By RUSS BYNUM
The Associated Press
Wednesday, April 26, 2006; 8:37 AM
SAVANNAH, Ga. -- When his father called looking for him, Spc. Robert Hornbeck answered his cell phone and spoke just a few words before the connection went dead: "Dad, I'm on the stairs."
Outside the downtown DeSoto Hilton hotel, Eric Hornbeck called back but got no answer. This was the spot he'd been given to pick up his son and an Army buddy after a night of bar-hopping.
Nine days after that brief phone call, nobody can find a trace of 23-year-old Robert Hornbeck, who returned to Fort Benning in January after a year in Iraq and vanished during a weekend getaway to Savannah.
"For three days, I checked garbage bins, alleys. I even chased some homeless people out of abandoned buildings," the soldier's father said Tuesday. "You can speculate until you're blue in the face. And, Lord knows, I have."
More than 70 volunteers turned out Tuesday evening to help search for Hornbeck. They walked along streets and alleys peering into bushes, looking in garbage bins and handing out fliers.
"My daughter's engaged to a soldier who's in Iraq right now and I wanted to do whatever I can to help this family find their son," said Martina Christensen.
A private search and rescue crew used dogs to pick up Hornbeck's scent in the hotel parking garage but did not find him, said his stepmother, Beth Hornbeck. She said a hotel maintenance worker told her that he thought he saw Hornbeck in the garage the night he went missing.
The weekend of April 16, when Hornbeck disappeared, father and son traveled to Savannah to catch up while staying with a relative in town. Robert Hornbeck brought a friend, Jeremy Stone, from his unit at Fort Benning. Eric Hornbeck came with his wife from Lapeer, Mich.
They had much to celebrate. Hornbeck was preparing to leave the Army at the end of April and return to the University of Michigan, where he studied psychology for two years before joining the Army in 2004.
He also had a wedding date to marry his college sweetheart in July.
After a Saturday night of playing pool near the Savannah riverfront, Hornbeck's father and wife retired at about 11 p.m. while the soldier and his friend stayed downtown to keep the celebration rolling.
Eric Hornbeck said Stone woke him with a phone call shortly after 3 a.m. asking for a ride.
"Obviously they'd been drinking. He said they were lost, they were at the Hilton," he said. "Robert was madder than hell because Jeremy had taken his cell phone to call me, and Robert didn't want dad to come rescue him."
Eric Hornbeck arrived at the hotel about 7 minutes later, he said. He found Stone, who said he'd lost sight of Robert Hornbeck just minutes earlier. Then Eric Hornbeck called his son's cell phone.
"He answered the phone and said something about, `Dad, I'm on the stairs,'" he said. "I can't say if it went dead or he hung up. But that was the end of the conversation."
Police checks of Robert Hornbeck's cell phone, credit card and bank account records show none have been used since he went missing, said Lt. Mike Wilkins, spokesman for Savannah-Chatham County police.
"We have no evidence that Mr. Hornbeck is a victim of any crime," Wilkins said. "All searches to this point have not yielded any information on his whereabouts."
Fliers posted in downtown storefronts with Hornbeck's photo and a full-page ad his father bought in Sunday's Savannah Morning News haven't turned up any fresh tips. Neither has a $10,000 reward offered by the family.
The longer he searches, Eric Hornbeck becomes more worried that his son is either dead or "he has postwar trauma and he's holed up somewhere."
"You never know. People do snap," he said. "But nobody had any indication that was the story. I hope it is the story. That's our only hope."