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Lost: Couple With Missing Son Now Have Lost Home (Courtesy, The Mountain Democrat, Placerville, CA)

by Dawn Hodson

Tragedy seems to have come in threes for Vern and Cyndi Matthews.

In June they learned that someone had ransacked their vacation home off of Spring Valley Road in Pollock Pines. They learned of the break-in from their son, Vernon "Cody" Matthews, who arrived a few days ahead of his parents.

Cody, an adventurous 24-year-old, had gone up early as he intended to live off the land for the summer.

According to Vern Matthews, the thieves took all his clothes, his wife's jewelry and tools, with the damage and theft estimated at about $18,000.

"I think they had been there for several hours, if not several days," Vern said. And although the identity of the thieves is still a mystery, they may have left behind some fingerprints that will eventually help in tracking them down.

The second and biggest tragedy for the Matthews, however, is the unexplained disappearance of Cody on June 6, only a few days after he called and told his parents of the break in. While an extensive search has been mounted to find him, he seems to have vanished into thin air.

"Our son set himself up for a challenge, but something went wrong," said Vern. "We've gone through hundreds of conspiracy theories, but nothing works. I was going to help him set up in the back country so he could live back there over the summer. He's always attended family events and has always been very close to us. But he missed my birthday, Father's Day, his mother's birthday, his sister's wedding, his girlfriend's birthday, missed his own birthday and his chance to go back to finish his last year at UC Berkeley. These are things he wouldn't do. They are so far out of character, it just doesn't register."

Needing to find their youngest child, the Matthews quit their jobs in Southern California and moved to Pollock Pines permanently to continue the search.

"We realized the search for Cody wouldn't be over any time soon, and we moved up here," said Cindi.

With the family now in Pollock Pines tracking down every lead and putting up posters everywhere, the third tragedy struck on Sept. 13 when a 2-acre blaze in Pollock Pines turned into the King Fire, destroying 12 residences and 56 outbuildings in the White Meadows area, including the home of the Matthews.

The Matthews, along with many of their neighbors, actually saw their homes go up in smoke as they watched from a ridge using binoculars on Wednesday, Sept. 17. "We'd say, there's so and so's house, there's so and so's house," said Vern.

Evacuated the previous weekend, they and their neighbors initially set up camp in the parking lot at Fresh Pond. The owner of Fresh Pond subsequently offered to let them stay for free in camping spots on the hill behind the convenience center. Ever since, the Matthews have been camping out gypsy style. Their home now a tent, a portable shower and a lean-to made up of laced together posts and a tarp to keep out the weather. Meanwhile, one by one the other evacuees found different places to stay.

With the search for Cody now on hold because of the fire, on Tuesday the Matthews and other families were finally allowed back into the White Meadows area to survey the damage.

"Some are having a hard time swallowing it," said Vern. "But everybody has a stiff upper lip. We just need to get to work because it's not going to get any better. It's only up from here. It's a very unique community. The nature of the people who live in places like this. Hardships are almost stripes on your uniform."

Already trying to organize themselves, the people in the neighborhood held a meeting on the 23rd to discuss how they can work together to get the resources they need to rebuild. "We all like our room up here," he said, "but it's a tight-knit community and when something happens, everyone is there."

With security the biggest topic at the meeting, the group discussed how to restrict access to people's property. People were also concerned about how to get water since most are on wells. The Matthews get theirs from a spring but the pipe to the house has been damaged.

Walking around their now charred property, Vern pointed out that the main part of the house was about 160 years old and was originally a cabin for feeding loggers. It's now a pile of rubble, the remains of the appliances warped and blackened. A large metal bell they rang at their wedding still intact but damaged. The grounds littered with burned cans, charred pieces of wood and what was left of a car.

Off to one side of the road were the remains of a tractor and a shed that once held multiple canoes and kyacks. On the other, the remains of a tool shed and a 48-foot commercial tractor-trailer. "There was over 19,000 pounds just in steel alone in it," said Vern. Now, nothing was left but parts of the frame and the metal tire rims. "It had to be 3,000 degrees and burn for several hours for this to happen," he said.

A former fireman himself for nearly 20 years, Vern described the burn pattern of the fire at his home and the home of his neighbors, Michele and Doug Mudgett, who live about a half mile away on a ranch called Pacific House Farms.

The Mudgett's home and an adjacent agricultural building were lost, but the pens for holding the animals were all intact.

"We lost 150 chickens in the fire," Michele said, but the remaining 50 survived and were clucking their way around the remains of the Mudgett's ranch on Wednesday.

The Mudgetts also raise goats, pigs, sheep and turkeys. But because they couldn't get their three pigs to load the day they evacuated, each of which weigh around 800 pounds, they had to leave them behind. "But we left the sprinkler on to spray the shed to keep it from catching fire," she said. The fireman also helped keep the pigs alive by spraying them with water and feeding them sandwiches.

"But it wasn't just the fire crews who helped," she said. "So did law enforcement and Animal Services. The care and dedication and extra time they put in to make sure the animals were OK was really impressive."

The Mudgetts, like the Matthews, are now thinking about putting a trailer on the property temporarily while they rebuild and plant new vegetation to hold the soil.

"We now have a place to start," said Vern, who noted they need an old but working trailer they can park on the property and tools. They thought about camping on the property, but once it starts to rain there will be mud slides, so they need something to live in that is off the ground. If anyone has a used but working trailer, Vern asked that you call him at 909-730-3218.

In the meantime, the Matthews like their neighbors are getting over the shock of losing their homes and are ready to rebuild.

"This is a hardy, hardy group of people," he said. "We're mountain folk like MacGyver. Everyone is a kind of jack of all trades. Everybody purposely lives not a simpler life but a less complex life, but it's a lot more work. We're all comfortable, depending on ourselves and our neighbors and getting by without a lot of resources.

At the same time, the Matthews realize the fire has complicated their search for Cody. "If there were any clues left as to what happened to our son, they are now gone," said Vern. "And if our son did for some reason perish back here, we will never know now. It was incinerator temperature for hours and hours and hours."

But that is not keeping them from looking, as Cindi recently printed another 5,000 copies of a flyer about Cody's disappearance.

"The fire was a kick in the gut for us," said Vern. "But it was overshadowed by our son missing. All we think of most of the time is how to find our son."

Additional photos HERE.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or dhodson [- at -] mtdemocrat.net. Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.

Courtesy, The Mountain Democrat
2889 Ray Lawyer Drive
Placerville, CA 95667
530-622-1255
www.mtdemocrat.com

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