Search For Chad Austin Over

Search For Chad Austin Over


Quest For Answers Continues

The year-long search for Buena Vista resident Chad Austin, 30, has ended after human remains recovered in the greater Panther Falls area in March were confirmed by state police Monday to be Austin.

“The Austin family has been relentless in their search for Chad,” Buena Vista Police Chief Keith Hartman said in a statement issued by Virginia State Police Monday. “Sadly, now they are grieving the loss of a son and brother.”

Austin was first reported missing after his vehicle was found vacated the afternoon of Tuesday, May 28, 2019, in the Panther Falls area of Amherst County. His disappearance prompted a missing person investigation. Virginia State Police announced Monday a search and recovery operation in late March led to the discovery of Austin’s skeletal remains, as well as property and evidence that is currently undergoing testing at the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.

Because Austin’s remains were discovered in Amherst County and not within the city limits of Buena Vista, the Virginia State Police announced their agency will assume the lead on the investigation. Austin’s death is being investigated as a homicide.

“From the outset, the investigators assigned to this case recognized the distinct possibility that Chad would not be found alive,” Virginia State Police Special Agent K.A. Zirkle said in the statement Monday. “Because of that, this case has been handled as a homicide investigation from the very beginning. That means that while we have been diligently searching for Chad with the hopes of finding him safe and well, investigators with the Buena Vista Police Department and state police have been collecting and documenting evidence and information that would explain how he died, and who could be responsible for Chad’s death. Make no mistake, much headway has been made in the last year. As unfortunate as this development is, finding Chad’s remains allows us to now focus exclusively on the circumstances leading to his death.”

Austin was last seen on May 27, 2019, Memorial Day, by hikers in the Panther Falls area. His car was found abandoned about two miles down the turnoff for Panther Falls Road the following day with his dog, Gunner, found unharmed and locked inside the vehicle. A search of the immediate area resulted in partial keys and personal items belonging to Austin being found about half a mile from the abandoned car. The vehicle was reportedly out of fuel when it was located at Panther Falls.

Several formal searches were conducted in the weeks following Austin’s disappearance and did not yield any significant findings. A wallet was turned in to Buena Vista police Dec. 22, 2019, after individuals found it lying near the Panther Falls trailhead. Contents of the wallet were identified as belonging to Austin. Because the immediate area had been searched prior to that time, and the wallet was not found in a damaged condition, police said they were inclined to believe it was placed at the trailhead.

“We are confident that there are persons in the community with relevant information that could help bring this case to a logical conclusion,” Agent Zirkle said Monday. “We want to assure local residents that the multi-agency investigative team actively pursuing this case will continue to conduct additional interviews and forensic examinations. A number of people have already come forward - and we are grateful for their trust - but those who have been reluctant are still encouraged to call the Virginia State Police.”

Anyone with information are encouraged to contact the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s Salem Field Office at 1-800-542-5959 or (540) 375-9589, or by email at questions@ The Buena Vista Police Department has met regularly with Virginia State Police through the investigation and will continue to work together pursuing new information, receiving assistance of the Amherst County Sheriff’s Office and Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office. The Amherst County Commonwealth’s Attorney and Buena Vista Police Department will also continue to provide resources and assistance in the investigation.

“The Austins are longtime members of this community and they deserve our respect,” Chief Hartman said. “And they deserve privacy. Most of all, they deserve answers. We intend to find those answers as we continue to pursue this investigation in partnership with state police.”

‘As unfortunate as this development is, finding Chad’s remains allows us to now focus exclusively on the circumstances leading to his death.’

- Special Agent K.A. Zirkle

The News-Gazette

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