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Inyo County investigators have a bit of a mystery on their hands, following a grisly discovery over the weekend in Death Valley.

It was pilots from Edwards Air Force Base on Friday who spotted the wreckage of a 2002 Jeep Cherokee in a steep ravine near Father Crowley Vista Point and eventually led authorities to the remains of the individual believed to be the driver.

Had the airmen not noticed the hunk of metal in the unforgiving desert canyon, there’s no telling how long the wreckage would have gone undetected – despite its proximity to one of Death Valley’s most highly visited attractions.


Father Crowley Point

“Based on where the vehicle was located, you couldn’t see it from Father Crowley Point,” said Sheriff’s Investigator Andrew Marsh. The vista point, located just to the north of State Route 190 about 41 miles east of Lone Pine, not only receives a fair amount of foot traffic, but is passed by hundreds of eastbound and westbound vehicles daily.

Marsh said investigators estimate the Jeep Cherokee could have been at the bottom of the ravine since August.

According to Marsh, local authorities were made aware of the possible crash site Friday about 1:13 p.m., when personnel from Edwards AFB contacted the Bishop office of the California Highway Patrol about what the pilots had seen.
CHP officers, Death Valley parkrangers and personnel with the Sheriff’s Department met up at Father Crowley Vista Point, where rangers descended the risky 100 yards down to the Cherokee, Marsh reported. The rangers determined the wreckage was old and there were no known survivors. “Skeletal remains” were found at the scene, Marsh said, including a femur, an upper jaw, pelvis and part of a spinal column.

Marsh noted that the remains appear to be from a single adult and are “somewhat aged and weathered from the elements.”




Inyo County Sheriff’s Department personnel were joined by the Coroner’s Office and technical Search and Rescue climbers the next day, Saturday, Dec. 29. The four SAR members were able to carefully descend the ravine – “It’s a dangerous hike,” Marsh said – and search the vehicle and surrounding area. In addition to human remains, they found personal items, such as letters addressed to the deceased as well as clothing.

Based on those personal items, including notes and documents discovered the day before by park rangers, investigators believe that whatever befell the driver happened sometime after Aug. 1.
The condition of the remains indicates it didn’t take place too long after that date.



The Inyo County Coroner’s Office now has possession of the remains, and will be jointly investigating the case with the Sheriff’s Department.
According to Marsh, identification was in the vehicle, and attempts at a positive ID are being made. Until then, and not before the victim’s next of kin has been notified, authorities will not release the name of the victim.
Finding out for sure who the driver was is one of many tasks facing investigators, who will also need to pinpoint a cause of death (which Marsh said will be “difficult” given the level of the remains’ decomposition) and determine how the vehicle ended at the bottom of the ravine (CHP will be helping here).

Investigators will also try to answer why, in four months, no one filed an overdue or missing persons report for the victim or a missing vehicle report for the Cherokee – something they discovered upon entering the Jeep’s license plate number into national databases without getting a single hit.

A Death Valley case to close books on
Monday, 25 February 2008
By Darcy Ellis
Editor

2-23-2008

Death Valley, a remote milieu with a macabre reputation, hides within its millions of acres even more secrets – people and places seemingly swallowed up by the unforgiving landscape with or without the help of outside forces.

And were it not for a fateful fly-by back in December by some military fighter pilots, and subsequent legwork by Inyo County investigators, another of the great valley’s secrets would have gone undetected, and another of its myriad mysteries unsolved.

It was the pilots’ chance sighting of possible wreckage that led sheriff’s investigators and the Inyo County Search and Rescue team to a ravine at the bottom of Father Crowley Point on Dec. 28, where a hunk of metal that was once a 2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee lay totaled with its driver’s remains nearby.

Based on decomposition levels, Deputy Coroner Jeff Mullenhour estimated the unidentified visitor to Death Valley National Park could have been at the bottom of Father Crowley Point – one of the park’s most visited attractions that is also passed by thousands of vehicles a day in peak season – since about August.

Sgt. Andrew Marsh noted that neither a missing persons nor missing vehicle report had been filed in the prior four months for the deceased or the Cherokee.

On Wednesday, after months of effort to reconcile dental records with a partial jaw bone found at the scene of the wreck, Mullenhour was able to positively identify the driver as Paul Dennis Shea, 66, of Homestead, Fla.

