State Police: Chad Austin’s remains found in Panther Falls area

Local News

AMHERST COUNTY, Va (WFXR) — Virginia State Police confirmed Monday that the remains of Chad Austin have been found.

Its team is now taking over the investigation, which is being treated as a homicide.

The discovery comes after searches in the Panther Falls area of Amherst County uncovered human remains back in late March, according to an announcement from Virginia State Police on Monday, May 18.

Chad Austin, a 30-year-old from Buena Vista, had been missing since May 28, 2019. He was last seen by two hikers in the Panther Falls area on May 27, 2019, and police say his silver 2006 Hyundai Tiburon was found abandoned with his unharmed dog locked inside around 12:30 p.m. the next day about two miles down the turnoff for Panther Falls Road. A search of the immediate area turned up several keys and personal items belonging to Austin within half a mile of the abandoned car, according to Virginia State Police. 

“The Austin family has been relentless in their search for Chad,” says Buena Vista Police Chief Richard Hartman. “Sadly, now they are grieving the loss of a son and brother. The Austins are longtime members of this community and they deserve our respect. And they deserve privacy. Most of all, they deserve answers. We intend to find those answers as we continue to pursue this investigation in partnership with state police.”

Authorities say the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, various search and rescue canine teams, Virginia State Police, the Amherst County Sheriff’s Office, and the Buena Vista Police Department participated in the search and recovery operation. In addition to the skeletal remains, police say forensic investigators collected property and evidence, which are currently being tested at the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. 

Investigators search the Panther Falls area of Amherst County in March. Police confirm Chad Austin’s body was discovered during the search. (Photo: WFXR News)

“From the outset, the investigators assigned to this case recognized the distinct possibility that Chad would not be found alive,” says Virginia State Police Special Agent K.A. Zirkle.  “Because of that, this case has been handled as a homicide investigation from the very beginning. That means that while we have been diligently searching for Chad with the hopes of finding him safe and well, investigators with the Buena Vista Police Department and state police have been collecting and documenting evidence and information that would explain how he died, and who could be responsible for Chad’s death. Make no mistake, much headway has been made in the last year. As unfortunate as this development is, finding Chad’s remains allows us to now focus exclusively on the circumstances leading to his death.”

Because Austin’s remains were discovered in Amherst County and outside the city limits of Buena Vista, Virginia State Police will take the lead on the investigation. However, investigators with the Buena Vista Police Department and Virginia State Police will continue to work together — along with assistance from the Amherst County Sheriff’s Office, the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, and the Amherst County Commonwealth’s Attorney — to pursue new information, police say.

“We are confident that there are persons in the community with relevant information that could help bring this case to a logical conclusion. We want to assure local residents that the multi-agency investigative team actively pursuing this case will continue to conduct additional interviews and forensic examinations. A number of people have already come forward — and we are grateful for their trust — but those who have been reluctant are still encouraged to call the Virginia State Police,” says Zirkle.

Lt. Waylon Miller with Buena Vista Police Department says in his small town, they don’t get many cases like Chad Austin’s.

“We’re definitely sad to have to report back to the Austin family that their son and brother is deceased,” says Lt. Miller.

“Because it doesn’t happened, you definitely want to work harder because you do have that emotional tie to the community. You do work for the community and you do want to bring their loved ones home.”

Since the beginning of the case Lt. Miller has worked with Virginia State Police and has been grateful for their help and resources.

“Of course now that we’ve been able to locate the remains this just transitions us to that next phase. Now we have an on-going death investigation and we’re still, all along we’ve been following up on leads,” says Virginia State Police spokesperson Corinne Geller.

One of the leads came back in December when Austin’s wallet was found in the Panther Falls area. Since they had already searched the area where it was found, investigators believe it may have been placed there afterwards.

“Finding the wallet, getting articles of clothing, getting the remains. All those bits and pieces and where things are located and the information that’s coming in, all of that helps us piece this puzzle together,” Geller says.

Virginia State Police are still waiting on more results from the medical examiner and forensic scientist to drive the next steps of the investigation.

“Because those remains were not found until March, you’re looking at almost a year of those remains being exposed to the elements and so fourth,” Geller says.

Investigators are hoping the rest of the results will answer the many other questions they still have in this case.

“The hope is to bring a conclusion for the family. There’s a lot of heart ache, especially when you’re notifying a family that their loved one is deceased. And there’s a lot of questions to be answered, so my hope is to provide those answers,” says Lt. Miller.

If you have any information about this incident, contact the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s Salem Field Office at (800) 542-5959 or (540) 375-9589, or by email at questions@vsp.virginia.gov.  

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