Missing man still mystery 4 years after disappearance

photo Matt Hearon, left, and Andy Hearon visit the family property where their dad, Michael Hearon, had gone to work when he went missing four years ago.
photo In a Jan. 14, 2009, photograph, search team heads up a mountainside in the Happy Valley community to look for any sign of Michael Hearon, 51, who disappeared Aug. 23, 2008. (Bobby Wilson/Special to the News Sentinel)

TO HELPAnyone with information is encouraged to call the Blount County Sheriff's Office at 865-273-5001 or the 24-hour Crime Hotline at 865-273-5200 or access Text-a-Tip at www.bcso.com.ON THE WEBFor more information, visit www.findmikehearon.com or email findmikehearon@gmail.com.

TALLASSEE, Tenn. - For Matt Hearon and his older brother, Andy, it took a couple of years for the anger to subside.

Now, 1,462 sunrises since their father was last seen near the family home in Happy Valley, so has hope of seeing him alive again.

Days after Michael Hearon, then 51, waved to neighbors as he rode his four-wheeler into a mystery, Blount County mobilized to try to find the man in the hollows and forests near the house where he had gone that Saturday morning to mow.

The four-wheeler was found, but beyond that, not so much as a footprint.

Four years later, the mystery remains pretty much as it was then.

In the interim, Andy and Matt have established careers of their own, and each has fathered a boy -- both with the middle name of Michael. There is nothing much new to report in the case, "mostly talk and rumors," says Matt Hearon.

Hope that their father will somehow emerge from whatever shadowy place he wandered into has all but evaporated. Both sons believe Michael Hearon's disappearance was the result of "foul play."

"I've had time to come up with many scenarios in my mind," Matt Hearon said. "I believe that he happened upon something that should not have been going on" and that may have cost Michael Hearon his life.

Andy concurs. He said his father "didn't have enemies" even in the competitive construction industry. But, he said, if confronted, his father was not the type to back down.

"He would stand his ground. He was not a 'flight' kind of a guy. He was not afraid to say something" if he encountered a wrong being perpetrated, Andy said.

Physical evidence at the scene, outside of a four-wheeler parked in the bushes with its ignition key still in the "on" position, would not have filled a thimble.

No footprints, no bits of torn clothing, no obvious trail through the undergrowth, no blood, tissue or bones. Nothing to indicate Michael Hearon had even been there, much less a direction of departure.

The search, involving hundreds of civilian participants and law enforcement personnel, went on for days. It was hampered, Matt Hearon said, by rains that hit the area between the time his father was last seen and when the search began. Indeed, it was raining lightly the morning the search started.

The weather, in theory, could have washed away tracks and sharply diminished the scent trail that dogs were asked to follow.

"The dogs scented on the truck," Andy Hearon said.

Michael Hearon had gone to the house that morning in his pickup truck, pulling a trailer bearing a mower.

The family found the truck still in the driveway with the windows down and the trailer still attached, mower in place.

Inside the truck were the missing man's keys, wallet, money and credit cards, cellphone -- basically all the personal items one usually carries.

But no Michael Hearon.

Marian O'Briant, public information officer for the Blount County Sheriff's Office, said the Hearon case remains an open investigation, but there have been no new leads in about a year.

The Hearon family, though not large in number, was a tight one, the sons said.

"Dad was big on family," Andy Hearon said. "He loved being outdoors and being here" on the Bell Branch property. In the past he had worked clearing trails in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which abuts the family property, and had even participated in rescue efforts there.

Michael Hearon would not have abandoned his family voluntarily, they said.

"I don't think he is still alive," Matt Hearon said, "or he would have gotten back by now.

"The hardest part," he said, "is coming up with a reason" for his father's disappearance.

Andy agrees. He wants "closure" and talks about "ideas coming through my head" concerning the case.

Both say for the first 18 months to two years they felt a sense of anger.

"I was in a bad mood," Matt Hearon said, "angry at everybody. There was a cloud hanging over me."

Same for Andy, who added that he had to be told by his wife.

"I cannot let it do that to me," Matt Hearon said. "I've got 60 years left, and I cannot live in anger. But I think about it every day."