from the area in April 2020, but police have said that case is still open and they continue to seek information about John Jesse Willey, 43.

Sheriff K.C. Bohrer said roughly 35 people participated in a foot search of areas around Highland Ridge Road and a local farm where Willey was last known to be working around May of 2018.

John Jesse Willey.

Of those who searched, about a third were members of law enforcement or fire personnel, the sheriff estimated. The others were private individuals who knew Willey or know his sister.

That sister has criticized what she calls a lack of effort by the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department to find her brother.

In response, Sheriff K.C. Bohrer has said the department’s efforts are ongoing to follow up on leads regarding the whereabouts of Willey.

An official missing persons case was opened in late April 2020 by investigator Capt. Tim Stapleton when the missing man’s mother reported he hadn’t been seen or heard from for close to two years.

Willey was last known to be in Morgan County in May of 2018.

Bohrer said officers couldn’t determine if Willey was an endangered person or not, partly because nearly two years had passed since he was last seen.

“I’ve never had a situation where the person waited two years to report a family member missing,” said Bohrer.

Typically, the first 72 hours are crucial in following leads to find someone if they are in danger, the sheriff said.

The department has investigated Willey’s social media accounts, his background and talked to friends about his frame of mind around the time he went missing from the area, said Bohrer.

He said police do have concerns because an empty handgun case was located among Willey’s personal belongings left behind on the farm where he worked.

Capt. Stapleton has continued to gather information about Willey, including dental records and DNA samples from both his parents, plus personal information from his friends and associates.

Sheriff Bohrer said he did reach out to a search team in Virginia to assist in trying to find Willey. Because of the time that has elapsed, the team wouldn’t participate in a search, he said.

The missing man was known to travel up to a powerline cut on Sleepy Creek Mountain from Highland Ridge. A photo of him at that spot was distributed to the public when Willey was first reported missing last year.

Police opted to wait to do a ground search for Willey until January because of the difficult terrain and visibility in the area to be searched.

No items tied to Willey were found during the search.

Despite the family’s criticisms of the police on social media surrounding the case, Bohrer said he is sympathetic to the family’s frustrations in not knowing where Willey might be.

“Any information that comes in will be followed up,” Bohrer said of the ongoing investigation.

Anyone with information about Willey or the case can contact the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department at 304-258-1067.