As for how Shea ended up 100 yards below the scenic point, according to Marsh, investigators looked at a wide variety of scenarios and came to the conclusion, along with the deputy coroner, that the death should be ruled accidental.

In order to make a cause-of-death determination on a death certificate, a number of criteria have to be met.

Because of the time element involved in the investigation, “We have no witnesses,” Marsh explained. “We have no one to say, ‘We saw Shea intentionally drive off a cliff or accidentally drive off a cliff.’”

But Marsh did add that “there was a reason why that gentleman was where he was at,” again noting the stringent parameters for cause-of-death rulings.

There’s no telling when, or even if, Shea would have been found were it not for the Edwards Air Force Base pilots, considering family and friends were not looking for him.

The reason for a lack of search or missing person’s report, according to Marsh, is Shea’s penchant for staying out of communication with friends and family for extended periods of time.
“It was not out of the ordinary for this gentleman to go off” on cross-country trips without checking in with loved ones, Marsh said.

In fact, Shea was last seen in late July/early August in Orange, where he was staying at some friends’ house after returning from another jaunt that had taken him across several Western states.

Shea had just lost his job in Florida, which Marsh noted was also not uncommon for Shea, and was believed to be setting out for more sightseeing before heading back home.
According to Shea’s friends in Orange, “nothing seemed out of the ordinary at that time,” Marsh noted.

Inyo investigators were able to piece together Shea’s last-known whereabouts thanks to not only the Orange couple, but also a sister in Massachusetts, who “assisted tremendously” in the investigation, Marsh said.

Investigators were able to preliminarily identify Shea and were led to his friends and family members by evidence collected at the scene of the wreckage, which included vehicle registration, letters, bills and even the names of the friends in Orange.

Shea, whose remains will be returned home to Florida where family members are making necessary arrangements, leaves behind a son in Florida and a daughter in Southern California.
 

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Wow!!!
 

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It underscores the need to travel with at least two rigs in remote locations like death Valley.

I know some of the people on the forum like to go out there in 1 rig and run around - but I do worry about that. If you're going to do that, having THE SPOT (GPS) Spot Messenger > Home or something close to it, makes sense. I'm not saying that it would have saved the occupants of the Jeep, but maybe a loved one could have located the remains.

If you're injured in Death Valley or other remote area in a crash, you still have to walk out and there are a significant number of people over time who haven't made it.

:grim:
 

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What a sad story.

Larry thanks for the info on the SPOT. It looks like something me and Terry could use for these remote parts that we have been riding in, where there is no cell service and no way to get in contact with loved ones back home to let them know we are ok.

Again this forum is filled with members that offer a wealth of information.
 

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Weird that I have stopped by there more than once to look around, not knowing a truck and body are laying not too far away.

As one of those people who does go out alone, SPOT has afforded me some piece of mind. I use it even when I am with a group of people to get in the habit of using it. It's affordable and works as advertised - at least for the "OK" portion of it. Hopefully "send help" and "911" are never used.
With SPOT, if you get into a situation that doesn't allow you to drive out, you don't have to walk out because someone knows exactly where you are. If you know that someone knows exactly where you are, survival rules say you stay where you are and wait for help.
This, by no means, is any reason to not be fully prepared for whatever enviroment you're heading into. But it does help mentally.
For the desert, that I am always in, survival gear has to include enough water to survive more than just a couple of days.
In the past my copilot and I would go out alone-for a day-and we always were very aware of what we were getting into-that there would be to possibility of the need to walk out. This was when we had a Taco 4x4 and had no idea about this forum.
This forum allows someone (me) to post a run that, in the past, I would have taken alone. Now there could be someone out there as crazy as myself that would like to go into DV in the middle of summer and have a look around. Maybe I am a desert rat. Just my .02c's
 

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Interesting read Todd, thanks for posting.

It's things like this that keep me off the trails when solo or just with my kids. As I always say, safety in numbers.

Thanks again.
~Brian
 

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I will probably get one of those before my next desert roadtrip. It (a/any desert) is such a big, harsh and desolate place that one should never underestimate. I always carry a five gallon Blitz can (full/water) on my roadtrips, several VN era canteens and food for a week; everywhere.. People often kid me about that, but I do. Even then I always think about having to carry the water and walk out of somewhere. I have one of those strap/backpack computer carriers that will hold the can, but probably couldn't walk very far with 37 pounds of water on my back.. LOL..

