Fifteen years after son’s disappearance, David Francis continues to help families of missing persons

Fifteen years after son’s disappearance, David Francis continues to help families of missing persons

The phone call that ripped David and Linda Francis’ lives apart came 15 years ago: Their son, Jon, was missing in the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho.

Jon, 24, a counselor at a bible camp in Idaho, left on the morning of July 15, 2006, for a solo climb on the nearly 10,000-foot Grand Mogul peak. He told co-workers he would be back that evening. He never returned.

The Francises rushed to Idaho from their house in Stillwater and arrived at the mountain two days later. David Francis said he was furious when he learned searchers had not yet gone to the summit to see whether Jon had made it. A mountain guide volunteered to make the climb. At the summit, he found a message from Jon: “Great times bouldering! All glory to God for the climb and the beautiful Sawtooths.”

The Idaho law enforcement search was called off July 18, 2006. “The incident commander came to me and said, ‘You need to be thinking about giving your son up to the mountain,’ ” David Francis said. “I said: ‘After a day of searching? After one day of searching? No. Keep searching.’ ”

Over the next three weeks, about 140 people — friends and strangers — came to help the family in their search. The Francises hired private guides to navigate the rugged terrain.

Jon Francis’ family provided this July 2005 photograph; they didn’t know which mountain range it was. (Pioneer Press file photo)

A wilderness searcher found Jon Francis’s remains a little more than a year later, on July 24, 2007; he had fallen to his death from the north face of the Grand Mogul.

Since then, David Francis, 77, has emerged as a national advocate for missing adults. He has written a book, “Bringing Jon Home,” and founded the Jon Francis Foundation, which provides information and advice to families searching for people missing in the wild.

David Francis also was pivotal in the passage of Minnesota’s “Brandon’s Law,” named after 19-year-old Brandon Swanson, who disappeared in southwestern Minnesota in May 2008. The law requires law enforcement agencies to file missing persons reports and begin investigations when an adult disappears. Swanson has yet to be found.

The case still haunts Francis.

“We spent hours, days, weeks, months, years of searching … no trace, no trace,” he said. “As you can imagine, the hardest part is to sit down with the family, and say, ‘I’m sorry, we have done a lot of things and spent a lot of money and put a lot of resources into it and really worked hard, but we have not found your loved one. We don’t know where he is.’ ”


Since it was established in 2007, the Jon Francis Foundation has provided crisis and grief support to 46 families in 19 states and Canada. “We have resolved the unresolved loss of 10 of them,” he said. “Four had survived the trauma. Unfortunately, most did not.”

David Francis waters a Black Hills spruce sapling in Rutherford Cemetery in Stillwater on Thursday, June 23, 2016. Each spring, David and Linda Francis plant a seedling pine in a pot and leave it at their son Jon’s grave in Stillwater. Each fall, they replant the tree in the yard of their townhouse in Stillwater. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

Francis said last week that he plans to continue his work for as long as he is able.

His last search was for Deb Hendrichs, 56, of Star, Idaho, who went missing on Jan. 11, 2021, in the Blue Mountains near Meacham, Ore., when her Toyota RAV-4 ran out of gas.

“She walked away from it in subfreezing winter weather,” he said. “It was a fatal error. She succumbed to hypothermia.”

Hendrichs’ body was found May 8, just a thousand feet from her car, he said. “It’s really tragic, but then all missing persons are tragedies,” he said.

When Jon Francis went missing, local law enforcement officers in Idaho did not do enough to help, David Francis said.

Now, he said, things are different.

“It’s been a journey,” Francis said. “Back then, we were struggling to get search-and-rescue volunteers, and law enforcement officers were distrustful of us, primarily county sheriffs. Now, search-and-rescue people are calling me and sending me their résumés. County sheriffs are bringing us in and asking for advice.”


At the time he disappeared, Jon was a youth minister in Ogden, Utah. He majored in religion at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., and had planned to go to Luther Seminary in St. Paul to become a minister.

At his funeral service in October 2007, David Francis said that “Jon saw God in all creation and knew it was all good. He had a pastor’s heart: He was full of love for others.”

David Francis also read part of a paper that Jon wrote for a religion class at Augustana.

“I do not know why, but I am closer to God when I am outside,” Jon wrote. “I give glory to God for her abundant creation. There is goodness all round. There is goodness deep within.”

“We still miss him,” David Francis said last week. “There are holes in our hearts that Jon filled. As you know, there is no such thing as closure. It’s a myth. You just reach a point of resolution and ability to live a mainly normal life, but you always have that nagging pain. Our lives are not whole because we lost a son who was just so precious and dear to us.”

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