STARBUCK - Diane Lusk liked the way Bob Bulota always greeted her when he called from one of his far-flung trips.
"Hello Mrs. Lusk, this is Bob Bulota," he would announce to the Starbucks post master in tongue-in-cheek formality.
Lusk still gets calls from someone who sounds just like Bob. For a split second, her heart rises at the thought that it might be her friend of eight years - the one who regularly brought her apples, pears and flowers at work.
But it's wishful thinking.
Bob has been missing for five months from this town of 150, and those who know him best now assume the 64-year-old man took his own life after walking off into the remote canyon lands around Starbuck. The Columbia County Sheriff's Office has all but decided he's dead, though it hasn't settled on a cause.
Last week, a body turned up at Wallula Junction, more than 70 miles and at least two dams downstream from Starbuck. But the Walla Walla County Coroner determined earlier this week that it does not belong to Bulota.
The caller who reminds Lusk of Bob is Bill Bulota, his older brother, who has been trying tirelessly to find Bob's remains and hopes the sheriff will make one more push to locate them, this time with the use of cadaver dogs.
Finding the body would bring some welcome closure to the elder Bulota and to a community baffled by a rare kind of police investigation.
"This may be the first time anyone's gone missing here," Starbuck Mayor Darcy Linklater said.
Like Lusk, Bill is resigned to the idea that Bob killed himself, a final act that wouldn't be out of character for an erstwhile cowboy and die-hard adventurer who preferred to be in control of his destiny.
"He told an old girlfriend that he'd be coyote fodder by the end of winter," said Bill, a retired anesthesiologist who lives in Stevenson, Skamania County.
"He wasn't a sentimental person," Bill said in a telephone interview, suggesting his brother simply accepted the practical reality of his advancing age and took control over the timing of his end. "He self-terminated."
Despite Bill's convictions, the mystery of the younger Bulota's disappearance may never be solved. Even if the body is found there may not be enough clues left to determine how he died. After so many months, it probably ended up at the mercy of backcountry scavengers or the destructive effects of being submerged in water.
Sheriff 's Deputy Don Foley, who was assigned to investigate the case, hasn't ruled out an accident. The possibility of foul play seems much more remote, he said.
Bob Bulota lived in a small cabin on First Street within a stone's throw of the Tucannon River. He was an avid walker and seasoned outdoorsman, retired with a small Veteran's Administration pension and happily resettled in a town he chose a decade ago for its small size and isolation.
Normally about the size of a creek, the Tucannon swelled to the profile of a small river as winter rains inundated the region at the time Bob returned from a trip to the Southwest and Florida in March.
He had left his car, a white 1998 Buick Skylark, with a friend in the Tri-Cities and drove it home to Starbuck on March 18. Bill, who knew roughly when Bob was supposed to return from the south, called him the next day to check on a book he'd sent in the mail.
Bob was a varocious reader, fond of authors like Hemingway, Conrad, Steinbeck and Sir Walter Scott.
Bob told Bill he was planning to head to the Northwest coast and visit friends there soon. Bill, who knew his brother never stayed in any place very long, thought nothing of it and left on a trip to California himself the next day. It was the last time they spoke.
Ten days later, the older Bulota was contacted by old acquaintances who had tried to contact Bob in Starbuck to let him know about the death of a family friend. Bill became concerned when he learned they had not been able to contact his brother. It was even more unsettling to discover that a friend in Montana Bob called almost every week hadn't heard from him for some time. Bill called Bob's friends in Long Beach and Astoria to see if he had gone to visit them, but they had neither seen nor heard from him.
Lusk, at the post office noticed he stopped coming for his mail, which was normal when he went on trips, but Bob always shared his traveling plans with his postmaster friend so she could hold his mail and would always call her from the road. He had done neither.
Bill still had hope after he spoke to Conrad Josey, a neighbor who looked after Bob's cabin and who said his car wasn't in the driveway in front of the small cabin. But upon closer inspection, Josey did find the car. It had been parked behind a large storage container on the property.
On April 19, Bill reported Bob as missing. The next day, Deputy Ken Foxe entered the cabin with Josey, who had a key. The two saw no one. But they did find a last will and testament out on the table. It has been composed in December and to her surprise, it named Lusk as the executor of Bob's estate.
No mode of transportation - his car, his bike, even his kayak - was missing. Subsequent inspections by Bill, who drove in from his home in Stevenson on April 22, showed no indication Bob had taken anything for a planned trip before he shut the door behind him.
His wallet, passport, driver's license, $1,000 in traveler's checks and even the keys to his little house were all in the cabin. The only thing that was missing was a Taurus 45/410 revolver, which Bill said was Bob's favorite handgun.
During the week that followed, Foley searched several areas in and around Starbuck but found nothing. Some local residents walked the Tucannon without results.
A few weeks later, Foley, who used to live in Starbuck and whose mother, Verna Foley, is married to Mayor Linklater, went further afield to search for Bob, walking an area near the airstrip above Little Goose Dam where Bob reportedly enjoyed hiking. Again, nothing.
"I know the area," Foley said, explaining that Bob could have headed off in any direction from Starbuck and that his body could be anywhere in a 100-square-mile area.
"It's rough country," he said. "Anything can happen up there. My gut tells me he's not alive, but I'd be the first to shake his hand if he returned to Starbuck."
Bill is convinced Bob will never return to Starbuck. He said he knows his brother well enough to realize his disappearance isn't an accident.
Nothing He Couldn't Do
Charles "Bob" Bulota was born on July 6, 1946, one year after World War II, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His father was a high school chemistry teacher and football coach, his mother a housewife. He was the middle of three brothers. They grew up in Camp Hill, a small town across the river from Harrisburg.
