Early one Tuesday morning in mid-October, Nathan Hale puts a change of clothes in his backpack, takes a moment to write a note saying he's heading back to Spokane and then he leaves his room.
Without drawing any attention, the blue-eyed, scruffy-bearded man — hard to miss at 6-foot-3 and about 400 pounds — walks away from Lakeside Residential Care facility in Winchester, Idaho, a tiny town with no stoplights off Highway 95.
Like a dozen other people, Hale had just moved to the small town of about 350, sandwiched between forest and farmland, in late September, after learning he couldn't live at the Carlyle Care Center in downtown Spokane anymore.
Pioneer Human Services had announced it would no longer provide assisted living at the center for the more than 100 people there with chronic mental illnesses, including Hale. For years, he'd bounced in and out of facilities as he coped with schizophrenia. But unlike other times, this move wasn't due to his actions: the nonprofit, which mostly focuses on job training and re-entry for people coming out of prison, had simply opted to switch the building to affordable housing.
So, some residents moved in with family, others moved out on their own and the majority moved into one of three spots: Bethany Place and Mallon Place, both in Spokane, and Lakeside Residential.
And so, on Oct. 4, Hale celebrated his 46th birthday in his new place, a little less than an hour southeast of Lewiston.
But by 8:30 am on Oct. 17, Lakeside staff notify the Lewis County Sheriff's Office: Hale's gone.
There's a search, but five long months pass before hikers discover his body near the Winchester Lake spillway on March 21.
From the looks of it, Hale didn't make it much more than a mile before finding a place to lie down in the brush and the trees in the state park, where the cold eventually overwhelmed his body and he died.
This coda to Nathan's life has left his family reeling, struggling with why they weren't notified when he walked away, asking what, if anything, could have been done to save him, and wondering how to cope when someone who seemed on a bright path in his younger days could be so destroyed by an unforgiving mental illness.
Sharon and Dave Hale usually try to visit their son Nathan on his birthday in early October, but this fall, with both 70-somethings not in the best health, they've had to wait to take their first trip to Idaho.
When Sharon calls to schedule their first visit, it's been exactly two weeks since Nathan packed his bag and walked away.
Only then does she learn that their son has been missing.
Apparently, Nathan's emergency contact form was blank, though they'd been listed when he lived at the Carlyle. Sheriff's deputies and members of the residence combed the area, they learn, checking and patrolling common gathering places and bus stops, but there's been no sign of her son.
Nathan's parents call his siblings, his ex-wife and kids, his cousins and other relatives, who post on social media and call hospitals and jails, checking anywhere he might have landed, but no one has seen him. Some places report that even if he were checked in, they wouldn't be allowed to say.
"Because there was indication that he was leaving the area and because no court order or guardianship was in place that would have prevented him from leaving, he was free to travel as he wished," Lewis County Sheriff Jason Davis says in a written statement to the Inlander.
Still, officials add him to the national missing persons database.
Five months later, he's found. The family hosts a memorial service in Walla Walla soon after.
His brother Scott Hale, who works in a mental health unit at a Washington State Department of Corrections facility, mostly wonders how the new facility didn't know he had family and how it's possible a big guy like his kid brother could walk out the front door without anyone noticing.
"It just seems like they should contact you if something bad happens to your family member," he says. "If they would've called me the day that he went missing instead of [weeks] later, I would've driven there and looked for my brother."
He wonders how anyone could think that his brother could really make the choice to head back to Spokane.
"It's like asking a small child how to get to the moon," Scott says. "I don't know how he thought he was going to do it."
Despite the shock of it, Sharon says she doesn't blame Lakeside for not knowing how to contact them.
"I just have a lot of questions, but he's gone, and I can't bring him back," she says. "My only concern was how far did they search. I can't question them, I was never there. I don't know what size staff they had. I don't know what I would do. ... You can't leave the 99 and take your whole crew to go look for the one lost sheep, but as a mother, I would have."
LONG, SLOW DECLINE
Like many people who are later diagnosed with schizophrenia, Nathan didn't seem to have any issues when he was growing up.
"He was a normal, great kid, grew up, was a very good welder, and had a lot of certifications," Scott says. "He went to Hawaii and all over the place doing welding jobs."
In 1995, while in his early 20s, he married. Nathan and his wife Joy Hale moved around as he took welding jobs in Portland, where their daughter was born, then at refineries in Northwest Washington, where they had their son.
