Family of man who disappeared into woods says remains found 10 weeks later

Remains found in woods
Stephen Cleaton.PNG
Posted at 5:18 PM, Nov 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-08 17:59:54-05

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Thousands of people are missing right now and it causes agonizing pain for families across the region.

News 3 met with a Hampton family who knows the pain all too well.

For 10 weeks loved ones of Stephen Cleaton handed out flyers and searched for him in wooded areas.

“It’s just been hell,” said Stephen’s mother Karen Norris, “Just not knowing it's been the worst thing that you could go through. You imagine all sorts of things with them being out there.”

Her 40-year-old son was in the car with his brother back on August 29. Michael Cleaton said Stephen was having a schizophrenic episode and ran out of his car into woods off I-64 in Henrico County.

“He jumped out of my car and he was standing on the guardrail and I was on the phone with the State Police to tell them my location and everything,” said Michael Cleaton.

He said initially there were issues with law enforcement determining which jurisdiction the case was in.

He said authorities searched three times with K-9 dogs for the course of his disappearance but there was no sign of his brother who struggled with mental health issues for the past ten years.

For weeks, Michael went out with loved ones searching in the woods.

Then a month ago, he randomly met up with the group Water Team Inc.

Founder Joe Slabinski said the nonprofit is based in Newport News and made up of former military who have special skills on how to search for people. He said the group normally focused on water rescues but took on this case.

“Our mission is to bring a family member back to a family,” said Slabinski. “We still want to serve our country; we want to serve our citizens and we still want to serve our nation. We just can’t do it in the uniform that we used to wear.”

“We’re so lucky that we ran across them. So many people that have people missing don’t have somebody to help them search like this,” said Norris.

Each weekend, they’d go out searching for Stephen, then on November 6, they found items that belonged to him. Slabinski discovered the body and called authorities.

They are now waiting for the medical examiner's office to officially determine the identity of the remains.

This family is so grateful to receive help from complete strangers - volunteering their time.

“We told the family from day one we are with you until this mission is complete,” said Slabinski.

“I can’t tell you how fortunate, it might’ve been 10 weeks but I could be five years down the road and still be wondering,” said Norris.