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An Army veteran spent 2 years looking for his missing son in the desert. Now, he's running for Congress.

Matthew Loh   

An Army veteran spent 2 years looking for his missing son in the desert. Now, he's running for Congress.
  • David Robinson, who's spent the last two years searching for his son, is running for US Congress.
  • The veteran hopes his campaign will add momentum to the search for Daniel, who disappeared in July 2021.

Every fortnight or so, David Robinson starts his YouTube livestream, upbeat and all smiles.

"When the lights and camera turn off, I will be here," he rumbles in one of his intros. The Arizona desert appears on the screen. "When the interests and conversations fade, I will be here."

A 53-year-old Army veteran with a clean-shaven head and thick-rimmed glasses, Robinson speaks for up to several hours at a time about the search for his young adult son, Daniel. Each video typically receives less than 400 views.

It's been two and a half years since Robinson began investigating his son's disappearance and since he crossed state lines into Arizona, where Daniel vanished in July 2021. Robinson's GoFundMe has raised over $370,000 to fund search operations there, and he leads a social media campaign to raise awareness for his search.

But 33 months in, he's frustrated.

"It's inexcusable for us to have as many missing persons cases in this country as we do," he said in a stream on March 10.

Stuck on leads and battling tensions with law enforcement, Robinson, a father of five, has turned to a new move to find his son: He's running for Congress.

A case gone cold

Robinson announced his bid on March 18. He's running for the 2nd district of South Carolina — his home state — as a Democratic candidate.

Rep. Joe Wilson, a 76-year-old Republican, has held the seat for decades and won with margins of around 10 to 20% in the predominantly white district in the last five elections.

Robinson told Business Insider he's campaigning to push the investigations of tens of thousands of Americans still recorded missing by the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

"Working with law enforcement to push my son's case, I learned a lot," Robinson said. "I had to work with state officials, government officials, law enforcement, and I have a bigger understanding of why we have so many missing people in this country."

But Robinson's focus is still fixed on Daniel.

An empty jeep in the desert

Robinson's son, a young geologist born with a missing arm, was 24 years old when he went missing near Buckeye, Arizona.

A coworker last saw him at a well site on the morning of June 23, 2021. When family members couldn't contact Daniel that evening, Robinson filed a missing persons report. Police interviewed the coworker, who said he saw the tire marks of Daniel's 2017 Renegade Jeep headed west.

A month later, the blue jeep was found empty on a rancher's land, rolled over in a ravine four miles from Daniel's job site. His ID, keys, phone, wallet, and clothes were left near the jeep, per a Buckeye Police Department report seen by BI.

Robinson has repeatedly told news outlets that police suggested that Daniel voluntarily "undressed himself totally and walked off naked in a desert."

Some signs indicate that Daniel might have felt troubled the day he went missing. Text records in police reports show that Robinson had a dispute with a young woman he was interested in just before disappearing. And the morning he vanished, Daniel made remarks about going to Phoenix "to rest," his coworker told police.

The idea that Daniel abandoned his life and family has been the heart of the disagreement between law enforcement and Robinson, who hired a private investigator.

A father's 2,000-mile drive and beyond

When Daniel first went missing, Robinson drove some 2,000 miles from South Carolina to Arizona after hearing the news.

"I kind of lost that reality and just grabbed what I could and threw it in my car without thinking and started driving," said Robinson, who worked 13 years as a truck driver before joining the US military.

He said he spent his first days in Arizona searching Daniel's Tempe apartment and speaking to people who'd seen him recently.

He'd stay awake to read more about the region online at night. "I was trying to figure out the desert, understand it," Robinson, who fought in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010, said.

Over the next two years, Robinson built a small following on YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram to broadcast information about his son's disappearance.

Volunteers would arrive to scour the desert, growing from an initial 20 people per search to up to 200 at a time.

But after 49 weeks of organized searches, they still haven't found Daniel.

Robinson has criticized the Buckeye PD's response, saying officers refused to treat the investigation with foul play in mind.

Speaking to BI, a Buckeye PD spokesperson praised Robinson's search efforts but said the department hasn't found evidence that someone else was involved in Daniel's disappearance.

"If evidence like that does come to light, that would absolutely be part of the investigation moving forward," the spokesperson said. They said officers searched Daniel's last known location the evening he was reported missing. Later, law enforcement carried out a grid search for with dogs, drones, and a helicopter.

Missing persons cases in the US

Three months after Daniel went missing, Robinson's search finally made national headlines, largely off the disappearance of another young adult in 2021 — the van-life YouTuber Gabby Petito.

Petito's vanishing captured America's attention, with thousands of amateur sleuths on TikTok and social media massing behind law enforcement's search for the 22-year-old. Her remains were discovered weeks after the case went viral, and authorities found that her fiancé strangled her before killing himself.

With the nation's renewed interest in true crime cases, Robinson highlighted his son's disappearance on major outlets, though the case never took social media by storm like Petito's. He often wonders what could have been if #HelpFindDaniel also received 1 billion views.

The viral search for Petito led to widespread criticism against the media for the "Missing White Woman Syndrome," which underscores how missing people of color are often disproportionately left out of news coverage. In 2021, almost 40% of the 521,000 persons reported missing in the US involved missing persons of color.

But Robinson harbors no ill will against Petito's family, saying he bonded with them over shared pain in searching for a loved one. He and Petito's parents have spoken at events to raise awareness for missing person cases.

"When you have a missing loved one, you want to help everybody," Robinson said.

A dream to see his son one more time

Now a congressional hopeful, Robinson said he's using his platform to promote searches for other disappeared Americans.

The war veteran said he's leaning on his experience uniting hundreds of volunteers in Arizona, regardless of their political beliefs or race.

He often mentions his run for Congress on the GoFundMe for Daniel but said the $370,000 he's raised on the website won't go to his campaign.

It's difficult to determine exactly how long that amount can sustain Robinson's search.

The International Commission on Missing Persons told BI it's "impossible" to estimate the average cost of a search and recovery operation.

Tammy Phillips, the director of business operations at missing persons nonprofit Texas Equusearch, said each search is different. "The cost of a search depends on things such as location, terrain, time since disappearance, land or water, on foot or in a vehicle, travel & lodging for searchers, the list goes on and on," Phillips told BI.

Even if US law allowed Robinson to use his GoFundMe for his campaign, it wouldn't be enough to attain the typical war chest of a candidate running for Congress.

US House candidates have spent an average of $1.4 million on the 2024 election so far, and in 2022, the top-spending candidates won 93.65% of their races.

Wilson, the incumbent in Robinson's district, spent about $468,000 this cycle and has $330,000 cash on hand, per OpenSecrets.

Both men are running for their respective primaries on June 11.

Two and a half years since the search began, Robinson dreams of talking with Daniel just one more time. When they lived on different sides of the country, they would call each other for two hours at a time.

"I'll tell him I love him. I love him, and I wouldn't push him. But anything he needs to tell us or talk to us about, he can do that," Robinson said.

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