The wife of the Meramec Lakes Golf Course superintendent who went missing for several hours overnight Tuesday said she was frantic from the time she discovered her husband missing until he was found several hours later at dawn on Wednesday.
Willie Nelson, 45, disappeared at about 6 p.m. on Tuesday when he took his golf cart to go fishing on and around the golf course grounds and to check on some older neighbors whose property is adjacent to and southeast of the golf course. He was found unharmed and unawares he was the subject of a search by a pair of St. Clair Fire Protection District firefighters at 4:37 a.m. on Wednesday near the 16th hole of the golf course, 321 Birdie Lane.
Fire protection district duty officer Adam Hansel told The Missourian that firefighters Tim and David Wideman saw Nelson driving his golf cart toward home on that portion of the course, which is near the southeast side.
“He was driving on the cart path toward home when they met him,” Hansel said.
The search for Nelson started in the early morning hours Wednesday after his wife, Linda Luetje-Nelson, woke up at about 1:30 a.m. and discovered he was not in the house. She first used a golf cart to search her husband’s known fishing areas by herself and then called her sister-in-law after that. The sister-in-law called 911, and Franklin County Sheriff’s deputies, St. Clair firefighters and a St. Louis County helicopter crew started to comb the golf course grounds.
“After he went fishing, he went to check on the neighbors,” Luetje-Nelson said. “After he saw them, he ran into other family members and they all had a few drinks. By then it was late and he just got lost trying to get back home in the dark.”
Luetje-Nelson said the neighbor’s house probably is about a mile from the clubhouse as the crow flies.
“He kept trying to find his way, but got disorientated,” she said. “He finally decided to wait because it was dark, so he stopped and tried to sleep in his golf cart.
“When I woke up and discovered he wasn’t home, I got worried and searched (the golf course) by myself. When I couldn’t find him, I got frantic. I had searched everywhere in the areas where he fishes and everywhere else I could think of.”
Luetje-Nelson said her husband’s cellphone battery was dead so there was no way for him to communicate.
“I really thought he had stumbled across some meth makers or something like that and had gotten hurt or worse,” she said. “It’s so dark out there. I thought something must have happened to him.”
The two were united at about 5 a.m.
“I’m so glad he’s home. I was so worried. I was so scared.”
Luetje-Nelson said reports that her husband had turned over his golf cart sometime during the ordeal were erroneous. She also said the cart never got stuck in the mud as reported by a St. Louis news agency.
Luetje-Nelson said the neighbors live off of Thunder Bluff Road, which is east of Birdie Lane. That road winds its way south and west toward the Meramec River.
The Nelsons have two young boys and live in a home on the golf course. Nelson also has a teenage daughter, and she was at the residence at the time, too. She stayed with the boys while Luetje-Nelson searched the property.
The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office stated through a press release that the 45-year-old man left the area in a golf cart to go fishing on the grounds at about 6 p.m. Four St. Clair firefighters were dispatched to the scene at 2:24 a.m. Authorities used golf carts to assist in their search.
After Nelson was found, a St. Clair EMT checked him out and found him to be in good health. Luetje-Nelson said he went to work as usual on Wednesday.
The sheriff’s office said Nelson was disoriented and earlier had been drinking. The press release stated that he was not able to find his way home because of losing his sense of direction.
Meramec Lakes Golf course covers about 220 acres plus another 15 acres near the Meramec River, which borders the property to the west and south. Much of the land is heavily wooded. Luetje-Nelson also said the neighbor’s property includes significant acreage and almost all of it is heavily wooded.
There are no direct or marked paths from the course to the neighbor’s house.
Birdie Lane, where the clubhouse is located, is accessed from Highway 30 to the north and is about halfway through the course acreage.
“I am so grateful to everyone who helped find my husband,” Luetje-Nelson said. “It was just wonderful how everyone helped. I’m just so happy everything turned out OK and my husband is fine.”