A loner's story
By BILL COATS, Times Staff Writer
LUTZ -- A year ago today was a pleasant Saturday morning in Lutz. That prompted Greg Van Bebber to stroll around his mother's 22 acres, checking how much of the pond had dried up.
At a dense patch of woods, something caught his eye. Clear plastic, stretched between trees by bungee cords, formed a crumpled tent. Van Bebber saw a black duffel bag. He began looking for whoever was living on his family's property.
There was clothing. Tennis shoes. Van Bebber glimpsed a large bone, and thought of an animal.
But Van Bebber then realized it was a femur, lying next to tattered trousers, and that scattered around him were human bones.
"I said maybe I'd better get out of here and call the police," he said.
After nine years of being out of touch, Elmer "Butch" Sieger apparently had been found.
His life during those years had been a mystery to his family in Pennsylvania and Indiana. Nobody had reported him missing. Apparently suffering from manic-depression, Sieger told his family in 1992 that he was leaving. They had no idea where to search.
From all indications, Sieger had died utterly alone, sometime in 1999 or early 2000.
"He just decided he wanted to travel by himself," said Sieger's father, Elmer Sieger Sr., 82. "He was a loner."
The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner Department couldn't determine the cause of death. Van Bebber noted that the remains were found near an upturned concrete block. The man could have sat there, his back to a tree trunk, while suffering a health crisis such as a heart attack, and could have fallen over, he suggested.
He lay there for at least nine months, a few hundred feet from the corner of Debuel Road and U.S. 41.
Officially, Hillsborough County authorities classified the bones as belonging to a "John Doe," one of 32 sets of remains the medical examiner never has identified.
A frayed wallet in the trousers held Sieger's driver's license, but that wasn't considered conclusive. A match with recorded fingerprints would have been enough, but the body was too decomposed for that. A DNA match also would do, but the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office could not locate Sieger's family.
During the three months after Van Bebber's discovery, detectives and other county employees contacted local hospitals, charities, police, military archivists and a regional dental association. Thanks to a Veterans Administration card found with the bones, authorities traced Sieger's Social Security number to Pennsylvania and verified his enlistment decades ago in the Air Force.
But they apparently didn't try an Internet search on Sieger's name. The Times did, and found Elmer Sieger Sr. in Mohrsville, Pa.
Sheriff's Capt. Robert Shrader, who supervises the major crimes bureau, said he wasn't aware of some of the Internet tools.
"I think we made a diligent effort to locate next of kin," he said.
Now, medical examiners will ask a lab to try to extract DNA from a molar or bone found at the scene. If that's successful, Elmer Sieger Sr. will be asked to submit a saliva swab. DNA would show whether the two samples are from father and son.
Butch Sieger's grown children have bittersweet memories of their father, who would be 63 now.
When he was home, he could be hot-tempered and violent, they said. But they saw little of him; he usually worked a night shift at a bleach and dye plant. Glenn Sieger, the youngest of Butch Sieger's three children, said his parents planned for years to divorce but waited until he was 11, old enough to understand. Butch Sieger moved out.
By then, he had seen a psychiatrist. He told the children he had been diagnosed as severely manic-depressive.
Manic-depressives cycle between depression and phases of high energy, impulsiveness and exaggerated confidence, said Dr. Leonard Kirklen, a psychologist at the University of South Florida's Counseling Center for Human Development. The cycles aren't necessarily equal, and they affect people differently.
Sieger refused lithium, a common medication for manic-depression, and had problems with Valium and other medications he took, Glenn Sieger said.
In the late 1980s, Sieger lived with Glenn, worked at an Izod shirt factory and talked of getting away, the younger Sieger said.
Sieger set out to walk the Appalachian Trail from Pennsylvania to Vermont, but he pulled a hamstring, Glenn said. He rode a bus to Vermont, looked unsuccessfully for a job, and returned home.
"He was thinking about going out west, someplace like Washington," Glenn recalled. "He was quite urgent that he get the hell away from people."
USF's Kirklen said severely depressed people commonly want to isolate themselves. Someone in a manic phase might take to the road.
Butch Sieger disappeared for good in autumn of 1992. Within a year, recalled Glenn Sieger, a Virginia couple came looking for him. He had lived with them and worked for them, then left abruptly, they had said.
"That's probably the last time we knew his whereabouts," he said.
By 1998, Sieger had come to Tampa. He obtained a Florida driver's license that November. As home, Sieger listed the address of the Travelers Motel, an aging village of cabins on N Nebraska Avenue that rent for $150 a week. The photo shows a man who looks clean, healthy and sad.
Sieger's oldest child, 41-year-old Vickie Fryer, frequently searched for him on the Internet from her home in Fort Wayne, Ind., with no luck.
"Short of hiring a private investigator, which I didn't have the money for, I did everything I could," she said.
Her brothers also tried. The three children wondered why their father never called.
"All he had to do was make one phone call," she said. "He could say, "I'm sick. I need help' and we would have been there."
Sieger's father said, "I oftentimes wonder what I did wrong that things turned out the way they did."
Glenn Sieger, 32, has more questions than anyone.
Why didn't his dad's camp include the basic tools that an Appalachian Trail hiker would have used: a hatchet, a knife, water purification tablets, canned goods? Where were Butch Sieger's beloved cigars? The garlic tablets he took for high blood pressure?
For someone who avoided people, "Why Florida, with all the metropolitan areas down there?"
To a person, the Siegers expressed sadness as they learned that Butch Sieger may have died in the Lutz woods. But they also were relieved to finally have news about him.
"I wanted to hear him say he loved me before he died," Glenn Sieger said. "I never got that ... One time I gave him a hug and told him I loved him, and I saw one single tear out of his eye, and that was enough."
-- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Times researcher John Martin contributed to this article.
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