Family mourns husband, father at center of missing person search earlier this month

WALSH COUNTY, N.D. -- It was two days after the prayer service for his father that Jacob Vorachek played in his first hockey game. Wearing his dad's No. 12, Jacob, 13, was the starting center, taking the first faceoff for the Grand Forks Thunder,...

WALSH COUNTY, N.D. -- It was two days after the prayer service for his father that Jacob Vorachek played in his first hockey game.

Wearing his dad's No. 12, Jacob, 13, was the starting center, taking the first faceoff for the Grand Forks Thunder, a traveling team.

Travis Vorachek and his son bonded through sports. Whether it was playing catch or kicking a soccer ball around, they always shared that tie.

The last conversation Travis had with his son was about how excited he was to watch his son play in his first game.

Jacob had just taken up hockey earlier this year. He had never skated before. He and his dad spent hours upon hours practicing. But when Jacob took the ice that day his father was not in the stands.


Travis, 45, was found dead less than a week before -- on Nov. 9 -- in a rural Walsh County, where searchers spent three days looking for him. Now, the entire Vorachek family must figure out how to move on after losing Travis.

"You don't prepare yourself for this, obviously," Travis' wife, Julie Vorachek, said. "I would never wish this pain on anyone."

Since the accident, Julie has been numb.

Travis' pickup sits on the street in front of the family's house with a ticket on it. She can't bring herself up to move it. She wears Travis' clothes just to sense a part of him.

On the day Travis died, he drove to land in rural Walsh County to prepare for a hunt the next morning. It wasn't uncommon for Travis to stay the night instead of driving home.

He was an outdoorsman who loved hunting, fishing and ice fishing, even starting a website,, devoted to his passion.

Travis called Julie when he reached his destination that night to tell her he made it there safely and would see her the next day.

Instead, the next morning, Travis' mother called Julie.


Travis was nowhere to be found. His truck had been frosted over from the chilly night before and his Razor four-wheeler lay overturned about a quarter mile from the truck.

The family called the Walsh County Sheriff's Department as Julie made the longest drive of her life -- an hour and half trip from Grand Forks to this remote area. She kept thinking about how Travis was smart. He knew the land and always watched hunting shows, the ones where they discussed how to live off the land and stay alive during extreme conditions.

But she also knew the land Travis hunted on to be treacherous and bumpy and thick with cattails. About half of the land was covered in water, with some sloughs several feet deep.

"He's smart," Julie said. "He knows what to do. But I kept thinking, 'If he's on the land, he's alive. But if he's in the water, he's dead.'"

The wait

In the daylight hours following the report of his disappearance, the search for Travis began.

Authorities asked Julie if anything they found, ranging from an NDSU football game ticket to a mitten to a black headband, could possibly belong to Travis.


They asked her if Travis was suicidal.


Would Travis leave his family?

No way.

Would Travis be ashamed and run away for any reason?

Not a chance. He wouldn't put them through this hell.

Authorities sent up airplanes that could pick up heat from a body, cadaver dogs that could smell a decaying body and hundreds of volunteers who searched the field.

"It was amazing to see all of those people out looking for Travis," Julie said. "I couldn't believe it. It was very, very humbling."

After two days of searching, there was no sign of Travis. It didn't keep the Voracheks from leaving Travis' pickup unlocked day and night in case he could somehow make it back to the vehicle.

On the morning Travis was found, authorities had expanded their search. They told Julie they were 90 percent sure he wasn't on the land they were searching.

Julie wasn't allowed to go out with the hundreds of volunteers to search for her husband. She had to stay back in case there was news.

And later that day, the news came.

A family member told Julie that Travis was found next to a slough, laying on his side with half of his face in six inches of water.

As of now, it is believed that after crashing the four-wheeler, Travis hit his head -- there were footprints in a chaotic circle around the crashed vehicle -- and in a disoriented state, Travis wandered in the opposite direction of his truck.

"There's no way he would have walked through the cattails if he didn't hurt himself," Julie said.

The land where Travis was found is isolated, with no street lights and houses miles apart. Walking on the land at night would be similar to walking with one's eyes closed.

Julie said she believes he walked into the slough and died Friday night of hypothermia, drowning and a possible head injury.

Family man

Travis lived and breathed his family, Julie Vorachek said. Whether that was whipping up the meals he learned from watching Emeril or Julia Child, to fixing every family's member's computer problem, family came first.

An exceptional athlete who played baseball, hockey and golf -- he once shot a hole in one and owns the course record at the Park River golf course -- Travis could do anything he put his mind to.

"Do you know that flip where you lay on your back, jump up and land on your feet? Yeah, he taught himself to do that," Julie said.

She described her husband as a goofball with a terrific sense of humor.

He gave nearly everybody a nickname, no matter how silly. A girl named Robin was Batman. A kid named Nick was Nick Lachey. A girl with a distinctive laugh was Cricket.

That sense of humor is what made her fall in love with him.

Julie met Travis when they were in school together at Park River High School. He was the class clown and she was the book smart one.

Though they flirted in home economics class, it took until after Travis graduated -- he was two years older than Julie -- for him to finally ask her out.

The two spent their summers together sneaking into a pool after hours where Julie was a lifeguard to go swimming together. They were inseparable.

"I devoted my life to him," Julie said.

When Travis decided to attend UND, Julie followed him there, turning down multiple scholarship offers from other colleges and universities, much to the dislike of her parents.

When Julie graduated from UND and after six years of dating, she knew she wanted to marry Travis, but he didn't seem as sure. She took an internship in Washington and said if he's unsure about their future together then she may just stay in the Pacific Northwest.

That Christmas, Travis made a trip to Washington and asked Julie to marry him, and they were together for the next 21 years.

Day by day

A few days after searchers found Travis, Julie was out running errands, when her daughter asked a question as the two sat in a parking lot about to head to their next stop. Julie answered the question and then drove straight forward into a parked car.

"You mind is in a fog, it's constantly in a fog," she said. "You're in and out of reality. You want to do what's best for your family and your kids, but you don't know what's best for you. You feel like you're sinking."

She's turned to self-help books, reading what she can about how to deal with a tragic event such as this one. She's taking everything day by day, hour by hour, and sometimes minute by minute, she said.

It's not the big moments she worried about, it's the small ones: Travis coming home and playing catch or kicking the ball with Jacob or her two daughters having nobody to dance with at their wedding.

"I still don't believe it's real," Julie said. "I have his ashes right there. We did a funeral, we did a prayer service, we opened up our cards. We're just living, and I feel like he's going to come home."

Julie didn't buy flowers for Travis' prayer service because she knew he would have seen that as a waste of money.

Instead, she drove out to that rural Walsh County slough and picked some of the cattails in the area he was found.

And there, she found herself screaming to the sky, pleading with Travis to come back. If he wasn't there for her and the family, who would be?

She asked Travis to send her a sign that he would watch over them, and just as she did, she said her phone buzzed. She looked down at her phone to see a text from someone asking if she was OK.

"I've heard things like that and I don't know if it's real or not," Julie said. "But I couldn't help but think that was Travis sending me a sign."

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