FIRST ON FOX – The family of Ken DeLand, an American college student missing in France for the past several weeks, is fielding tips from a website as to what might have happened to the 22-year-old, including from people pointing to a borderless European zone where travelers aren’t required to present passports.
The missing student’s father, also named Ken DeLand, told Fox News Digital on Tuesday that he’s received tips through their website – findkendeland.com – of potential sightings and from others theorizing that his son could have already left France undetected.
“In fact, everybody has told us about the Schengen zone,” the elder DeLand said. “And what that is, is a whole encompassing area within the EU that people can virtually travel among without having to show I.D. And some people have said it can even be traveled very inexpensively.”
According to the website for the Schengen visa, the area “signifies a zone where 26 European countries abolished their internal borders for the free and unrestricted movement of people, in harmony with common rules for controlling external borders and fighting criminality by strengthening the common judicial system and police cooperation.” It covers most European countries except Ireland.
“Well, he could theoretically move among a few different, several EU countries without even having to show his passport or identification,” the elder DeLand told Fox News Digital. “I would hope not.”
But the father cast doubt on that hypothesis, noting how his son, while on break from his study abroad program at the University of Grenoble Alpes, already traveled throughout Europe to Italy – and later returned to France.
“I know he took a vacation when school was out of session for about a week while he was over there, which is typical for college students,” the elder DeLand said. “He did travel over to Italy because he really wanted to see what Italy was like, and he enjoyed it. He traveled by himself. He stayed in hostels. He went to several of the coastal cities, Rome, Naples, I think he went to Florence. He’s got pictures on his Facebook of that.”
DeLand Sr., his wife Jennifer DeLand, and the 22-year-old’s mother, Carol Laws, have launched an all-out media blitz, making several appearances across U.S. cable networks pleading for information that might help return the missing student home before Christmas. His study abroad program is set to end on Dec. 17 and his visa expires on Jan. 20.
The father told Fox News Digital that even the U.S. embassy commended their efforts in also securing coverage in French local media, something considered crucial in getting the local word out about DeLand’s disappearance.
“I was on the phone with the embassy again this morning, and the gentleman at the embassy said, ‘I can’t believe how much coverage you have gotten with this story already.’ He said, ‘It surprises me and good for you for getting this out there.’ He says, ‘You and your family have done an excellent job getting the word out there. It surprises me,'” DeLand told Fox News Digital. “And I made sure that the gentleman at the embassy knows about the website and knows about the dropdown menu on the website and any information we’re trying to keep updated on the website. So, people have that at their disposal and can reference that when necessary.”
“I’ve been keeping up contact with the embassy very frequently, and I try to get up early in the morning so that I can reach them at midday being they’re 6 hours ahead,” the father added. “He complimented us for our ability to get in the news, create a website and get word over to France and throughout France. And he confirmed that he had [seen] the story hit few news outlets, and he said the best thing that you can do to spread the word is to get it into the French media. And you succeeded in doing that.”
The elder DeLand also criticized a statement released Monday by Grenoble prosecutor Eric Vaillant.
Vaillant claimed DeLand had “arrived in France underprepared and was having difficulty making friends.” He also said French investigators contend that DeLand “seems to have left Grenoble voluntarily.”
“Anybody that goes to a foreign-speaking country and trying to learn the language is going to struggle I feel unless they’ve got a very good understanding of the language,” the elder DeLand said, defending his son. “He studied French in high school, and he tried to prepare himself for as much as he could think of going to a foreign country. When you get to a foreign country, you know, they speak it much faster, and it’s a lot more intense.”
The father said the younger DeLand, a student at St. John Fisher University in Rochester, N.Y., and an Eagle Scout, took between five and six years of French courses throughout middle and high school, but added that “even his French teacher I spoke with to get some help translating, and she says, ‘I’ll be honest with you, my French, I’m not sure how much I would be able to keep up with that French dialect.’ She said, ‘I’m better at the Quebec French.'”
“It was a variety of different students from different areas in the world. But it was just in French. So with that said, it sounded like it was kind of intense,” the father told Fox News Digital of his son’s study aboard program. “And he reached out to get some help from some of the advisors at the college to make sure that, you know, he could try to be as successful in taking courses over there as he possibly could.”
The family said they last heard from DeLand on Nov. 27 through WhatsApp.
He went to classes on Nov. 28, where those who saw him said he seemed “normal and happy,” according to the family website. DeLand was reported missing on Nov. 29 after not showing up in class or being seen by friends or his host family. He reportedly left all his belongings at his host family’s home, including his computer, tablet, train pass, and phone charger. His phone last pinged by the Valence train station on Nov. 30.
Bank records showed he made a purchase on Dec. 3 at the Decathlon Sporting Goods store in Montelimar, France, for just $8.40. Surveillance video also showed the 6-foot 190-pound DeLand entering the store wearing a red jacket, scarf, grey beanie, blue jeans and sneakers while carrying a black backpack.
The elder DeLand complained that the French prosecutor is privy to more information than his own family.
“That’s the way the French are looking at it because of his age. And him leaving with a bag of stuff. I can’t comment on that, and I’m not certain where the prosecutor was able to get his information,” the father said. “I haven’t been able to get information due to the Privacy Act.”
“Maybe I should be speaking with the prosecutor,” the elder DeLand added. “He seems to have more information than we as parents have.”
“We saw that new development in the story yesterday, and we were kind of scratching our heads as to know where that information came from and how he was able to ascertain that they had information,” the father said. “And with the privacy act as such, then how was he able to get testimonial?”
The father also questioned if traveling to France himself would be useful in the search.
“From a logistical standpoint, here’s the breakdown that I see,” the elder DeLand told Fox News Digital. “I don’t speak French. I don’t know the area. I don’t know the cities or the landmarks. I would struggle if I got over there to know the language and know where to go to even begin.”
The father said he has no reason to believe his son did not have a good relationship with his host mother in France.
From what the elder DeLand has heard, the woman spoke some English and had two adult daughters who would sometimes aid in translation between their mother and the younger DeLand.
The DeLand family just got ahold of her number and address, but they haven’t spoken yet. The father said he appreciated how the French family would sit down with DeLand regularly for meals together.
“We’re not certain where Kenny is. I just hope he’s safe and hope he can return home,” DeLand said. “We’re just trying to get the word out there as far as we can reach in order to find people that want to help and want to help us find Kenny and bring him home safely.”