Next Saturday, Tim Partlow and his 91-year-old mother, Naomi McCrea, will load into a car in search of a Christmas tree for McCrea’s mobile home.
Picking out a tree on Dec. 14, the birthday of McCrea’s oldest son, David Partlow, has been a family tradition going back decades. And it’s one that has carried on since Partlow disappeared while hang gliding in 1987.
While he was presumed dead after an intensive search-and-rescue effort only turned up his damaged glider, his death wasn’t made official until last month.
“I refuse to buy an artificial” tree, McCrea said. David “was real,” she explained, “so should the tree.”
McCrea said she remembers her son best by thinking of the holidays. The 74-page scrapbook McCrea keeps as a record of Partlow’s life includes dozens of photos from Easter through Thanksgiving.
The pages contain his graduation tassel from the Ritzville High School class of 1976, training certificates he from his time in the U.S. Air Force and his job application to work in The Spokesman-Review engraving department.
The scrapbook also includes newspaper clippings from each article about his disappearance, poems about his death and unrelated stories about hang gliding from The Spokesman-Review and magazines.
But a number of the pages in the album have letters from the 1990s that detail the mission McCrea has been on for 32 years to find her son – and the longer, perhaps more arduous, effort to get his certificate of death without a body.
A beloved son
McCrea’s scrapbook of Partlow’s life begins with his birth certificate and includes just about every surviving piece of paper she kept related to his life. Many of his personal belongings were lost in a house fire after his death, in the late ’80s.
Partlow was born in Los Angeles County while his mother and father, a U.S. Navy service member, were living near Long Beach.
Yearbook photos chronicle Partlow’s growth from grade school to high school. By the time he was a teenager, he consistently wore his hair long. He kept it that way until his disappearance.
“I didn’t like his hair long, but I loved him so I didn’t say anything,” McCrea said.
The family, which included six kids, moved to Ritzville in the early ’70s. Partlow wrestled at Ritzville High School and delivered the invocation during his graduation in 1976. He was especially close with his brother, Tim.
“He raised me like a father,” Tim said. “Everybody that knew him just loved him.”
Partlow joined the U.S. Air Force after graduating from high school and moved to Spokane in 1978. Then he took classes at Spokane Falls Community College and Spokane Community College in visual arts and electronics. From 1984 to 1986 he worked in The Spokesman-Review engraving department, then followed his girlfriend to Kalispell for her job.
McCrea kept postcards Partlow sent from Montana in her album. He asked her to write to him more often and signed all of them, “Love Dave.”
“He was so kind and thoughtful to his mother,” McCrea said.
Partlow worked at a business equipment company, but he told McCrea in one letter that he hoped to open a T-shirt shop and a gallery for the growing tourist trade in Kalispell.
“He was a very interesting human being,” Tim said. “He was an artist and a hang-glider pilot.”
Partlow first started hang gliding on Tekoa Mountain in Whitman County around 1980. McCrea remembers how he looked like he was in a cocoon in his harness. But she only ever saw photos.
His younger brother, Tim, who lived with Partlow off and on in the early ’80s, was often the “hang driver,” helping his brother and other hang gliders take off and picking them up where they landed. Sometimes those flights were as far as Chelan to Coeur d’Alene.
One of McCrea’s favorite photos of Partlow shows Tim holding his glider as he secured his harness.
“They called him a wind dummy,” Tim remembered, because at competitions David would fly before anyone else to test which direction the wind was going, and if it was gusty.
“When he flew he would say, ‘I lived and I lived,’ ” Tim said. “That’s what he thought about flying. It was really living.”
It also allowed him to release any negative baggage he was carrying, Tim said.
Partlow and three friends leaped from Blaine Mountain, northeast of Kalispell, on May 9, 1987. The friends flew south, but heavy wind knocked the 29-year-old Partlow off course and due north.
“His glider wasn’t made for extreme conditions and he got sucked up,” Tim said. “His friends watched him turn into a little speck in the sky.”
That would be the last time anyone saw Partlow again.
It was Mother’s Day and McCrea was expecting a call from her son. Instead, when the phone rang, it was her daughter, Kristel, calling with bad news.
As many as 80 people, most of them volunteers, and two helicopters looked for Partlow until the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department called off the search two days after he disappeared.
“We felt if he would have survived in that, we would have found him by now,” Undersheriff Gary Franklin told the Spokane Daily Chronicle on May 12, 1987. “We just don’t have any clues where he is.”
But Partlow’s friends refused to stop looking. They continued to search on May 13 and again on May 17, according to newspaper archives.
Several weeks later, a pilot caught a glint of light coming from the east side of Columbia Mountain, according to newspaper archives. It was the wing of Partlow’s hang glider sitting in a clearing surrounded by thick brush, about seven miles north of where he and his friends took off.
The glider was mostly intact after what looked to be a rough landing. There were no signs Partlow had been injured, but his body was nowhere to be found.
