Will money help find missing Central Valley official? Bakersfield police offer $5,000 reward

Bakersfield Police Department

Investigators now hope money will help turn up missing McFarland City Manager John Wooner.

Bakersfield police on Tuesday rolled out a reward of up to $5,000 for information on the rural city manager who vanished without a trace in May. The mysterious disappearance of the city official from the small town at the end of California’s Central Valley has perplexed the police and the city leaders he worked alongside for nearly a decade.

Wooner, of Bakersfield, hasn’t been seen since May 14, when he drove to a Bakersfield cemetery in his city-issued Dodge Durango to visit the gravesite of his estranged father, Orval Wooner, a one-time city manager and police chief in nearby Arvin.

Bakersfield police at the time said the 57-year-old Wooner disappeared “under suspicious circumstances” and have since offered few updates on investigators’ progress. Nearly two months later, the mystery has stretched into July with precious few leads to go on.

Even leaders in rural McFarland, a Kern County city of 15,000 a short drive from Bakersfield, appear to be preparing for a future without Wooner.

McFarland’s City Council voted to install a temporary replacement in the days and weeks after Wooner vanished, enlisting the city’s interim police chief into the role to “continue the business of the city in an orderly manner.”

McFarland Mayor Manuel Cantu, who installed Wooner as city manager after his 2010 election win and credited Wooner with helping pull the city out of bankruptcy, hired a new city manager last month to a six-month contract. Retired Madera City Manager David Tooley is now the city manager with an option to extend the contract another six months.

In a June interview with The Sacramento Bee, Cantu said he was holding out hope for Wooner’s return: “Our hope is that we find him living somewhere,” he said.

Cantu quashed speculation that Wooner took money from the city before adding speculation of his own: that Wooner “may have been dealing with internal pressures” related to handling the city’s budget.

“This was way out of character for him. Something must’ve happened. We don’t know,” Cantu told The Bee in June. “There’s not much positive for the family or the city.”

Bakersfield police have opened a 24-hour secret witness line to allow callers to remain anonymous. The number is (661) 322-4040.

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Darrell Smith covers courts and California news for The Sacramento Bee. He joined The Bee in 2006 and previously worked at newspapers in Palm Springs, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Marysville. A Sacramento Valley native, Smith was born and raised at Beale Air Force Base, near Marysville.