Jeff Jardine

Father died never knowing missing son's fate

An inch-long obituary couldn't begin to tell the story.

When Larry Madden died Oct. 6 at 73, he left no family behind. The two women listed as his grandchildren weren't blood relatives. He took his last labored breath in the small north Modesto apartment of one of them, Rebecca Genera, a 26-year-old whose father was one of Madden's closest friends.

The obit said he was preceded in death by his only son, Michael Madden.

Larry Madden led a troubled life made even worse by the disappearance of his 20-year-old son in August 1996. Michael Madden, a handsome young man, attended Humboldt State and planned to become a forest ranger.

Michael had set up camp at Sand Bar Flat along the Stanislaus River's main fork west of Beardsley Reservoir in Tuolumne County. Some friends were expected to join him the next day to do some fishing. He knew the area well, because he and his father had fished and camped there together several times.

According to Bee stories at the time, some people spotted Michael sitting with his dog, Matilda, by the campfire.

He never was seen again. His friends arrived at the camp the next day to find Michael's camp intact, but Michael and Matilda missing.

"There was a campfire lit, right there in Mike's campsite," said Josh Rocha, one of his friends. "Some creepy guy popped out of the bushes and asked, 'What are you doing here?' "

The search began. Four days later, the dog -- worn out and dehydrated -- wobbled into camp. Detectives hoped Matilda would lead them to Michael, but the dog whined and howled.

Larry Madden told friends he submitted to a polygraph and that authorities questioned a man who, Larry Madden claimed, likely wore Michael's boots. But there's never been an arrest in the case.

Randy Powell, Larry Madden's stepson and Michael's half-brother, said police reports include statements from witnesses who told authorities Michael had been at a cabin near Pinecrest, not at Sand Bar Flat, the day he disappeared.

Regardless, Tuolumne County sheriff's detectives suspect Michael was murdered, but the case went cold more than a decade ago.

"As far as I know, we haven't had any new information in many years," sheriff's Lt. Dan Bressler said.

Michael's disappearance had a tremendously damaging effect on Larry and Ardelle Madden, who had divorced several years earlier, according to Powell, her son from a previous marriage.

Ardelle died May 1, 2004, after a lengthy illness. At her funeral, someone said losing Michael in no small part contributed to her death. She never accepted the thought that Michael was murdered. He was listed as a survivor on her obituary notice some eight years after he vanished.

Larry Madden told The Bee in 1997 that his son, in all likelihood, was dead, but he still tried to keep the case in the public's eye. He printed T-shirts bearing Michael's picture and details about his disappearance. He had posters on the walls of his apartment at Ralston Tower, the senior complex in Modesto.

He often called The Bee, emotional, distraught and frustrated that Tuolumne County investigators made no progress toward solving the case. He called when authorities searched for three Yosemite tourists in 1999, for former Modesto resident Chandra Levy in Washington, D.C., in 2001 and when Nita Mayo disappeared from Donnell's Vista in Tuolumne County in 2005. He wanted to remind us that his son was still out there missing, too.

Larry Madden's longer life was, in many ways, more tragic than his son's short one. He told caregiver Ethel Iverson he'd been born in Florida and abandoned by his mom at 8 years old because he was incorrigible. He did a stretch in a prison in the South as a teen, joined the military when he got out and went AWOL soon after.

Madden struggled throughout his life to overcome a heroin addiction. He'd served a string of prison terms at Folsom and San Quentin -- most for robberies and petty theft -- and was never shy about telling people about it, said Iverson of Modesto and another caregiver, Sue Bandy, who now lives in North Carolina.

He met Ardelle because her brother was his cellmate at San Quentin, Powell said.

"He used to tell me he was there (Folsom) when Johnny Cash came," Bandy said. Cash recorded his "At Folsom Prison" album in January 1968. Madden finished his last term in 1989, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

"He started to turn his life completely around," said Ralph Overend, who became close to Madden while they were in a 12-step rehabilitation program. Madden often talked about his past in meetings, Overend said.

Madden worked as a welder, worked for American Medical Response and for a company that manufactured the oxygen tanks he would need until his death because of emphysema, Bandy said.

On two occasions after his son disappeared, Madden was admitted to Stanislaus County Behavioral Center for treatment, Genera said.

Overend, her father, said the medications Madden needed negated any progress he'd made toward kicking his drug habit.

While he battled his own demons, Madden never stopped thinking about his son, several friends said.

Iverson said that about three months ago, Tuolumne County sheriff's technicians took hair samples from Madden to help identify his son if his remains are found, a routine procedure, a sheriff's clerk said.

In his final years, Madden spoke less and less about his son's disappearance, and his friends didn't bring it up, said Bill Bates, who was a neighbor at Ralston Tower.

"For a long time, he didn't get over it," Bates said. "The last three or four years, though, he didn't talk about it to me at all."

Genera, who plans to scatter Madden's ashes in the Sand Bar area, said Madden told her shortly before he died, "I'll die never knowing what happened to him."

Thus Larry Madden's life -- a hard one that affected so many people so differently -- was encapsulated in an inch-long obit that served one greater purpose, his stepson said.

"It keeps Michael's story alive," Randy Powell said.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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