Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 29, 2013

Newsmakers: 'Rogue camping event' leads to search, arrest

BY MATT TROUTMAN mtroutman@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — EDITOR’S NOTE: Newsmakers 2013 profiles people, places and events that made news in the Grand Traverse region during the past year.

GLEN ARBOR — A late-summer “rogue camping event” sparked a 12-hour manhunt for a Orchard Lake man and his three children who walked into Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore without food, water or shelter.

The Aug. 26 search ended when a Leelanau County sheriff’s deputy finally spotted the family after they spent almost two rain-soaked days in the dunes and swamps near Glen Haven in a deliberate attempt to hide from authorities.

The children -- ages 14, 10 and 9 -- emerged in good health, despite their hunger, thirst and bug bites. Their father, Daniel Gerard Elliott, 50, was arrested on an outstanding Emmet County warrant, but still hasn’t been charged in what Leelanau County Sheriff Mike Borkovich called a “rogue camping event” that had authorities considering issuing an Amber Alert.

“We did have concerns,” Borkovich said. “I had particular concerns because of the emotions of the whole event and how it started.”

The incident began when Elliott, his wife and children visited friends and family in the Petoskey area on Aug. 25. Elliott’s wife told authorities that Elliott forced her out of the family vehicle on U.S. 131 during an argument and drove off with the children.

A park ranger on patrol the next morning found the abandoned family vehicle near the Maritime Museum in Glen Haven, a discovery that prompted a massive search by several law enforcement agencies and local fire departments. Officials closed several park trails and attractions, including the popular Dune Climb, near the spot where the family spent a rainy night and morning without food, water and camping equipment.

Borkovich said search dogs and a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter “pinned down” the family. He said the children later told authorities their father told them to deliberately hide from authorities in almost a “hide-and-seek” manner in the dense underbrush.

“I don’t want to say they considered it a game, but an adventure,” Borkovich said. “I guess in a strange way I was glad to hear that from them, rather than them being scared.”

Elliott’s bizarre behavior didn’t end with his detection and arrest -- he stood mute and shirtless through an Emmet County court appearance in which a judge tied his bond to a mental health evaluation. Elliott, who couldn’t be reached for comment, eventually pleaded no contest to assault and battery. He received four months of probation, outpatient counseling and no contact with his wife.

Leelanau County Prosecutor Joe Hubbell said he needed more information about Elliott’s state of mind before he considers issuing criminal charges for the “rogue camping incident.” He said he’s curious to see if Elliott’s ongoing divorce case addresses the issue.

“The concern is the guy was obviously suffering a delusional episode and I hope that would be addressed in the divorce case,” Hubbell said. “I don’t think a criminal case is the best way to address that at this point … at least until I get some more information.”

Borkovich said Elliott’s actions were neglectful, but not intentional harmful. He said the department learned several lessons from the incident, including the need for new rain gear and its own search-and-rescue dog.

“Obviously, it was expensive to do the operation. It was not something you plan for, but you do anticipate,” he said. “Truthfully, I don’t have a grasp on the cost, but it did tie up resources. I’m just glad it did have a good ending.”