Where is Mason McLeod? Family of missing Florida man keeps on searching

Posted: Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Winter will soon make its move into the mountains around the tiny town of King Salmon. Temperatures will drop; clouds will thicken and lower. It won't be long before snow.

Steve McLeod stalks the streets of King Salmon, looking for a pilot to take him on another journey into those remote mountains.

His son, his only child, is somewhere out there in the trackless wilderness of southwest Alaska, he believes - and dads don't give up on their sons. But he knows time is running out.

Where is Mason McLeod?

"Not knowing is terrible," says his father, 64, who put more than three decades into the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office before retiring as a sergeant.

On Tuesday, it will be one month since the single-engine floatplane carrying his son disappeared.

"Doing what I did for 32 years, you know the probabilities," McLeod says. "But when it's your own son, you're just not ready to accept it yet."

Mason McLeod is 26, a national park ranger from Jacksonville who embraced Alaska as his own, spinning stories to those back home about solitary hikes and fishing expeditions, of bears and rugged.

On Aug. 21, the day he vanished, Mason McLeod was with two other park service employees, brothers from Indiana. Neal Spradlin, 28, is a bearded outdoorsman, and Seth Spradlin, 20, is an artist working in Alaska to save money for college. Their pilot was Marco Alletto, 47, an Italian who split his time between Rome and King Salmon.

Over the phone from King Salmon, Steve McLeod's voice chokes as he speaks of his son, the ginger-haired jokester with a perfect score on the verbal part of the SAT, the natural storyteller who left Stanton College Preparatory School after 11th grade to become a National Merit Scholar at Florida State University.

He still speaks of him in the present tense.

Keeping hope alive

The National Park Service suspended a full-scale search for the plane Sept. 3. Pilots had logged nearly 60,000 miles in the hunt, covering about 14,000 square miles, and the Park Service said it wanted to reduce the risk to those in the air.

The McLeod and Spradlin families are trying to keep the search going.

Earlier in the week, McLeod and his wife, Sue, 62, were trying to find a pilot to take them up again to look for their son and his companions, hoping the clouds would lift enough to make a search worthwhile.

Those who know Mason haven't given up. A cousin and a friend started a website to keep tabs on the search and to seek donations. The money goes to pay for discounted gas in King Salmon for pilots willing to keep searching. And the McLeod and Spradlin families have offered a separate $65,000 reward to anyone who finds the plane.

Winter's coming, though. Once that happens, they'll have to stop looking, Steve McLeod says. And he and Sue will have to come home.

They'll have to live with not knowing.

Mason McLeod decided he wanted to be a park ranger after a college-graduation cruise to Alaska with his parents. He got a job at remote Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park and Preserve, where he spent every summer since 2007. Winters he worked at Everglades National Park.

His father admits he never saw that coming.

Growing up, Mason was never the hunting and fishing type, says Steve McLeod, who is. In Alaska, though, he became obsessed with it. Somehow, his dad says, that makes sense.

At Brooks Camp, he grew an Alaska-worthy beard. He learned to play harmonica and dobro to pass the time. He learned how to tell bears apart, and how to catch and cook his own food.

'It doesn't happen . . . very often'

It was supposed to be just a short flight from Swikshak Bay on the Pacific Ocean to inland King Salmon, tiny towns inside Katmai National Park. Mason McLeod and the Spradlin brothers had been on an expedition to repair a dilapidated cabin near the coast, before heading back to camp headquarters.

Clouds were low that afternoon as they took off in a de Havilland Beaver, a seaplane. A second plane left for the same destination about 15 minutes later. Visibility was so bad, reports say, that it had to fly at 500 feet, following river drainages through the mountains.

The second plane made the trip in about an hour, but the plane carrying McLeod, the Spradlins and Alletto never showed up.

John Quinley, Park Service spokesman, said planes searched the Pacific along the coast, and rangers walked the beaches looking for debris. Planes also flew along the river valleys that led inland, where dense forests of alders, willows and spruce grow. Then they broadened the search to higher peaks.

"It doesn't happen this way very often," Quinley said. "It's not common for planes to completely disappear."

Steve and Sue McLeod had visited Mason this summer in Alaska, as they had in the past. They said goodbye to him July 5. They were in Seattle when they heard his plane was missing.

At first it was thought that it might have landed somewhere to wait out the bad weather. And they knew the plane had an emergency locator transmitter aboard.

But days have stretched to weeks with no sign, weeks during which Sue McLeod can't help but wonder what her son is doing.

"We weren't able to have children for 12 years after we married," she says. "Then Mason was born, and we weren't able to do it again."

He was special in that way, and in many others, his mother says - too special to lose again.

"When I find him, he's not going to be allowed out of the yard. He's going to be confined to the yard."

She gives a choked laugh.

"I can't wait to give him that great big hug and get him home."

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