What happened to Khayman? Search continues for man who disappeared in the Tonto National Forest
GOLD CANYON, Ariz. - A Phoenix man mysteriously disappeared in the Tonto National Forest.
What happened to Khayman Welch? Now more than a year since he vanished, there’s still not a single trace of him.
For the first time, we’re hearing from the lead detective on the case as Khayman’s mother is desperately hoping for closure.
Khayman was a mystery himself. Quiet and reserved, he didn’t talk much to anyone besides family. Covered in tattoos, but underneath the ink, Rihannon Lewallen says her son, "Khay" carried a heart of gold.
"He has an amazing soul, amazing spirit," she said. "There was nobody in this world that doesn't love him."
Khayman worked as a tattoo artist but struggled with what he called crippling anxiety and battled depression. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and he decided to get away to work on his mental health.
"So he was taking a break from his passion, which is art and tattooing, to kind of regroup and get back into it, because he put his heart and soul into what he did," said Rihannon.
Khayman often messaged his mother with signs, both negative and positive, depending on the day. She says she knew he was trying.
"Everyone in the family knew that he was having some things he was working through, but I guess we didn't really know the extent of it."
But the days and weeks leading up to Khayman’s disappearance are haunting. His mental state concerned Rihannon.
"Honestly, whenever my phone rings and it's Uncle Brian calling, I kind of have a panic attack, just because it takes me back to that night when I got that call."
On August 12, 2020, Rihannon learned her son was nowhere to be found.
Tonto National Forest, which is more than 2.9 million acres, is the largest forest in Arizona — a beauty in the Sonoran Desert diverse with terrain, vegetation, and elevation. The Superstition Mountains await visitors from across the world.
The day, Khayman took a job with his uncle doing AC work at Tortilla Flat. After finishing the work, he suggested stopping at Weaver’s Needle Vista east of State Route 88. They went and his uncle parked in the lot just after 7 p.m. Khay got out and explored, walking southeast towards the peak.
"It just seemed like he just wanted to go get a quick view of the vista at sunset," said Detective Rob Marske with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
For investigators, where Khayman went to get a better view of Weaver’s Needle is the beginning of so many questions.
What was Khayman thinking at that very moment? Which way did he go? And where did he ultimately end up?
Marske has been investigating Khayman’s disappearance, trying to answer those questions.
"He had made a comment to his mom ... wished he could go somewhere and nobody would know him or he could just go and disappear."
MORE: Family looks for answers after man goes missing near Superstition Mountains
An extensive search followed in triple-digit temperatures for about eight days. MCSO deployed tracking dogs, drones, helicopters with infrared cameras and horseback riders.
Khayman was last seen wearing a black "Ghostbusters" T-shirt, black jeans, and black leather Army-style boots.
"Khay left behind zero clues ... during this intense search, we did not find any articles of clothing, he left without a water bottle, his cell phone was left in the vehicle, his wallet was left behind in this vehicle," said Marske.
Superstition Fire sparks a week after his disappearance
Then came the Superstition Fire a week into Khayman’s disappearance.
"The fire was not that far from here. Just about two miles away to the east, but then to the south, it was even closer," Marske said.
The fire was detrimental to finding Welch.
A theory is that he may have perished without food and water in extreme heat well before the wildfire. "That spread well within the search area. So there is the theory that if his remains were out there, that they could have gotten burned up in the fire as well," Marske speculated.
The categorized map that documents the ground covered by crews in the search thus far, is littered with notes, like the discovery of bones, dead animals and mine shafts.
As of Nov. 15, MCSO has not found any physical evidence linked to Welch.
"In some of these areas where you're in a valley and you're looking at trees and shrubs on the sides of the base there, you have to get really up close and it just takes an immense amount of time to get up to these and look," Marske explained.
He adds, "We don't have anything new. We're over a year now and been in contact with his mom with his uncle. They haven't been able to provide any additional information as far as his state of mind or any additional clues that would help bring any kind of closure."
Did Welch intend to disappear behind the sunset he came for?
Marske said investigators checked out Welch's computer and found searches related to suicide, but specified he didn't search for manners of suicide.
"This whole thing is that strange, and I know that whatever happened was not intentional," said Marske.
The search continues
Since August 2020, a group of Valley hikers formed their own volunteer search team. They continue to make the trek to where Khayman was last spotted, combing through the terrain, analyzing it all, updating Det. Marske on their findings.
As each day passes, Khayman’s mother just wants peace for her firstborn.
"I have a hard time looking at his pictures right now. Just because of how much trauma there is."
Rihannon is wondering if she will ever be able to move forward.
"With no answers, it just keeps you stuck."
Khayman’s 27th birthday is Nov. 16.
Please contact MCSO at 602-876-TIPS if you have any information about this case, especially if you see something while on the Superstition Mountains’ trails.
The group trying to find Khayman continues to raise funds for a private investigator, billboard rentals, and outreach to keep the search going.
More missing persons reports:
- What happened to 'Jubi'? FBI, Scottsdale PD's search continues for missing man with autism
- Human remains found by volunteer while searching for Daniel Robinson in Buckeye
- Police seek Navajo Nation woman missing since Oct. 6
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