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Searching for Bill Ewasko

You haven’t failed at something until you officially give up. (Whoever said this is an idiot).

William Michael Ewasko, age 65, visiting from Marietta, Georgia, went on a day hike in Joshua Tree National Park (JTNP) on Thursday June 24, 2010.  He hasn’t been seen since.  This is the story of my involvement in the search for Bill.  You will note I refer to him by the more familiar name “Bill”.  Now I never met the man or his family, but having spent many hours out in Joshua Tree, trying to get into his mind and what he would have done, gives me a sort of connection to him.  So Bill has become sort of a friend I never met.  I do hope to meet him someday.

This is a somewhat difficult story for me to write for several reasons.   Probably the main reason is that it doesn’t have an ending.  Bill hasn’t yet been found.  And I like endings.

The second reason is that it’s just such an involved story over a long period of time.  There have been a lot of search trips out to Joshua Tree into many different areas.  There’s a lot to talk about.  This is complicated by the fact I tend to get long winded where data is concerned.  It’s the engineer in me.

Finally the third reason this is unusual is I’m going to post most of the data I’ve accumulated over the course of this search.  This includes records of the original search I pried out of  JTNP management as well as the areas myself and other searchers have covered since then.  In the search and rescue biz, this almost never happens.  I’ve never heard of it anyway.  And since I’m not under the jurisdiction of any official search and rescue team, and it’s all public info, I can choose to put it out there.  Call it “open source search and rescue” or crowd-sourcing it, the more eyes the better.  Maybe.

This “open source search and rescue” is really my main motivation for this data dump.  After 30+ trips out to JTNP, I’m running out of reasonable ideas of where Bill might be.  I’m even running out of crazy ideas.

There are quite a few capable, outdoorsy people who might be able to put some part of this information to use.  But unless others can see the data, understand what the clues are and know what areas have been already searched, progress won’t be made.  These are some interesting parts of JTNP to explore, but if you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be quite dangerous.

So this is an experiment.  Let’s see how it works.

General Background

Bill Ewasko was a businessman who lived in Marietta, Georgia with his fiancee Mary.  He loved Joshua Tree National Park and visited almost yearly, to take pictures and hike.  He has been described as a strong hiker used to hiking in the Georgia heat.  He didn’t own a GPS and was more a map and compass sort of guy.

On Wednesday, June 23, 2010, Bill flew in to LAX from Georgia, rented a white Chrysler Sebring, and drove to Rancho Mirage.   For this visit he was staying at the vacant condo of a friend.  On the morning of Thursday the 24th, he departed for JTNP, making a couple of cell phone calls on the way.  He told Mary he was planning on being out of the park by about 5 PM, and was going to eat dinner that evening at Pappy and Harriet’s, a restaurant in Pioneertown.  Mary had the impression Bill was on his way to do a hike to a place called Cary’s Castle, which was listed first on a planned itinerary Bill had left with Mary.  That would have been a very ambitious hike for that time of year, due to the high temperatures in this lower portion of JTNP where Cary’s Castle is located.  Mary was uncomfortable with Bill’s destination choice, due to its remoteness, and asked him to reconsider.  Bill laughed about it, but didn’t give Mary any indication he was changing his mind.

When Bill failed to call Mary that evening, she became concerned and started making phone calls.  By early the next day (Friday morning), JTNP had received notification of the incident, as well as a description of Bill’s vehicle and that it was believed he was going to be hiking to Cary’s Castle.  By mid-morning of that day, rangers had checked the trailhead for Cary’s Castle and found no vehicles had been there for some time.  They then were informed of the other areas Bill has listed as possible hikes from his planned itinerary and began checking other areas of the park.  It wasn’t until 4:56 PM on Saturday the 26th, that a California Highway Patrol helicopter spotted Bill’s vehicle parked at the Juniper Flats Trailhead parking area.  This is a typical  jumping off point for hikers wanting to hike to the top of Quail Mountain, a destination listed on Bill’s itinerary.

At that point the official search began for Bill, focusing on Quail Mountain, but also involving other areas that could be reasonably reached from this trailhead.  The official search continued until  July 5th and involved hundreds of personnel.  Included in the search were search and rescue teams from all over Southern California, dogs, horses, helicopters and a fixed wing aircraft.  In all, about 770 miles of GPS tracks from ground searchers were submitted during the search period.

