Toddler Casey Lunn Hathaway has been missing for two days when a woman hears heartwrenching cries coming from the woods. She alerts the authorities, and they soon find the boy tangled in vines. But rescuers are taken aback by his response when they ask what happened to him.
Hathaway’s troubles began one morning in January 2019 when he was playing in his great-grandmother’s backyard in Craven County, North Carolina, with two of his relatives. The youngsters had been exploring some woods nearby, but when the others later returned to the house, the little boy was nowhere to be seen. As a result, a frantic search for him began.
After 45 minutes of looking for Hathaway, however, his family still hadn’t located him. They consequently called 911 to inform the authorities that the youngster was missing. According to a WTVD report from January 2019 his worried great-grandmother told the dispatcher, “He was walking in the woods back there and we can’t find him.”
Before long a major search for Hathaway was underway, combining the efforts of various search and rescue teams from all over North Carolina. The NCIS, FBI and the United States Marine Corps also came out to look for the youngster, with helicopters, K-9 units and drones joining in to aid the search.
As news of Hathaway’s disappearance spread, streams of volunteers also came out to look for the little one. According to one estimate, nearly 600 people signed up to search for the child. And their efforts appeared to be focused on the wooded area where Hathaway was last known to have been.
However, the search for Hathaway would be far from easy. In January 2019 volunteer Max Dudley told WTVD, “The terrain was woods. It was thick in places. Some places it wasn’t that thick, but we took our time and you see the next person, and you look and you look and you look.”
But the dense forest wasn’t the only problem facing search teams. And as temperatures plummeted to almost freezing, the authorities at one point had to prevent volunteers from taking part in the search. That’s because it was deemed too dangerous for them to be out in that kind of weather.
Despite the careful efforts to locate Hathaway, as the search entered its third day he still had not been found. The wait for any news of the toddler must have been agonizing for all those who cared for him. Naturally, some of the local community couldn’t help but put themselves in Hathaway’s family’s shoes.
At the time of Hathaway’s disappearance, Jonathan Ipock was the youth pastor of New Haven Church in Craven County. And he told WTVD that some of the youngster’s family were members of the congregation there. As a result, he expressed his sympathies for Hathaway’s relatives during what was surely a very difficult time for them.
Ipock told WTVD, “It’s heartbreaking. I have two children so I can only imagine what the family is going through and we’re a small community so you don’t really expect anything bad to happen here. You have so many people volunteering from our community and surrounding areas because they were putting themselves in the shoes of the family.”
Volunteer Donna Harris – herself a mother-of-three – added, “We went through the woods – through the thicket and the briars. We did it for three-and-a-half, four hours and it was bad. It was really bad out there. If everybody could come and help look for him, it would help. As it got darker, it was scary… I just can’t imagine a three-year-old being [lost] there.”
As the search for Hathaway continued, meanwhile, Craven County Sheriff Chip Hughes gave a press conference regarding the case. It was then that he revealed police were treating the boy’s disappearance as a missing child investigation. He also said that authorities were considering all possibilities, and these included “abduction or kidnapping.”
One of the main concerns for Hathaway was the freezing conditions he would have contended with if he was still lost outside. During one frigid night when the child was missing, data from the National Weather Service showed that temperatures had dipped below freezing for six hours in the area.
Hathaway hadn’t been wearing suitable clothes for such cold conditions, according to Hughes. The sheriff was also worried that the toddler could have come across one of the deepwater ditches or sinkholes that exist in the area. So with that in mind, divers were called in to assess local ponds.
But while things may have looked bleak for the toddler, Hathaway’s community didn’t give up on the little boy with brown eyes and strawberry blonde hair. And even when volunteers were prohibited from searching themselves, they provided the police with a series of tangible leads.
In fact, it was one of these helpful pointers from the public that would eventually lead to the discovery of Hathaway. Revealing what led to that moment, Hughes told WTVD, “It was folks giving us tips and leads. We hit every one of them immediately and it paid off.”
The woman who helped lead the authorities to the safe discovery of Hathaway was Linda Fraker. She’d been one of the many volunteers who had turned up to look for the toddler – Fraker had a connection to the Hathaway family through her son Noah. But it was while the mom was out walking her dogs that she heard something of interest.
In January 2019 Fraker told WITN, “I thought I heard crying, but I didn’t want to confuse it with all the search that was going on on the other side of the woods. So I brought the dogs inside, and I went back out, and I listened again, and again, I heard just a crying [noise], so I ran up to Toler Road and I got the officer and I asked him to please come down and just, just listen.”
The officer Fraker had grabbed then went to investigate, and he backed up her account upon returning. He explained to WITN, “Next thing I know he was coming back and telling me that yes, he [had] heard something too.” Hathaway was subsequently located by professional search and rescue team member Shane Grier.
Grier then recalled the joyous moment he found Hathaway in an interview with WOSC in January 2019. He said, “We responded on a tip, located by voice this young man, went to him, disentangled him from some briars he was hung up in, brought him out [and] here we are.” And miraculously, the toddler was in relatively good health.
Grier explained, “[Hathaway] was cold but he was verbal in command to us. The more we warmed him up, the more active he became. For the conditions, I think he fared pretty well.” The child was subsequently taken to CarolinaEast Medical Center in New Bern for a medical evaluation.