Honestly, even driving cross country can be a nightmare sometimes. Ron

Weird that I have stopped by there more than once to look around, not knowing a truck and body are laying not too far away.

As one of those people who does go out alone, SPOT has afforded me some piece of mind. I use it even when I am with a group of people to get in the habit of using it. It's affordable and works as advertised - at least for the "OK" portion of it. Hopefully "send help" and "911" are never used.
With SPOT, if you get into a situation that doesn't allow you to drive out, you don't have to walk out because someone knows exactly where you are. If you know that someone knows exactly where you are, survival rules say you stay where you are and wait for help.
This, by no means, is any reason to not be fully prepared for whatever enviroment you're heading into. But it does help mentally.
For the desert, that I am always in, survival gear has to include enough water to survive more than just a couple of days.
In the past my copilot and I would go out alone-for a day-and we always were very aware of what we were getting into-that there would be to possibility of the need to walk out. This was when we had a Taco 4x4 and had no idea about this forum.
This forum allows someone (me) to post a run that, in the past, I would have taken alone. Now there could be someone out there as crazy as myself that would like to go into DV in the middle of summer and have a look around. Maybe I am a desert rat. Just my .02c's
 

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Great post Todd. I almost always travel in a single vehicle with my brother, to remote trailheads for backpacking in the Colorado high country or the deserts of Utah. But I also remember a story from a year or so ago where a woman drove off an interstate highway into a brush filled ravine and wasn't found for something like 7 days. So I now carry the Spot Messenger with me everywhere I go.
 

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I watched the video for the spot and expected it to cost a ton. Im shocked how inexpensive that is. What a great product!!!!
 

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What a way to go. Alone, battered, trapped, cooking in the desert sun and for how long before you dehydrate and with tons of people within walking distance of you. Hope the poor man died on impact. The SPOT is going to be with me very soon! Definitely worth the piece of mind.
 

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Larry thanks for the info on the SPOT. It looks like something me and Terry could use for these remote parts that we have been riding in, where there is no cell service and no way to get in contact with loved ones back home to let them know we are ok.
If being able to talk to someone in a non-cell tower region is important, you might want to consider a SatPhone. Albeit the SPOT is much cheaper on the buy-in, the long term cost is up for debate (SPOT = $100 - $158 yr, Sat Phone = .80 - $1.50 min).
 

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I did'nt read the posting carefully, but I don't think it metioned how he got to the bottom of the ravine, but I would guess it was suicide. There are no roads to the bottom of the canyon, I wish there were. I'm guessing that he drove over the cliff. That location is just a pulloff from hwy 190. There is however another mystery, from about 10-15 years ago, in an area that some of you just went through. An entire family from Germany dissapeared near Mengle pass, their minivan was found, and several beer bottles were found several miles south of the Geologist cabin. No trace of any member of the family has ever been found. It is speculated that they tried to walk out for help, but no one knows why they headed towards China lake, and not back the way they came. What is really astonishing, they drove a mini van through Mengel, in the middle of summer. I will try to find the story when I get home, it is still an open case.
 

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StHarris what are the other details on a satphone purchase? Sounds interesting.
Before you decide to purchase, take a look at the WikiPages on SatPhones and ComSats

There are three main SatPhone ComSat providers (Immarsat, Iridum, and GlobalStar) with more coming soon to a theater near you. The older SatPhones, are a bit bulky (on right)
, but can be purchased fairly cheaply (this is what we got my brother in-law). The newer ones you can't really tell apart from a standard cellphone (see below).


You can buy a used used Globalstar 1600 Satellite Phone on eBay for $200 (BIN) NIB is $299)). Usage Plans are like cellphone companies . . . depends on what you want and what kind of commitment you make. GlobalStar Plan pricing

Reliability:
1. Immarsat
2. Iridium
3. GlobalStar (might want to read this)

Take a look at GlobalCom and the SatPhoneStore for an idea on phones and rates. BTW, the SatPhoneStore also offers worldwide HS Inet/Voice options . . . but it's gonna hurt.
 
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