My involvement with the search came on Tuesday, June 29th.  I was part of a team of four individuals that day from the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit (RMRU) who participated in the original search.  Our assignment that day was to hike to Quail Mountain from the Juniper Flats trailhead, and exit to the north out of Johnny Lang Canyon.

I was only able to participate in the original search for that one day.  But I followed the ongoing search closely as I fully expected Bill would be found.  As the days went by, I was quite surprised when this wasn’t the case.  I had been visiting JTNP for very many years and didn’t consider it a terribly wild and remote place (others may disagree).  It’s not heavily forested and it’s fairly easy to survey the terrain.  So why hadn’t Bill been found?

After having had the beginner’s luck sort of success finding the missing German tourists in Death Valley not long before, I thought this would be an interesting challenge to take on.  Compared to Death Valley, this seemed like it was nearly in my back yard, and I knew the area well.  I was also able to talk a number of other weak minded individuals to join in these assorted searches, most of them being my former RMRU team members (I had left RMRU due to other commitments shortly after the initial Ewasko search).  They are suckers for adventures with slim chances of a payoff.

This then is the story of the (ongoing) search for Bill Ewasko in JTNP.

Just a word about some of the folks who have been involved in this ongoing search.  Almost all of us have substantial training in search and rescue techniques and backcountry travel.  Many are currently members of  RMRU and are doing this on an unofficial basis on their own time and at their own risk.  We know how to handle ourselves safely in remote backcountry locations.  If anything, I am one of the weaker and less skilled members of the usual group of losers who show up for these searches.

I also need to state that any opinions or otherwise snarky remarks in this narrative are strictly mine alone and do not constitute the opinions of RMRU or any other legitimate (or even semi-legitimate) organization.  I have enough trouble just speaking for myself, much less for others.

We have experienced a difficult relationship with JTNP as we’ve gone about our searching.  I think the park would rather we just go away.  Frankly, the park lacks the administrative mechanism to interface with trained, outside individuals doing what we’re doing on an unofficial basis. In the park’s  eyes we are “civilians” wandering around their backcountry with the potential to injure ourselves and are concerned about liability if they assist us in our misguided endeavor.  It is the case of the process being considered more important than the product ( finding a missing person).  I doubt many search and rescue guys would agree with that, although I have come across some who do.  I don’t.  My position is you do whatever it takes to find the subject, short of putting yourself in serious jeopardy.   Despite this difference in philosophy, I have regularly provided JTNP management with electronic copies of our ongoing GPS tracks so they might add them to their Ewasko search file and thus know what areas have been covered.  There will be more to say about this in the narrative.

Below are the search efforts we’ve made to date.  I’m presenting it in reverse chronological order, with the first search at the bottom of the page and the most recent at the top.  After a while, to keep track of them I started assigning “JT” numbers.  As I write this, we’re up to JT34.  Yeah, 34 stinkin’ trips out there, and still no Bill.  For the first group of searches I’ve grouped them together as they focused on a common area.  Where useful, some writeups contain photos to give a sense of the terrain.

The mileages listed in each writeup consist of the GPS miles we submitted to JTNP for that specific effort, and the cumulative miles submitted by that date.  However the mileages listed for each trip do not necessarily reflect the total “person-miles” for that trip.  Not every member of the team always had their own GPS (Pete!!), so there was no track for them.  Sometimes GPS batteries went dead and that person’s track was lost (I’m lookin’ at you, Patrick!).  So in fact, the total miles we covered are considerably greater than listed.  But we only count the miles we have GPS tracks for.

I’ve  included screen captures of the GPS tracks for the individual searches.  The actual GPS tracks are included in the “Resources” link at the very bottom.  Being out in seldom visited parts of the backcountry, we’ve come across lots of interesting things such as Bighorn sheep skeletons, unlisted water sources, inscriptions from 1849, etc.  I am NOT going to say exactly where these things are.  I know what happens when that sort of stuff gets posted online.  There are yahoos out there.   It’s why we can’t have nice things.

A very nice piece on the ongoing Bill Ewasko search in the March 22, 2018 New York Times magazine by writer Geoff Manaugh. Covers the usual suspects.

My thoughts about Bill as of May, 2016 after three more years and a lot of new areas having been searched.

My thoughts about Bill as of January, 2013. Lots of updating based upon waaaay too much searching and newer cell phone information.