While the search for Hathaway had covered 220 acres, the little boy was discovered just a quarter of a mile from where he went missing. However, authorities speculated that the youngster had moved around while he was lost. And while he was wet and cold from his stint in the woods, he’d somehow escaped with just a few scratches.
Speaking after Hathaway had been successfully located, Sheriff Hughes told WSOC, “We’ve brought Casey to his family just like we said we were gonna do. We did not give up. We were very persistent. [The] little fella is happy, and his parents are happy as well. He had a big smile on his face when he saw his sister. And I can tell you it’s just very, very touching. I could not be happier by the way this turned out.”
Elsewhere, Hathaway’s overjoyed parents also issued a statement to the press, expressing their gratitude for everyone who aided in the search for their son. Mom Brittany said, “We just wanna tell everybody that we’re very thankful that you took the time out to come search for Casey, and pray for him.”
Revealing that Hathaway appeared to be in high spirits following his ordeal, Brittany said, “He’s good, he is good. He’s up and talking. He’s already asked to watch Netflix, so he’s good, he is good.” His dad Chris added, “Thank you, everybody, for coming out. All the prayers, it means a lot.”
Given how well Hathaway had seemingly fared in the woods, cops pondered how he’d managed to keep himself safe. After all, he’d gone without food and water for two days and battled through cold, wet conditions. In fact, some people speculated that he had been placed in the woods by someone who had been holding him.
However, Hughes was quick to dismiss these rumors. He told WCTI, “The notion that he was sitting in a house or a vehicle for two days and put out there a couple of hours before we found him is absolutely not true. His core temperature was very low, his fingers and all had a bit of frostbite.”
Hughes claimed it had been some kind of miracle for Casey to have survived what he went through. The Sheriff explained, “A lot of it, according to what medical was telling us, was conducive for him being out in the elements for an extended period of time.” So no one could offer up an explanation as to how Hathaway survived, except the toddler himself.
Posting on Facebook in January 2019, Breanna Hathaway – an aunt of the child – revealed he claimed that a fearsome creature had helped him survive. Her post read, “[Hathaway] is healthy, smiling, and talking. He said he hung out with a bear for two days. God sent him a friend to keep him safe. God is a good God. Miracles do happen.”
Furthermore, it seems that Hathaway had made a similar claim when quizzed by law enforcement officers. In an interview with WCTI, Sheriff Hughes later said of the toddler, “He didn’t say how he was able to survive and all that. He did say he had a friend in the woods that was a bear that was with him.”
Hughes added, “I don’t know if that meant he saw a bear. I don’t know if that meant a bear embraced him or what it meant. I thought it was a very cute story and if that’s what helped that child survive through this, you know what, I’m to going to embrace that story that came from a three-year-old, to his mom.”
One of Hughes’ colleagues from the Craven County Sheriff’s Office also heard about Hathaway’s alleged encounter. Major David McFadyen told CNN, “He made a comment about having a friend while he was in the woods – his friend was a bear. In the emergency room he started talking about what happened in the woods and he said he had a friend that was a bear with him while he was in the woods.”
According to McFadyen, bears could be found in wooded areas of Craven County. But he was quick to point out that there was no evidence to suggest that Hathaway had come across one while he was missing. McFadyen said, regardless, that he was happy that the child had seemingly found a source of comfort during his time in the wild.
McFadyen told CNN, “We are very pleased he had that type of comfort. There were very brutal conditions out there. The first night it dropped down to 20 degrees, the second night we had two inches of rain.” But he added that authorities wouldn’t have a clear understanding of what might have happened to Hathaway until they interviewed the toddler later.
In the meantime, Hathaway’s claim that he’d been cared for by a bear hit headlines around the world. And many people surely wondered just how plausible his story was. They didn’t have to wait long for a potential answer, however, because according to bear expert Chris Servheen, the tale was likely a figment of the three-year-old’s active imagination.
In January 2019 Servheen – who works as a bear researcher at the University of Montana – offered his thoughts to The Guardian. He said, “I’ve never known such a thing to happen, bears don’t do that. Wild bears aren’t friends with people. I don’t want to say he’s not telling the truth, he obviously thinks he’s seen things and maybe he’s got a teddy bear at home. But I’ve seen no evidence anything like that has ever happened.”
Revealing why he was so sure Hathaway’s experience was a “fantasy,” Servheen explained, “Bears are by and large afraid of people no matter how big the person is. Bears that move towards people don’t survive long, so they get selected out. The only reason it would go near the child would be to be predatory, although black bears are very rarely predatory of humans and obviously that didn’t happen here.”
Furthermore, Servheen added, “The bear wouldn’t feel sorry for him, thinking he’s alone. That’s ascribing human characteristics on wild animals, which is anthropomorphism. But if the boy felt comfortable under the watch of a wild animal that’s fine. Whatever helped him get through it.”
But while Servheen seemed to be convinced that Hathaway’s bear encounter didn’t take place, others weren’t so quick to dismiss the boy’s story. Wildlife photographer Chris Norcott spends a lot of time with North Carolina’s black bear population. And according to him, Hathaway’s story could have checked out.
Norcott showed his support for Hathaway’s story in an interview with The Dodo in January 2019. He said, “I believe him. Over the years, I’ve seen many behaviors which demonstrated [bears’] concern and nurturing side… towards their own offspring [and] other animals. [So] this could certainly be possible.”