Family of missing man won’t stop searching

Michael McKenney, a missing person, pictured (on the right) with his sister and brother

Yalonda Middleton

Michael McKenney, on the right wearing a hat, in happier times with his sister, Callie McKenney and her baby, and his brother, Austin McKenney

By Blake Boyd

Michael McKenney hasn’t been seen by his family since Memorial Day.

McKenney, 29, of Hamilton, has been officially listed as a missing person since June. 

Michael McKenney, missing since Memorial Day
Michael McKenney, 29, went missing on Memorial Day. His car was later found abandoned in Hueston Woods, near Oxford. Photo provided by his mother, Yalonda Middleton

McKenney’s car and phone were found May 30, 2020 at a bird sanctuary in Hueston Woods State Park, near the covered bridge, just north of Oxford. McKenney had been living with his aunt, Della Young, and her family before he went missing and spent time in a halfway house battling addiction.

Through questions, doubts and concerns, McKenney’s family reminisces.  

“He was always a happy, free-going person — never had a care or worry in the world,” said his brother, Austin McKenney. “He always wanted to make you smile — wanted to make everyone smile. He was into the hippie side of things… He carried stones and things like that. He cared about the Earth.”

“There’s so many memories… I’ve been going through childhood things lately… from when he was in preschool and kindergarten… I have his Boy Scout uniform, his baseball clothes. I kept all that,” said McKenney’s mother, Yalonda Middleton. “I just liked spending time with him.”

“He loved people, loved to hang out with everybody, was always there for everybody,” said Callie McKenney, the missing man’s sister.

Austin McKenney said the absence makes it difficult to be with family. “I feel like when I go around them I get very upset and think about how he’s missing. When I’m alone… in my thoughts I just think ‘Where is he?’ or ‘What’s the next holiday going to be like?’ or his birthday which just passed not too long ago.”

According to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, more than 600,000 people go missing in the U.S. each year, and 4,400 bodies are recovered and not identified.

Fairfield Township Police Sgt. Brandon McCroskey, of the department’s investigations section, was assigned the McKenney case after the original police report was filed by his family. 

McCroskey said McKenney’s car was processed by the Ohio Bureau of Investigations and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and McKenney’s most-recent contacts were interviewed by police. McCroskey said there’s no direct evidence of crime.

“Cases like this…they’re difficult,” McCroskey said. “They’re difficult for the investigator. They’re frustrating because everybody looks to the police for answers and we’re kind of at the mercy of the evidence that is, or is not. And in this case, is not.”

“Believe me. I wish my crystal ball worked.”

McCroskey said drugs are being considered as a factor in the disappearance.

Young, who McKenney had been living with, said the situation had become tense in her house as her family had been trying to help McKenney overcome drug use, and had recently confronted him about a sore on his neck. Young said McKenney had a history of using heroin and had been revived once, by her son, using CPR.

Michael McKenney left drug rehab and moved in with his aunt a week before he went missing
Michael McKenney had left a drug rehab program and moved in with his aunt about a week before he went missing. Photo provided by Yalonda McKenney

“He was a drug addict and he came to live with me to try to get off (drugs). He tried rehab but he just felt like he couldn’t do it there,” Young said. “So, I let him come live with us.”

Young said McKenney had only bought his car two weeks before he went missing. She said she’d begged him not to get it, thinking it might aid his addiction, making it easier for him to purchase drugs. Young said McKenney had recently borrowed money from her brother, and Callie McKenney said he had also recently asked her for money. Callie McKenney said she thinks her brother overdosed. 

“It already got to him once and I think it could’ve gotten to him again,” she said.

The American Medical Association (AMA) has reported an increase in opioid- and other drug-related overdoses since the COVID-19 outbreak started early this year. On Oct. 7, the AMA updated their policy recommendations for state and local municipalities to mitigate drug-related crises during the pandemic. Their recommendations focus on ensuring access to care, protecting patients with pain, and harm reduction. 

Southwest Ohio is a hotspot for drug-related deaths. According to data from the Ohio Department of Health, one in every 1,876 Butler County residents died from unintentional overdoses from 2013 to 2018.

Young said McKenney had been to drug rehabilitation counseling about a week before his disappearance.

McCroskey said it’s impossible to know what happened until McKenney is found, especially because some people intentionally go missing or run away, seeking a fresh start. “He could be sitting in Mexico drinking Mai Tais for as much as we know,” McCroskey said. “If I don’t want to be found, there’s a good chance that it will either take a long time for someone to find me or I will never be found.”

His family said it wouldn’t be like McKenney to run away.

Searches around the area where McKenney’s car was found at Hueston Woods have been organized on Facebook. “We get a lot of people interested in going out to look that don’t even know Michael, which is wonderful,” Middleton said. “I’ve never seen such… good people.”

Volunteers search the area where Michael McKenney was last seen at Hueston Woods State Park
Volunteer searchers, many who did not even know Michael McKenney, continue to help family members search Hueston Woods State Park for the missing man, including this group on Sept. 26. Photo by Blake Boyd

Middleton said she doesn’t plan to stop looking for her son. 

“If I don’t continue searching, I feel like I’m going to let him down,” Middleton said. “I feel like I have to keep looking until I know.”

The McKenney family started a GoFundMe page to raise money to hire a private investigator to help with their search. 

“I never thought one of my kids would go missing. I never thought it would be this long just to even know. It’s just like he disappeared,” Middleton said. “I just want answers. This is probably the toughest thing I’ve ever been through. It’s hard to move on and deal with anything. My attention, it’s just not on anything but (Michael).”