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A lesson in love: Search party organizer reflects on the power of communal togetherness

By Tabitha Johnston - Chronicle Staff | Mar 5, 2021

This is the approximate stretch of the Potomac River in which David Barefoot's body was found on Jan. 16. Courtesy photo

SHEPHERDSTOWN — On Jan. 11, a 30-year-old member of Covenant Church in Shepherdstown went missing, after completing his shift with his employer in Hagerstown, Md. The Hedgesville resident, David Michael Barefoot, was last seen at a Sheetz gas station in Williamsport, Md., where he had fueled up that afternoon.

According to his mother, Donna Barefoot, who is also a member of Covenant Church, he had recently undergone a medical procedure. Combined with a history of brain aneurysms, Donna knew to be concerned when he did not respond to her phone calls after he got off of work.

The search for the cyber security analyst began on Jan. 12, under the direction of the West Virginia State Police and Maryland State Police. Two days later, David’s abandoned 2012 Toyota Camry was identified by Washington County Sheriff’s Office deputies near the Potomac River on McCoy’s Ferry Road in Clear Spring, Md. Unfortunately, law enforcement search parties were unable to locate David, in spite of their expansive resources, and ended their search on Jan. 15.

“The Maryland State Police spent two days with nine teams of sniffer dogs, boats, drones and a mobile rescue unit equipped with food, restrooms, hot chocolate and trained rescuers searching a several mile radius from where the car was found, before giving up the search,” said Shepherdstown resident Donna Joy, a friend of Donna Barefoot’s. “I knew the family would be devasted that the professionals had called off the search. I knew they would always be wishing and hoping that he would walk through the front door. They would never have closure.”

Her concern over this led to her organizing a search party online, that drew attention from both local residents and Covenant Church members. According to Joy, about 45-50 people participated in the search, which began on the morning of Jan. 16 near where David’s car had been found. While they did not have the search-and-rescue training or resources the police had, the group had some resources the police did not have.

David Barefoot

“I felt determined,” Joy said. “I believed that we had the power of prayer, and so many people who loved David had joined the search. So many gathered in love for a common good — that’s powerful!

“David had a pure heart. Everyone who knew him loved his generous and kind spirit,” Joy said. “I didn’t know him that well, but I heard people’s testaments.”

Soon after beginning the search, a father-and-son team found David’s body, after using their motor boat to search down the Potomac River. David’s older brother and only sibling, Derek, had participated in the search, and waited for his father, Dean, to drive up and join him, before identifying the body for the police.

“I just want to say how floored I am by the outpouring of support we received today on the towpath,” Derek said in a Facebook post later that day. “[David] was not only my brother, but also my best friend. I may not understand why he had to be taken so soon, . . . but I think we all know where he is and only hope to someday see him again. He deserved better than anything this world could offer him anyway. Instead of us just going around saying ‘sorry for your loss,’ I think that when it comes to David, really the world lost. I’m going to miss you forever, brother.”

Derek specifically thanked Joy for her work, as search party leader and an emotional support.

Donna Joy

“I felt honored to have been a part of the effort and to have witnessed and experienced the power of love, the Great Mystery (God) and community. I know that we needed each person to show up with an open heart for the magic to happen,” Joy said, mentioning this experience has taught her about the power of love and community togetherness. “This is what me must do in all situations, as much as possible — if each person just showed up [with] their hearts together for five minutes, we could change the world.”

A Celebration of Life service will be announced at a later date. Memorial contributions may be made in David’s name to Covenant Church, P.O. Box 1674 Shepherdstown, WV 25443.