The missing city manager mystery: ‘Our hope is that we find him living somewhere.’

Bakersfield Police Department

Manuel Cantu has a tough time talking about his city manager in the present tense.

John was well-known in the community, he said. John turned the city around. John, he said, was a great guy.

Cantu is the mayor of McFarland, a short drive from Bakersfield in rural Kern County. John Wooner, Cantu’s city manager, missing since May 14, remained just that on Monday. Missing. Friday marked a month since Wooner was last seen, driving his city-issued Dodge into a Bakersfield cemetery to visit the gravesite of his estranged father.

Since then, pleas from family and this small Kern County town and the work of Bakersfield police detectives investigating the disappearance have failed to shake loose any clues. Police have said Wooner, 57, is “missing under suspicious circumstances” and have reached out to family and friends.

“There’s no clear-cut evidence of foul play, no medical issues. ... There’s a lot of questions,” Sgt. Nathan McCauley, a Bakersfield police spokesman told The Bee in late May. Weeks later, questions remain.

“We hadn’t heard any word,” Cantu told The Sacramento Bee in an interview Thursday, saying authorities in Bakersfield, where Wooner’s family lives and where he was last seen, are handling the case.

The story has come with odd turns and troubling alarms; rumors and speculation.

Wooner’s family has decades-long ties to the area – his late father, Orval, was the police chief and later, first city manager of nearby Arvin — but Cantu said Wooner asked his wife where his father was buried before going to the Bakersfield cemetery where he was last seen.

Cantu ruled out speculation that Wooner’s disappearance was tied to financial malfeasance. “There’s no way he could have taken money. There is no evidence to support any internal problem with the city,” Cantu said, citing what he said were “internal controls” of city finances.

But Cantu offered speculation of his own, saying Wooner “may have been dealing with internal pressures because of the budget.”

“We may never know,” he said. “Maybe it was the pressure of handling the budget of the city.”

There had been tough negotiations over fire protection services provided by Kern County. And, as city manager, Wooner was at the forefront of talks to bring a pair of biomass plants to the town, Cantu said, a matter the mayor called crucial to bringing jobs to town.

On the day before Cantu’s interview, human skeletal remains were found north of the town of Mojave. A Kern County Sheriff’s Office investigation was ongoing when Cantu spoke with The Bee. The remains have yet to be identified.

“We’ve been informed that a body was found,” Cantu said. “Our hope is that we find him living somewhere. His family is having a hard time (figuring out) how to move on without closure.”

On Monday, Bakersfield police spokesman Sgt. Nathan McCauley said officials had nothing new to report before qualifying his remarks to say: “Nothing we’re putting out, at the expense of jeopardizing our investigation. We’re still working, still investigating.”

With little word for weeks, both family and city have found it hard to move on, Cantu said.

“John was a big part of the change of the new McFarland,” he said.

Cantu was elected in 2010 at a time when the city was facing potential bankruptcy and the loss of its incorporated status. Wooner was part of the team Cantu put into place, including installing a new city planner and police chief.

“It’s been good history, a positive history. He was a catalyst. He was instrumental in rebranding the city. ... He helped get us on the map economically. He was very productive with the Chamber of Commerce and was helpful in many ways, “ Cantu said.

“What if John comes back?” Cantu asked. “He did such a great job for us. It’s hard to move on. But his wife and kids have had a tougher hill to climb than the city.”

Cantu has had little choice but to move forward. He has a city to run.

In the early days of Wooner’s disappearance, McFarland tapped the city’s interim police chief to sit in as city manager and placed Wooner on 30 days’ paid administrative leave, calling the move “an important business decision” to “continue the business of the city in an orderly manner.”

Last week, Cantu and the City Council took the more permanent step of hiring an interim city manager, coaxing retired longtime Madera city manager David Tooley out of retirement on a six-month contract with the option to extend an additional six months.

“He and his wife said it would be good for him to help out – he postponed retirement. We signed a six-month contract with the ability to move to one year,” Cantu said. “I don’t know how many cities have been through this. It’s a very unique position for a city to be in.”

“John was well-known in the community. John was a great guy, a wonderful person. This was way out of character for him. Something must’ve happened. We don’t know,” Cantu continued, lapsing again into past tense to describe his friend and colleague. “There’s not much positive for the family or the city. We can say we had a good time, but now it’s done. He was a great city manager. He turned the city around. He was our city leader. We set the vision, but he saw it through.”