Jacob Whaley had been six miles from his home near Virginia’s Lake Anna when his Dodge Durango slid into a ditch. The tires sank up to their axles in the mud. His gas tank was almost empty. So the 34-year-old father decided to walk.

“Jacob was stubborn and hardheaded — and always had been,” said his sister, Angela Whaley. “He wanted to get home.”

The distance seemed manageable to the mechanic. Though he wasn’t particularly outdoorsy, he was solidly built, with a thick red beard that he sometimes braided. He worked at the Tires Plus in Fredericksburg, Va., often coming home with grease under his fingernails.

On Jan. 3, the shop had closed early because of the storm. Whaley posted on Instagram a photo of his red SUV in the parking lot. The vehicle’s doors and side mirrors were encrusted in snow, while the tires left tracks across the unplowed lot. His boss’s Honda Civic couldn’t make it out of the lot, so Whaley gave him a ride home.

Then he steered south. He wanted to get back to his dogs, terrier mixes named Lenny and Scarlett.

He was also looking forward to seeing his son in two days. Jacob Dawson — who went by “Dawson” — got to see his father on Wednesdays. Whaley and the 2-year-old would pretend to repair tricycles together or cram into the boy’s tiny green-and-black Monster Truck for a joy ride down the driveway.


In January, they’d bottle-fed a tabby kitten together. Whaley posted the photos to his Instagram with the caption: “Teach them compassion.”

Now, as the snow accumulated and darkness gathered, Whaley left his SUV and walked into conditions that were deteriorating. Over a 24-hour span, Virginia State Police would confront 1,414 disabled and stuck vehicles — excluding the meltdown on a 40-mile stretch of Interstate 95. Whaley purposefully had avoided the East Coast’s busiest highway, where all kinds of commuters, including Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., would be trapped for more than 24 hours.

Dressed in his work uniform of a gray polo and black pants, Whaley left his black Matco Tools jacket in the front seat of his Durango, where his family would later find it. He became disoriented in the storm. That afternoon, parts of Louisa County saw 15 inches of snow, with 97% of households and businesses losing power.

At 8:46 p.m., Whaley texted his mother, Shannon Whaley, “Im lost.”

She called him. His cellphone, which had died, went to voice mail.

At 9:12, she called the Louisa County Sheriff’s Office. In a news release Monday, the department said that an officer responded within 20 minutes, searching the area with his emergency lights on.


“Numerous deputies subsequently searched roads, repeatedly checked Jacob’s home and the surrounding hospitals, and combed extremely dense woods,” the sheriff’s office said in the release, which included a detailed map and timeline of the search for Whaley.

Whaley’s family — who have released their own timeline — said they believe he might have survived if deputies had responded faster. In part, they allege confusion on part of the sheriff’s office over whose jurisdiction the case was in.

For three days, Whaley was missing. On Jan. 6, a search party found his body 209 yards off Greens Corner Road in a dense pine plantation.

He was two miles from home.