TOOELE COUNTY, Utah -- Along a dirt road in Tooele County, John Sorensen begins a long journey that he has been making for more than three years.
“You still hope. You still want to find him,” Sorensen said.
He leaves the main gates of the Dugway Proving Ground every two months in the hope he’ll find what no one else has been able to in the past: any trace of his friend and former co-worker, Joseph Bushling.
“I believe that he's out here someplace,” Sorensen explained. “I come out and think, ‘What have I seen this time? What did we miss the last time?’”
Bushling, 26, was last seen on May 8, 2011, driving away from Dugway around 4 a.m.
“He liked to drive the desert, drive and see the scenery,” Sorensen said. “So, I can totally believe he would come out here and look around.”
But Bushling never returned. About one week later, investigators found his car.
“The car was found right up there,” said Sorensen, pointing into a ravine.
The 2001 Mitsubishi Lancer that Bushling had borrowed from a friend was found stuck on a hill, approximately 65 miles away from Dugway’s main gate. A few days later, investigators recovered his Arkansas Razorbacks hat nearby, but they never found him.
“It was unusual on many fronts," Tooele County Sheriff Frank Park said. "Usually, you can work back. Once you find the victim, you can work backward, and you can get some really solid answers. We never had a victim. We never had a subject, and we had no idea why we couldn't find him."
A friend of Bushling’s on base was the one who initially reported him missing to a superior. At around 7:00 p.m. on the day he disappeared, the friend received a voicemail from Bushling on his phone.
The message said, “It's Bushling, um, I need a ride. Alright, talk to you later.”
Bushling then called the friend, again. This time he was able to get through, at which point he explained he had run out of gas and needed a ride.
“He sounded frantic. He sounded upset, distraught, needed help,” said Herman Herrera, a former Lieutenant of Special Operations for the county.
According to Herrera, who was one of the lead investigators on the case, Bushling told his friend that he had somehow lost his shoes, but was walking toward a gate on base.
“I’m cold. It’s raining. I've lost one of my flip flops. He was wearing flip flops,” Herrera said. “I think he was in shorts, and he asked for somebody to come get him.”
Search and rescue crews tracked a path they think he was walking for help that night. It began at the location of his car and ended 3 to 4 miles away at Dugway’s Callao Gate. But what happened from there is unclear.
“There are a lot of what ifs; I don't have answers,” Herrera said.
Theories like foul play or suicide were ruled out by county investigators almost immediately.
Bushling, an army medic, was scheduled to head to nursing school in Texas the same week he went missing, a move he was looking forward to.
“Going from a medic to become an RN is a huge step up for them,” Herrera said. “And he was excited about that, and when he contacted his family he was in good spirits.”
Herrera believes Bushling is dead, possibly on Dugway’s grounds somewhere.
“It’s a possibility,” he said. “There’s a lot of ordinance out there, unexploded ordinance, that doesn’t allow them to be able to search these areas.”
However, Sheriff Park has never been able to come to a conclusive answer.
“In our business, in this scenario, 99 percent of the time we find the person if they're dead,” Park said. “We couldn't find him.”
This summer, an attorney for the Bushling family contacted Park and other investigators as part of a request to have Bushling declared legally dead.
Park explained he could only tell the attorney that Bushling was missing.
“I hope and pray that he's found, that he's sitting under a palm tree in the South Pacific and enjoying life. That would be wonderful,” Park said. “But I don't know.”
Because Bushling was never found, the Army listed him as a deserter, a title his parents fought for years.
“I thought, ‘How dare you?’” said Bushling’s father, Kevin Bushling.
In August, 3rd District Judge Robert Adkins issued a death certificate for Bushling, ruling he died on either May 8th or 9th in 2011.
“I thought, no longer can you call my son a deserter,” Bushling said. “No longer can you say that he was a dishonorable person. And that gave me a lot of peace because I know he was not a dishonorable person.”
The family held a memorial service for their son in his hometown of Russellville, Arkansas in November.
Because Bushling’s standing with the military had changed from deserter to deceased, a six-man Honor Guard was present to pay their respects.
“It seems like it’s been an eternity,” Bushling said. “It really does.”
Because he was declared legally dead, the family was able to collect Bushling’s military benefits, as well as his life insurance policy.
While they plan to move forward with their lives now, Bushling’s parents believe Dugway knows more about what happened to their son.
“They don’t want the truth to get out there,” said Kevin Bushling. “They don’t want to find my son.”
Echoing the thoughts of Herrera, they contend their son likely wound up on Dugway’s grounds, somewhere.
“They don’t want to find his remains on their base because then they have some explaining to do,” Bushling said. “This way if they don’t look and they don’t find him, they don’t have to explain anything.”
FOX 13 News sent repeated requests to Dugway for interviews concerning this story. In a statement, spokeswoman Bonnie Robinson said, “We hope that that the court’s decision to issue a death certificate will bring some closure to SPC Joseph Bushling’s family.”
Closure from the court has not closed the case for many, though.
“It’s just one of those mysteries you just never, it’s like an itch that won’t go away, you just keep wondering and wondering,” said Kelly Jay, a former co-worker of Bushling.
Despite the mystery, Bushling’s parents hope his life won’t be overshadowed by his death.
“Joseph was my best friend,” Bushling said. “I’m very proud. I want him to be remembered as the happy-go-lucky person he was.”