Bill said his brother, three years younger, was "a real active kid" who decided he wanted to be a cowboy and did. After high school, he went west to a college in Bozeman, Montana, but dropped out to join the Navy in which he served for two years on a ship laying cable in the North Atlantic.
He quickly returned to Montana, his "adopted" new home, and for the next 20 years he worked on cattle and horse ranches and as an elk-hunting guide around Yellowstone in south central Montana. He trained as a blacksmith and lent his services as a farrier. He later worked on dude ranches.
He was married once for less than half a decade to someone Bill described as a "very smart" multilingual and good-looking woman who offered to keep a home for him while he traveled wherever he wanted. But Bob turned her down because her proposal was "too restrictive" for him.
Instead, he chose a solo life, leaving Montana so he could try his luck at a host of different jobs ranging from underwater excavation using explosives off the coast of New Orleans to breeding quarter horses in the south of Texas. He once served as a chambermaid in Vale, a deckhand on a Scripps research vessel and a "slimer" on a fishing trawler in the Bering Sea.
"It's hard to find something he hadn't done or couldn't do," Bill said. "He was fond of saying that he liked 'to take the scenic route.'"
Everywhere he went, Bob made friends easily. Bill recalls visiting him once on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, where Bob had been for a mere six weeks. They went into a crowded Rastafarian bar where it seemed the younger Bulota already knew half the customers.
But Bob also "had an edge," Bill said. His brother always packed heat. At first, it was a .38, later his favored Taurus .45.
"He was not going to be taken advantage of," the elder Bulota said. "He was in enough Mexican cat houses and scuffles at sea that he understood human nature very well."
Bob would always return to Montana, but when he reached his early 50s he decided winters were too harsh for him there and began spending them in southern locales such as Mexico, Fiji, Costa Rica and even Australia. One year, he sailed from the Marianas to San Francisco. Another year he spent on the water in the Sea of Cortez.
"Not For Sissies"
Then, about 10 years ago, Bob decided he wanted to be closer to his older brother who was in practice in Clarkston. The two began looking for a new home base for Bob in Washington state. Bill suggested Pomeroy, but Bob said the tiny town in Garfield County was too "urban."
In the end, he settled on Starbuck, which struck Bob as just small and remote enough. He bought the cabin on First Street. Bill and a friend helped him fix it up into a small, three-room dwelling just big enough for a bachelor and by far the most comfortable quarters Bob had ever had.
In Starbuck, the stocky man made friends quickly. He played cribbage with his neighbors and yakked it up with the post master.
"The whole community knew him," said Verna Foley, whose husband's tackle shop is about as close to a town center as you can get in Starbuck. As a result, many in town looked for him after he went missing, walking the banks of the Tucannon for any sign of him.
Lusk called him one of the most thoughtful men she knew, always bringing or buying things for others and anticipating how much they'd enjoy the items, which included his own homemade cribbage boards.
Because he was so wellliked in town, Bob's disappearance still stumps many Starbuck residents.
"You never know what crosses people's minds," his friend and neighbor Josey said. "But he never gave me any indication of anything."
But Bill said his brother had threatened to kill himself once before about 12 years ago when he had a painful prostrate condition that kept him from voiding until he had surgery. At the time, Bob had thoughts of "sucking on a .38," Bill said.
Although he had no known chronic or terminal ailments, Bob did suffer from aches, arthritis pains and old injuries sustained when he used to break in horses. He once suffered a compression fracture when a horse rolled on him.
Unbeknownst to Bill until after his younger brother disappeared, Bob had shared with some of his best friends thoughts of ending his life during the past two years.
"My suspicion is that he didn't want to grow old," Bill said. "Growing old is not for sissies. I would have never called him a sissy while he was still alive, but I guess I'll call him a sissy now."
One Last Search
The short laugh that followed Bill's remark on the phone was bittersweet. Bill said he did his grieving back in April, when he realized Bob had gone on his last adventure. Now he wants closure and not for emotional reasons alone.
He still has a joint checking account with Bob and receives pension checks from the government. Unless he finds a legal way to declare his brother deceased, he may end up being accused of fraud in accepting the payments.
While he's studying the possibility of making Bob's passing official, he still prefers to have physical proof and suggested back in mid July that the Sheriff engage a volunteer "cadaver dog" team (some of which are based as close as Idaho) to search the area around Starbuck for Bob's remains.
He even offered to pay for gas and dog food during such a search, but the organizations that run the dog teams require a formal request from local law enforcement executives before they'll deploy them.
Foley agreed this would be a good idea because the kind of breeds used as cadaver dogs, such as the Giant Schnauzer and Bouvier, can "sniff a body on the breeze."
Bob Bulota was an avid hunter and fisherman, shown here outside his little cabin near the Tucannon River in Starbuck.
Sheriff Walt Hessler, whose deputies recently searched the area by helicopter without any results, said he may consider the use of cadaver dogs but hasn't committed to it yet. By now, the trail around the cabin is cold and Hessler said the potential search area is at least 30 square miles.
"The question is: where did he go?" Hessler said, suggesting it could be a wild goose chase. "If he's not anywhere close to the house you're spitting into the wind."
Bill said he wants to do a wake or memorial ceremony with his brother's friends as soon as he can obtain a death certificate or as soon as the body is found, "whichever comes first."
Dr. Bill Bulota has issueda $500 reward for informationleading to the discoveryof Bob Bulota, whom hedescribes as stout, 5' 9" and220 lbs. He usually woreshorts and a T-shirt evenduring colder months. If youhave any information thatcan help law enforcementofficials, please contact theColumbia County Sheriff 'sOffice at 509-382-2518.