Police say that when they saw a missing person on security camera footage shopping at Walmart with a man who had recently been charged with stalking, they were worried.
The missing person was a woman who had left her home around 2:30 a.m. Thursday to go shopping at Walmart and hadn’t returned that morning nor by the afternoon. Worried for their mother’s safety, the woman’s children contacted officers around 2 p.m., Undersheriff George Skuletich said.
Skuletich said security camera footage from Walmart revealed that the woman left the store around 4 a.m. with Benny Sandoval, a 38-year-old Butte man known to police. The discovery was worrisome, Skuletich said, because Sandoval had been released from jail for an Oct. 14 arrest involving stalking.
Around 4:30 p.m., officers were dispatched to Soap Gulch Road — a rural road about 5 miles northeast of Melrose — after a hunter phoned police to say he'd had a strange encounter with a shirtless man. That man later turned out to be Sandoval, Skuletich said.
Skuletich said the hunter was driving along the road when he pulled over to assist Sandoval. When approach by the hunter, Sandoval allegedly said he had been held captive in a mine shaft and that his captors were after him. The hunter drove away, at which point Sandoval allegedly threw rocks at his vehicle.
When officers received the report, they thought the man the hunter described might be Sandoval. Their suspicions were later confirmed when another report came in that two hunters had encountered a woman stranded by a wrecked vehicle along Soap Gulch Road. Officers went to the scene and discovered that the woman was indeed the missing mom reported earlier in the day. She spoke with officers, Skuletich said, and told them that Sandoval had driven off the road and had gotten his vehicle stuck. After the accident, she told police, Sandoval left the scene.
Hours later, police located Sandoval after a search showed footprints in the snow. The footprints led to a cabin where officers found Sandoval, who they said had broken into the cabin and started a recreational fire.
Sandoval was arrested and taken to the Butte jail, where he faces a misdemeanor for criminal mischief and a felony burglary charge.