“It looks like he just took off running,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Corky Derby told The Spokesman-Review in 1988.
His parachute, which may have been used for warmth, was flattened out across the ground and left behind. His rucksack with any limited survival supplies Partlow packed was at the landing site as well.
“We know that he survived the landing, but we don’t believe that he survived the elements,” Derby said.
As soon as Partlow left his landing spot, he would have been in extremely deep snow. Search crews later found pieces of a down vest and a sock down the mountain that they believe were Partlow’s.
“He was not dressed for that kind of cold night’s snow and rough terrain that led down the mountain,” Kitty Rhodes, the wife of the county sheriff, wrote in a 1993 letter to McCrea. “It is a very rugged but beautiful area.”
The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex “is one of the most dense wilderness areas in the United States,” Tim said. “You could be walking several feet from a body and not see it, the underbrush is so thick.”
Partlow had flown in the same spot the week before and saw bears before landing near a heard of elk.
“After every flight he would write his friends and say it’s like a religion, it’s so beautiful,” Jeanine Knight, Partlow’s girlfriend at the time, told The Spokesman-Review. “Not too many people die doing what they enjoy.”
On an early December afternoon, McCrea held her album of Partlow’s life in her lap. She read the news stories about his disappearance out loud from an armchair in her mobile home.
McCrea has lived in Spokane ever since moving from Ritzville in 1985. And she’s been searching for closure with her son’s death nearly the entire time.
After Partlow’s disappearance, McCrea went to a local psychic who she thought might uncover subconscious clues about her son’s location. Instead, she got nightmares from the gruesome stories the psychic told her about grizzly bears attacking him.
“I had all these terrible ideas about how he died,” she said.
The year after her son disappeared, the family put a bronze plaque in Partlow’s honor on top of Tekoa Mountain 30 miles south of Spokane, where he learned to fly. It is inscribed with a poem by his sister Kristel Partlow called “Wings for Dave.” The family used to visit each year on Mother’s Day to place flowers.
By that time, she had litte hope her son was alive, but still entertained the thought that he might be wandering around somewhere with amnesia.
As time passed and her belief he might be alive faded, she kept in close contact with the family of former Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Rhodes through the late ’90s in hopes that someone might find Partlow’s body.
At one point, she wrote to the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries” seeking help.
And for decades she called the phone number for a Kalispell-based attorney for help securing a death certificate.
“I tried and tried and tried,” McCrea said.
Then, in spring 2016, she got the phone number for someone who had the right connections to help her: Duana DeReu, a deputy clerk at the Flathead County Clerk and Recorder’s Office.
DeReu said McCrea first got in touch with her about a year and a half ago.
“I wasn’t quite sure what I needed to do. It was always in the back of my mind,” DeReu said. And “Naomi kept finding me,” DeReu said, despite stints at different Flathead County offices.
Attorneys DeReu knew were willing to pitch in to help, but no one agreed to spearhead the legal effort – until Kim Christopherson showed up at the clerk’s office one day.
“She said, ‘I don’t know why I always get all of these convoluted cases,’ ” DeReu remembered. “And I said, ‘I’ve got one for you.’ ”
Many of those convoluted cases involved complicated real estate dealings where previous property owners had died and Christopherson had to build an argument based on inferences and circumstantial evidence.
“It seemed like that was probably what we would have to do in” Partlow’s case, Christopherson said.
Once the process began, it took a matter of weeks to complete.
The first step was to petition the court to direct the county coroner to request a death certificate. A judge agreed to do so almost immediately.
Then the county coroner signed off, and Partlow’s information was sent to the Montana Office of Vital Records to create his death certificate.
“It was something she needed for the ever-elusive ‘closure,’ ” Christopherson said. “God puts us here to help people when we can. It was an opportunity for me to do that.”
Christopherson added, “Sometimes it’s just a matter of helping people be heard.”
DeReu was already planning to drive to Spokane a few weeks ago and decided to surprised McCrea with the death certificate on Nov. 23. She reached out to Tim Partlow so he could be there, too.
It was “a relief,” McCrea said. “It gave me closure finally.”
DeReu credits the many people who rallied around to help McCrea and McCrea’s own persistence for bringing about a resolution to the disappearance.
“It was kind of bittersweet because you’re giving a death certificate to someone, but she was happy to get it,” DeReu said.
“I don’t know why I’m smiling,” McCrea said a week after she received the death certificate. “It’s supposed to be sad.”
After Partlow disappeared, McCrea went to Tekoa Mountain to watch hang gliding for the first time, experiencing a piece of what her son was so passionate about.
“I thought it was amazing how they could do that,” McCrea said. “Beautiful.”
In a poem McCrea wrote, she wonders if Partlow earned angel’s wings after his death.
“I go to church every Sunday praying for him that they’ll find his remains someday,” she said sitting in her chair, clutching his album. “But I’ll see him in heaven. I have hope there.”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.