"It was probably not long after our second baby was born he just couldn't keep jobs, and we couldn't pay rent in the apartment we lived in, so we found a smaller place out of town," Joy says. "From then on, for the next probably two years, he didn't work."
Scott started to notice on visits that his brother was now cycling through job after job.
"His report would be that 'Everybody's out to get me, sabotaging me,' crazy notions about why he couldn't get any work," Scott says.
Joy says she didn't understand why, but Nathan started to spend a lot of time reading the Bible. He'd just repeatedly say God would take care of them.
Eventually, after missing rent, they were going to be evicted. Joy and the kids moved home to Milton-Freewater, south of Walla Walla, and lived with her sister for a while. But Nathan wanted to stay.
Scott says Nathan had a breakdown while being evicted from the Ferndale home, and after sheriff's deputies had to remove him, he landed at Eastern State Hospital.
That's when Scott realized how his kind-hearted, friendly brother had changed.
"It was kind of where it hit us how serious all of a sudden all this stuff was," Scott says.
For a while, Joy and Nathan tried to make it work.
"I wanted to give it a chance. I still loved him, we had these two children, and I wanted to be a family," Joy says by phone, holding back tears.
But by fall 2005, she says she couldn't handle the uncertainty anymore while raising their kids, and they divorced by spring 2006.
"I didn't even know who he was by then, he kind of looked straight through me," she says. "After that it went way down hill."
He lost the right to unsupervised visits with his kids. As his symptoms ebbed and flowed he would go to Eastern State Hospital, stabilize, get released, move into an apartment, stop taking his meds, get evicted and start the cycle again.
"We physically moved him 15 times," his mother Sharon says. "His father and I had to do all the cleaning and moving of his stuff. ... We gave it all we had."
One of the last times he was evicted, he showed up at his parents' house in Walla Walla, cold and dirty. His mother didn't want to report him to the crisis center before letting him eat and shower. She made breakfast, but when she told Nathan to go wash up while she cleaned his clothes, he stood up, towering and spoke in the third person.
"All of a sudden these other voices said to me, 'He's been through a lot, if you try to put him out, I will have to hurt you,'" Sharon says. "Well, I picked up my purse and my dog and I left."
Frightened, she and her husband called the crisis center. All she could think about were his clothes: they still weren't clean. What if they came and he wasn't in any clothes?
It took four men to haul him out of the house.
"They took him out in his underwear. How humiliating," she says. "But Nathan needed help."
CARLYLE AND LAKESIDE
Eventually, Nathan's parents, both nearly in need of assisted living themselves, got their son into assisted living at the Carlyle in Spokane.
Things were good there, stable. He stayed for more than three years.
"He seemed to do really well there, they seemed to keep him on his meds," his father Dave says.
The couple would visit a few times a year, bringing his kids to visit for his birthday. Sometimes Scott would come from Western Washington with his own children and they'd take Nathan out to eat at the Golden Corral: "All he ever wanted to do."
With word the Carlyle would be closing, Nathan's parents got a phone call from a case worker who wanted to clarify if they were officially Nathan's guardians or caregivers or had power of attorney. Aside from being his parents, they weren't and they didn't.
"He says, 'We're going to be handing him over to the state.' It was very disturbing to me," Sharon says. "I think whatever that counselor told him made him feel that we weren't interested, and that's so far from the truth. We just didn't know what to do to help him. That's why we requested he be in assisted living."
She wonders if that's why Nathan didn't list them as emergency contacts.
"We had emergency contact information on file at the Carlyle and worked really closely with the owner at Lakeside to transfer information and make sure they had complete records on everyone and their most current case plan," says Hilary Young, a Pioneer spokeswoman.
Scott says he understands that privacy laws limit facilities in what they can and cannot say. But he wishes, in cases like his brother's, there could be leniency.
"I just wish there was some way where there was middle ground, where we're not in his business if he doesn't want us to know everything going on with him," Scott says. "But for emergencies, if he needs help from somebody, that they could notify someone."
Brian Bagley, Lakeside's executive director, declined to answer specific policy questions, including whether residents are required to check in or out, or whether the facility had contact information for Nathan's family. Due to privacy laws, Bagley says he can't even confirm or deny if someone is a resident. But when somebody goes missing, he says, Lakeside notifies next of kin and state agencies, following procedure.
"The community of residents, staff and volunteers at Lakeside Residential Care is deeply saddened by the loss of Nathan Hale," Bagley writes in an email. "Out of respect for all involved, we do not intend to make further public comment at this time." ♦