A Kind of Deliverance
08/28/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
THE DESERT SUN HAD JUST SET below Arizona's Santa Rita Mountains when Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriff Roberto Morales spotted a bearded man walking away from the beige Toyota left at a trailhead parking lot. The car, cordoned off by yellow police tape, had last been driven by Alex Dunne, younger son of Hollywood celebrity journalist and bestselling author Dominick Dunne, who had disappeared five days before. Morales, guarding the car, did a quick double take as the bearded man, slender and pale, said simply, "Hi. I'm Alexander Dunne."
It was as odd and mysterious as any of the many trials his father has covered and as dramatic as the elder Dunne's novel The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. At 7 a.m. on Saturday, Aug. 5, Alex, 38, a San Francisco social worker, had left his mother's Nogales, Ariz., home to go mountain biking. An experienced outdoors-man, he took his day pack but did not tell anyone where he was headed. "I figured I'd be back around noon," he says.
Twenty-four hours later he hadn't returned. Nurses caring for his ailing mother, Ellen Griffin Dunne, 63, crippled by multiple sclerosis, became worried and called his father in Los Angeles. Dominick Dunne, 69, who divorced Ellen in the late '60s, was there covering the O.J. Simpson trial for Vanity Fair and CBS News. He immediately flew to Arizona, and his actor/producer son Griffin, 40, who appeared in Quiz Show, came in from New York City to meet him.
By Wednesday rescue teams were searching by foot, horseback and helicopter, scouring an 8-square-mile wilderness of canyons and steep ridges. If Alex had been injured, most agreed, he could not survive in the 90-degree heat without water.
At his ex-wife's ranch house, filled with Persian rugs and English antiques, Dunne tried to quash his anxiety by staying busy. "The kind of thing I did was go to McDonald's and bring back 50 cheeseburgers," he says. By Thursday despair overtook him. "I thought he was dead," says Dunne. "It's awful to say now, but I was thinking, 'Where will we bury him? Will we bury him with Dominique?' "
Alex's disappearance was perhaps the second-worst moment of Dunne's life. The first came on Halloween night 1982, when Dunne's daughter Dominique, 22, a promising actress who made her feature film debut in Poltergeist, was strangled outside her West Hollywood home by estranged boyfriend John Sweeney. Perhaps more than anyone, Alex, says Dunne, who calls his younger son the most "sensitive and shy and incredibly spiritual" of his children, was devastated by Dominique's death. "Hers," he said, "has been a major, major loss in his life."
Upon his return, Alex offered a mundane explanation for his disappearance—but one that left many questions unanswered. He said he had gone into the mountains Saturday to get some exercise, as he often does at home. But on this outing he was plagued by one misstep after another. At 11 a.m. on Saturday, he began a 5-hour, 8-mile trek up Mount Wright-son. "When I got up there I was wiped out because I hadn't eaten the night before, and I don't usually eat breakfast," says Dunne. Lacking strength to get to his car, he camped beneath a rock. The next morning, with his water almost gone, Dunne felt weak and dizzy. He searched unsuccessfully for a spring before he again decided to spend the night. He later conceded it was a big mistake.
By Monday morning he had gone three days without food. Disoriented, he said, he finally managed to find water. After drinking, he headed down a steep trail but twisted his ankle and tumbled nearly 25 feet, throwing out his lower back. Writhing in pain and unable to stand, he says, he hauled himself under a tree. "Basically," he says, "that was my home for three nights." To stave off hunger, he chewed leaves: Finally, late Thursday, a drenching rainstorm soaked and revived him. "Somehow my back did reset, and I had some adrenaline," he says. "I felt, 'It's time to go.' "
Alex, his ankle now in a plastic splint, says his ordeal in the wilderness offered "a sort of transcendental experience—one I wish I didn't go through." Though he apologized for the trouble he caused, his father tried to reassure him. "I said to him, 'Alex, this is not a tragedy, this is a triumph. You lived. This is a happy ending.' "
It was—but some rescue workers, who spent their free time in the search and some $26,000 in taxpayers' money, doubt Alex's tale. "It's a little less than plausible in some regards," says Capt. Mark Pettit, who oversees rescue work for the Pima County Sheriff's Department. "He's suddenly able to walk out.... I think that's nothing short of divine intervention."
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Tucson and VICKIE SHEFF-CAHAN in Los Angeles