My current thoughts about Bill, a brief summary of where I think things stand at the moment.  It may not make sense unless you’ve read all the background on the case.  It may be updated as time passes.

Here is a listing of resources available as part of this search.  Here is all the detailed background data.  Much is raw data, in large files, so you’ll have to figure out what to do with it.  You are on your own as to its interpretation.

The individual searches:

JT91, 11/07/2018: Ridge and canyon slopes southeasterly of Quail Spring.

JT90, 10/13/2018: Side washes and canyons east of northerly Quail Wash.

A Bayesian Approach to Looking for Bill Ewasko, August 2018: A statistical examination of where Ewasko might be based upon the few clues available and the totality of searching to this date.

JT89, 4/1/2018: Major drainage southerly of Eureka Peak and westerly of Upper Covington Flat.

JT-Something-or-other, October 2016 through April 2017, Multiple areas northwesterly of Smith Water Canyon and the canyon between Upper and Lower Covington Flats.

JT88, 4/18/2017: Mouth of Smith Water Canyon along both the 10.5 and 10.6 mile Serin cell tower radius and the northerly slopes of Smith Water Canyon above the easterly Acacia grove.

JT87, 4/4/2017: Quail Wash northerly of Smith Water Canyon and the easterly mouth of Smith Water.

JT86, 2/8/2017: The mouth of Smith Water Canyon at the 10.5 and 10.6 mile Serin tower radii.

JT85, 10/1/2016: East of Quail Wash and northerly of Smith Water Canyon near JTNP Boundary

JT84, 5/12/2016: Rocky areas at the foot of mountains to the west of Quail Wash and north of Smith Water Canyon

JT83, 5/11/2016: Side slopes of Smith Water Canyon between the easterly Acacia grove and its easterly mouth

5/10/2016: Ewasko Thoughts as of May, 2016. (Again, not a search, but more easily noticed if linked to here)

5/6/2016: A clarification of some of the case facts from the Riverside County Sheriff. (Not a search, but more easily noticed if linked to here).

JT82, 5/5/2016: Quail Wash north of Smith Water Canyon to northerly park boundary.

JT81, 2/4/2016: The highlands northwesterly of Smith Water Canyon and easterly of Lower Covington Flat.

JT80, 1/25/2016: The hills northwesterly of Samuelson’s Rocks with Serin tower cell coverage.

JT79, 5/25/2015: Southeasterly of Eureka Peak and southeasterly of the Lower Covington trailhead.

JT78, 4/5/2015: Portions of Lower Covington Flat and area westerly.

JT77, 2/25/2015: Two canyons northeast of Quail Mountain and west of Johnnie Lang Canyon.

JT76, 2/12/2015: Western slopes of the mountains between Upper and Lower Covington Flats.

JT75, 1/28/2015: The mouth of Smith Water Canyon and adjacent Quail Wash area.

JT74, 12/26/2014: The mountainous area between Upper and Lower Covington Flats.

JT73, 11/17/2014: Westerly fringes of Upper Covington Flat.

JT72, 10/25/2014: Southerly and westerly portions of Upper Covington Flat.

JT71, 10/2/2014: Western edge of Upper Covington Flat, Upper Covington Flat, draw separating Upper and Lower Covington Flat.

JT70, 9/18/2014: Southwest edges of Upper Covington Flat.

JT69, 7/28/2014: Yet even more of the canyon area westerly of Upper Covington Flat.

JT68, 7/22/2014: More of the canyon area westerly of Upper Covington Flat.

JT67, 7/17/2014: The canyon area westerly of Upper Covington Flat.

JT66, 6/17/2014: Westerly and southeasterly of Upper Covington Flat.

JT65, 5/31/2014: Northwest and southwest of Upper Covington Flat.

JT64, 5/24/2014, Westerly of Upper Covington Flat.

JT63, 5/14/2014, Upper slopes of the southeasterly slopes of Smith Water Canyon.

JT62, 4/3/2014,  Southerly slopes of Smith Water Canyon easterly of the central bowl area.

JT61, 3/22/2014, Ridgeline and slopes southwest of Lower Covington Flat.

JT60, 1/07/2014, Central bowl area of Smith Water Canyon.

JT59, 11/14/2013, Upper and easterly portions of the central bowl area of Smith Water Canyon.

JT58, 11/07/2013, Southwesterly slopes of the central Smith Water Canyon area.

