A wombat hole and soft lines in the sand may hold the key to unlocking one of the biggest Australian mysteries of the year.
Anthony AJ Elfalak, 3, vanished without a trace shortly after 11am last Friday.
Media coverage exploded as a search commenced. Hundreds of people, including police from Polair, the dog squad, divers and the mounted unit, as well as State Emergency Service (SES), Rural Fire Service and Volunteer Rescue Association personnel scoured bushland to find AJ.
Almost exactly 72 hours later, he was found. But the question remains – what happened in those three days between AJ, who is autistic and non-verbal, disappearing from his family’s home at Putty, NSW and being discovered in a creek in bushland only 200m away?
Many theories were floated at the time, each one more shocking than the last.
Family friends had told national TV networks they feared the worst; AJ had “definitely” been abducted.
A “suspicious” ute was seized by police almost 80km from the Elfalak’s 650-acre Singleton Shire property.
CCTV footage from around the time of AJ’s disappearance had also “disappeared”.
But the professional bush tracker who answered the siren call to join AJ’s search party has another theory: AJ survived those three days in the bush without food, and in freezing cold rain, by hiding in either a wombat hole or a cave close to where emergency services discovered him on Monday – shivering, cold and drinking muddy creek water.
Jake Cassar, a 45-year-old survival expert from the NSW Central Coast who was also part of the 2014 search for missing child William Tyrrell, offers an extraordinary account of the 72 hours it took to track down AJ.
Cassar’s life is full of tough decisions, and he was hit with a particularly hard one last week.
As news of AJ’s disappearance began to spread on social media, Cassar’s phone began to ding, notifications from people begging him to help out.
The call to arms weighed heavily on him, but so too did a promise he’d made to his eight-year-old daughter that the pair would spend Father’s Day together.
Then a member of the Elfalak family found his phone number and called the professional bush tracker directly, pleading with him to come to Putty.
“Eventually, both my daughter and her mum said, ‘You have to go.'”
Once he had their blessing late on Friday night, Cassar drove up at first light on Saturday.
At the Putty property, Cassar was shocked by suggestions AJ had been abducted.
The distraught mother of AJ, Kelly Elfalak, had told reporters she feared the worst.
“He holds my hand all day, all night. We are together all the time,” she said. “I think he’s been taken. If he was around here, I would’ve found him by now.”
Family friend Alan Hashem had also expressed concerns of an abduction.
But Hunter Valley Police Superintendent Tracy Chapman had said it was “too early” to tell.
“We’re following up with every line of inquiry,” she said at the time.
“It was concerning to feel the vibe that things were starting to wrap up, some people had made (up their minds) he wasn’t there anymore,” Cassar said.
“It’s easy to miss a small person in such a broad area.”
The bush tracker’s drive to find the young boy may have been motivated by the pain of having to walk away from the 2014 search for William after the three-year-old boy disappeared from his foster grandmother’s house at Kendall seven years ago.
The Tyrrell case was recently thrown back into the spotlight after reports police were looking to interview a former person of interest again.
“Leaving the site of where we searched for William had left me broken a little bit,” recalls Cassar.
“It definitely played on my mind as we searched for AJ. I left the site (of the Tyrrell search) reluctantly, because I was open to the idea he still could have been out there.”
Another member of the search party who also remained hopeful was Greg “Bluey” Chalmers, the SES volunteer who first sighted AJ in the creek on Monday morning.
“I went to Putty with the expectation he would be found,” Chalmers, 57, said.
“Through the search I always remained positive. I’ve done 10 years of road crashes with SES. I always tell colleagues, ‘This is a rescue, not a recovery’. You have to be open to every possibility.”
As Cassar traversed the Putty bushland, he started to see signs that gave him hope AJ was still alive.
“The property was littered with caves, including this particular one that looks like someone has been staying in it,” he said.
“It’s hard to tell, because it’s really soft sand. But it looked like the sand had been dragged out, and you can see what looked like knee marks and maybe some fabric marks in the sand, too.”
Then, a stronger clue.
“I saw one of his tracks near the mouth of a wombat hole in the area (where AJ was eventually found),” Cassar said. “It was a small track, but it’s highly likely it was his, in my opinion.”
Once AJ had been found, footage of his emotional discovery grabbed world headlines. AJ’s father, Anthony, and mother, Kelly, sobbed uncontrollably. AJ’s grandmother dropped to her knees and thanked the police and the government.
Still, questions lingered.
“We still need to find out what happened,” Mr Hashem told reporters. “We need answers … How did he leave? Did anything sinister happen?”
But Cassar said AJ’s injuries added up.
“There’s no doubt he’d spent the entire time in the bush,” he said. “He had scratches that were three days old, scratches that looked two days old.
“I’ve spent a lot of time in the bush, often for weeks on end, and I know what someone looks like when they’ve been in the bush for a long time.”
Mr Chalmers also said AJ was “shivering like he had been cold for a very long time”.
AJ’s story captivated the country and other parts of the world, the joyous news of his discovery a pleasant distraction from the monotony of Covid-19 lockdowns.
It could be simply a wildly compelling instance of hiding in plain sight, but NSW Police are yet to close the case.
“Detectives are continuing investigations to ensure officers are satisfied every line of inquiry has been thoroughly investigated,” police said in a statement on Thursday.
For Cassar, the fact AJ was found safe and alive, and only had to visit Maitland Hospital briefly, was the outcome he needed with lingering trauma from the Tyrrell case.
Cassar is going to have a rescheduled Father’s Day this Sunday with his daughter on the Central Coast.
He’s just hoping his Facebook notifications don’t go off.
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