HENRICO, Va. (WRIC) — A Virginia family believes human remains found near Interstate 64 over the weekend is their loved one who went missing this summer in the same area.
40-year-old Stephen Cleaton was reported missing on Aug. 29, 2021. His brother, Michael Cleaton, told 8News he is bi-polar and schizophrenic. He says there has bee no trace of Stephen Cleaton since the day he disappeared, until Saturday.
Michael Cleaton said his brother’s Crocs and a black box he was carrying were found near a body that they believe to be his.
“He was just really scared,” Michael Cleaton recalled. “He was like terrified.”
That’s how Cleaton last remembers seeing his brother in August. He says his brother was a kind spirit who loved taking care of people, the outdoors and fishing.
He said he drove to Richmond to pick-up his brother from the McShin Foundation because he hadn’t taken his medication in three days. As the two were driving back, towards Hampton Roads, Michael Cleaton said Stephen Cleaton started having a mental health episode and was jumping around from the back and front seat, thinking people were chasing after him.
Michael Cleaton said he pulled over near the weigh station to try and diffuse the situation, but his brother ran away into the woods. He said he called 911 and tried asking for help, but could no longer see his brother’s location.
“I was telling them my brother has the capacity of a 4 year old lost in the woods, but they see someone with a mental illness and think ‘oh whatever’,” Michael Cleaton expressed.
Karen Norris, Stephen Cleaton’s mother, said their family hit several challenges during the search.
“To them he’s an adult and he left on his own,” Norris said. “It was just hard getting someone to help us search.”
Norris said shortly after, Henrico Police did bring canines to the wooded area, but nothing came from it. Over the past two months, the family has formed their own search parties looking for Stephen Cleaton, even acquiring an independent search team called W.A.T.E.R Team Inc.
The non-profit organization is located in the Tidewater area and team members have strong military backgrounds. They put their skills to use as soon as Stephen Cleaton’s family requested their help.
Joe Slabinsky, President of W.A.T.E.R Team Inc., and C.J Vaker, Chief member, told 8News they measured out the terrain, used maps and GPS coordinates, and conducted their search based on information from the family.
“Around 9:25 a.m. we located the remains of a person,” Slabinsky said.
On Saturday morning, Slabinsky found a body in a drainage ditch. He said it was right near the 64-295 interchange in Henrico, about 500 feet away from the interstate and less than five miles from where Stephen Cleaton went missing.
“It looked to be that he was inside of a culvert pipe,” Slabinsky said. “Due to the amount of rain water we’ve had over the last several weeks, it looked like the remains were flushed out of that culvert pipe.”
Michael Cleaton was with the search team the day the body was found and said his blood ran cold when he recognized his brother’s croc’s, which were the same size, and the black box he ran away with.
Michael Cleaton and Norris tell 8News they know the remains are Stephen Cleaton’s and think his mental illness brought challenges in the search.
“No family deserves to go through what we went through,” Michael Cleaton passionately expressed. “Someone who’s schizophrenic, they should have something outlined in Congress or something that ‘hey these are people too’. This is someone’s child, this is someone’s loved one– they’re not some crazy person that just needs to be put away.”
Michael Cleaton said without his family calling in an independent search team, it could’ve been years until his brother was found. He wants families in similar situations to know that despite the obstacles, there are resources out there to help like W.A.T.E.R Team Inc.
The family said they have closure and are now looking at making legislative changes for those with mental illness in the near future. Michael Cleaton said there needs to be more resources, similar to Amber Alerts.
Although Stephen’s family believes the body found is their loved one, the Medical Examiner’s Office has not positively identified the body as of Monday evening. 8News has reached out to Henrico Police who were expecting to get the information on Monday, however it may take longer than expected.
This is a developing story, stay with 8News for new details.