Friday, May 10, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Vanished Hiker -- Puzzled Husband Retraces Fateful Walk On Squak Mt.

ISSAQUAH - Standing at a fork in a Squak Mountain trail yesterday, Ron Barensten peered into the trees and tried to remember what happened the day his wife disappeared.

"I stopped here," he said slowly. "I waited for her. I turned and looked. I thought I saw a bobbing hat going the wrong way. I dashed back and I shouted for her."

Ron Barensten says he shouted "Donna," his wife's name, over and over again that afternoon last Saturday. But Donna Barensten, 59, never answered him.

Six days later, after an intensive search involving hundreds of rescue workers, bloodhounds and an infrared scanning device, she is still missing.

King County police searchers pulled out after combing the area two and three times; they had not picked up so much as a thread. While there is no direct evidence of foul play, police are not ruling that out. Meanwhile, Donna Barensten has been entered in police records as a missing person.

The professional searchers are gone, but Barensten is still looking.

He says his wife is suffering from dementia, couldn't find her way home and is still wandering the streets. His wife, who is a nurse, had started to slip mentally in recent years, he says.

For example, he says, she'd racked up a bill of thousands of dollars in magazines she wasn't interested in. And her person-ality had changed slightly.

On the day she disappeared, Barensten said his wife was out of his sight for only two minutes - three at the most. He often hiked in front of her because she had fractured her leg a few years earlier.

"She's not an agile hiker," Barensten said. "She's strong. She could go 5 miles an hour over a 10-mile distance - but she'd natter at me a little bit" if he pushed up the pace.

Barensten, a bio-engineer at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, says that when he dashed back to find her, he might have gone up the wrong trail and she might have passed him and continued on downto the trail's end. She was last seen wearing khaki shorts, a white T-shirt and a white hat.

Wandering confused through town, he says, "Somebody could think she's a homeless person."

Barensten hasn't slept much since his wife disappeared, he says, and hasn't been able to use the bed they shared. Tears come readily. He has heavy bags under his eyes, and he stumbled often as he hiked the Squak Mountain trails near Issaquah yesterday.

His good friend, Allen Wyler, a neurosurgeon who flew out from Memphis, Tenn., Wednesday to help search, says although Barensten seems to be keeping up a good front, he has broken down many times in private. Several times, Wyler says, Barensten has called out his wife's name in his sleep. The Barenstens have no children.

After four hours of hiking through the dense second-growth forest yesterday, retracing steps he's already retraced so many times, Barensten still wasn't ready to give up.

Wednesday night, a woman caller told him Jesus had given her instructions on where to find Donna. Barensten took them down. Yesterday, he and Wyler followed them.

The instructions were vague and complicated; they involved going down the trail, taking a right, going two-fifths of a mile, taking another right, and finding a cliff. Her body would be at the bottom of the cliff, the woman said.

The two men made a small joke at the idea of following the advice of "the Jesus lady." But they tried. They headed down one trail. Barensten said there wouldn't be a turnoff to the right here, but there was. The two men looked at each, hummed the theme to the "Twilight Zone" and laughed. But a few feet down this trail, it became a dead end.

They found another trail which leads to the top of an abandoned stone quarry, but orange tape tied to tree branches shows this area was searched extensively.

"Well, so much for the Jesus lady," Wyler said.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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