PROVO — The family of a Brigham Young University student who vanished in China nearly five months ago believes he is alive and possibly being detained against his will.
David Sneddon, 24, went to China last summer to study prior to starting his senior year, but he hasn't been heard from since Aug. 10.
The chief reason the family believes Sneddon is alive is a lack of proof to the contrary, said his mother, Kathleen.
"It sounds so gruesome to say it," she said, "but we haven't found a body."
There is no evidence that Sneddon was arrested by military or local police in western China, but the family can't find any other explanation for his disappearance.
Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, met with Roy and Kathleen Sneddon in October and agreed to help the couple from Providence, Cache County, find their son.
"I have no more information than you on that," Bennett said when asked if he believed Sneddon is alive. "Naturally, we hope and pray that he is. Certainly, I'm satisfied the U.S. embassy has done everything they can to find him."
At Bennett's request, U.S. Ambassador Clark Randt spoke with China's vice minister of foreign affairs, Zhou Wen Zhong, about Sneddon on Dec. 7.
"The Chinese are being diligent in pursuing it," Bennett said.
Randt spoke with Zhou about the possibility Sneddon was detained, but Bennett said one of the challenges is that Sneddon's trail ended in a town near the border of Tibet, on China's western frontier, a remote area far removed from the capital of Beijing both geographically and in terms of government control.
"That's basically a 'Wild West' show out there," Bennett said experts have told him.
The family emphasized that members of the Sneddon family who visited the area to look for David felt safe and found the people extraordinarily warm and friendly.
Randt told Bennett there is no reason to believe Sneddon stumbled on a military base and was arrested because the area isn't known for sensitive military installations or politically motivated detainments. Ironically, an arrest would be viewed as a positive by the senator and the Sneddon family.
"If indeed he has been taken against his will, chances are he's still alive," Bennett said.
Roy Sneddon and two of his sons spent nearly two weeks in China during September.
The search party found people who had spoken with David Sneddon before and after he hiked through treacherous Tiger Leaping Gorge, where family and friends initially feared David might have fallen and been injured.
"We established clearly that David made it through the gorge alive and talked with people on the other side," said Michael Sneddon, one of David's brothers. "We were able to trace his route to Shangri-La, where he spent a couple of days."
But the BYU senior apparently disappeared on the afternoon of Aug. 13. He left a cafe around noon that day, telling people he was getting on a bus to Quaotou so he could pick up the backpack he left with an innkeeper before his hike through the gorge.
A bus departed at 1 p.m. and the last bus of the day left at 3 p.m. The handful of bus drivers who work that route don't remember Sneddon, who stood out in the minds of many Chinese who met him.
"We think we have absolute proof he was alive and headed for a bus between 12 and 1 o'clock in a city of more than 100,000 people," Kathleen Sneddon said. "We don't think it's possible he could have been attacked or kidnapped."
If Sneddon did get on the bus, he didn't make it back to the inn where his backpack was. Bennett said one theory is that Sneddon chose to retrace his steps and hike back through the gorge, and that he fell then. However, the family finds that unlikely because it would have made it nearly impossible for him to make a scheduled flight from Kunming to Beijing on Aug. 15.
Bennett and the Sneddons receive regular e-mailed updates from the U.S. embassy in China.
On Monday, Kathleen Sneddon traveled to Provo to drop off another child for the first day of winter semester at BYU. While there, she picked up the belongings her son left in Beijing.
Inside David Sneddon's scriptures she found a picture of him with her.
"That was touching for me," she said.
Family members remain upbeat.
"I believe prayers have sustained us and kept doors open for David," she said. "I want people to know we're thankful for those who continue to pray for him and for us."
Meanwhile, BYU is holding a place for him, just as it is for Brooke Wilberger, a sophomore police believe was abducted in Oregon on May 24.
BYU has refunded Sneddon's fall semester tuition, said Carri P. Jenkins, BYU's spokesperson.
"No one's ready to give up," Bennett said. "Certainly we are not."
Tracking missing student Is China detaining Y. student?
Brigham Young University senior David Sneddon disappeared in China a few days after sending an e-mail on Aug. 10. His parents in Providence, Cache County, believe he is alive.
What's happened so far:
late April — David Sneddon leaves for China to study at a Beijing university
Aug. 2 — He accesses bank account for final time
Aug. 5 — Sneddon and BYU student George Bailey set out for western China
Aug. 9 — Sneddon and Bailey part ways after sightseeing
Aug. 10 — Sneddon sends final e-mail, begins hike in Tiger Leaping Gorge
Aug. 12 — He arrives in Shangri-La, according to locals
Aug. 15 — Sneddon misses flight back to Beijing
Aug. 25 — He misses flight to Korea; family grows concerned
Aug. 30 — Sneddon misses first day of fall classes at BYU
Sept. 9-22 — Roy Sneddon searches unsuccessfully for son in China with two of David's brothers