On Monday, April 5, 2010, an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., killed
29 coal miners. Fast-forward to Tuesday, June 7, 2016: the night was clear and cool
, the mine entrances had long been sealed off, and David Lee Adkins
had snuck into the mine to steal copper abandoned after operations ceased.
He didn’t go alone. On Wednesday, June 8, police charged William Bennett with breaking into and entering the mine alongside him. On Friday, June 10, they brought charges against Everett Adkins as well. (Note: I have not been able to find out if Everett and David were related.) They did not
bring charges against David, whom they never found. According to William and Everett, David was with them inside the mine until about 2:30 a.m., when he got separated
A mine rescue team conducted a two-day, underground search for David, covering every accessible area of the mine
, but turned up nothing.
On Sunday, June 12, the Beckley, W.Va., "Register-Herald" reported
that police “[knew] he was in the […] mine at some point, but he may have exited with the other two men [William and Everett].”
Complicating matters, David’s wife told police that at least three
other men went with David to steal the copper, implying that someone besides William and Everett was also involved but never charged with a crime.
David’s mother, however, didn’t seem to trust his wife:
In an interview with WVVA on Friday [June 10, 2016], Adkins’ mother, Nancy, said she believes there is more to the story. She said her son and his wife had a troubled history, parting ways just days before her son disappeared.
“He disappeared. He and his wife got into an argument. She wanted him to go out in the mountains and steal copper. He said he didn’t want to and he didn’t like it and he left,” said Adkins. “My heart feels like it’s just breaking in two. I’ve never experienced anything like this except when my grandson died last year. That was the worst part. But this, this is killing me … not knowing if he’s alive or anything.”
The Fairmont, W.Va., "Times West Virginian" reported
that “low oxygen levels are one of the serious threats copper thieves face when entering abandoned mine shafts.” Assuming that David got lost in the mine, died of suffocation, dehydration, or an injury, and simply went undiscovered, it would not be the only time a copper thief met such a fate. In September 2016, just three months after David’s disappearance, a copper thief in McDowell County, W.Va., was never found
in the mine shaft he entered, even though his three partners were successfully rescued. The mine was sealed up again—with, presumably, the missing man’s body still inside.
The Upper Big Branch Mine was, likewise, resealed. As a West Virginian who followed coverage of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster—and the resulting litigation—as it unfolded, I’m fascinated by David’s disappearance.
Do you believe, as I do, that David is still somewhere in that mine?
Do you believe he escaped the mine, avoided police detection, and is now living off the grid or under an assumed identify?
Do you believe the third, unnamed thief played a special role in his disappearance?
And what, if anything, should we make of his apparent marital problems?
I’d love to read your thoughts on this case.
Charleston, W.Va., "Gazette-Mail" coverage of Adkins’ disappearance (June 8, 2016)
WVVA coverage of the suspended search for Adkins (June 10, 2016)
WSAZ coverage of the suspended search for Adkins (June 11, 2016)
Beckley, W.Va., "Register-Herald" coverage of the suspended search for Adkins (June 12, 2016)
Charley Project page (updated June 9, 2017)
Fairmont, W.Va., "Times West Virginian" coverage of a subsequent, similar disappearance (September 9, 2016)