JT57, 11/03/2013, Southerly slopes of the central Smith Water Canyon area.

JT56, 10/30/2013, Southerly slopes of the central Smith Water Canyon area.

JT55, 10/24/2013, From Park Road to hilly terrain southerly of Quail Spring.

JT54, 10/22/2013, From Park Road to southeast slopes of the mouth of Smith Water Canyon. Yet again.

Search coverage to date of the southerly slopes of Smith Water Canyon, October 2013. Not a search but certainly more work and maybe even more useful.

JT53, 6/24/2013, 3rd anniversary hike from Juniper Flat trailhead to the Quail Mountain ridge.

JT52, 4/15/2013, From Park Road to terrain above Quail Spring and southeast slopes of the mouth of Smith Water Canyon.

JT51, 4/14/2013, From Park Road to southeast slopes of the mouth of Smith Water Canyon.

JT50, 4/6/2013, Northwesterly side of the head of Smith Water Canyon east and north of Covington Trailhead area.

JT49, 3/1/2013, Continued searching in the rugged area of the southeasterly slopes of the Smith Water Canyon mouth.

JT48, 2/27/2013, Upper Covington Flat, southwesterly of the trailhead access road at the 10.6 mile Serin cell tower radius.

JT47, 2/14/2013, From Park Road to the southeasterly slopes of the mouth of Smith Water Canyon. Yet again. Sigh.

JT46, 2/9-10/2013, An epic journey (by someone other than me, yay!) from Quail Mountain to the southeasterly slopes of the mouth of Smith Water Canyon.

JT45, 1/17/2013, A trip into the very rugged area on the southerly slopes of Smith Water Canyon near its mouth at Quail Wash.

JT44, 1/04/2013, A reconnaissance hike from Lower Covington Flat to the north slopes of Smith Water Canyon to view Smith Water’s southerly slopes.

JT43, 12/11/2012, Park Road southwesterly to the northerly slopes of the freestanding hill northerly of Samuelson’s Rocks.

JT42, 11/29/2012,  Park Road southwesterly to and including the mouth of Smith Water Canyon.

JT39 – JT41, 11/7-20/2012, Miscellaneous areas in the vicinity of Lower Covington Flat.

JT38, 7/5/2012, The valley encompassing Quail Wash at the northerly boundary of JTNP.

JT37, 5/17/2012, From the Covington Flats area northeasterly towards Quail Wash.

JT36, 5/9/2012, Easterly off-trail  portions of the Stubbe Spring loop.

JT35, 5/1/2012, Saddle area to the north of Samuelson’s Rocks and hills to the northwest.

 JT34, 3/14/2012, Lower Covington Flat trailhead to the southwest area between Smith Water Canyon and Quail Mountain.

JT33, 1/04/2012, Cell phone area southeast of Eureka Peak and northwest of Upper Covington Flat.

JT32, 12/28/2011, Lower Covington Flat trailhead to southwest area between Smith Water Canyon and Quail Mountain.

JT31, 10/14/2011, Park Blvd. to area between Quail Mountain and Smith Water Canyon.

JT30, 10/11/2011, Lower Covington Flat trailhead to southerly slopes of Smith Water Canyon to check odor location

JT29, 9/29/2011, Park Blvd. to Quail Springs and Smith Water Canyon mouth.

JT28, 8/13/2011, Park Blvd. to Quail Springs.

FOIA Fun – The big hammer drops, 8/11/2011.

JT27, 7/22/2011, Lower Covington Flat trailhead to southerly rim and slopes of  Smith Water Canyon.

June 24, 2011, 1st Anniversary hike and reconnaissance.

JT26, 6/11/2011, Park Blvd. to easterly portions of area between Quail Mountain and Smith Water Canyon.

JT25, 6/02/2011, Park Blvd. to Quail Wash north of Smith Water Canyon mouth, then north to JTNP boundary.

JT24, 5/21/2011, Juniper Flats trailhead easterly to cell area southerly of Ryan Mountain.

JT23, 5/01/2011, Park Blvd. to northerly slopes of Quail Mountain.

JT22, 4/24/2011, Southerly from Black Rock Ranger Station on CRH Trail.

JT21, 3/25/2011, Calif Riding & Hiking Trail from Eureka Peak area, northerly.

JT20, 3/09/2011, Juniper Flats trailhead to southeast of Juniper Flats.

JT19, 3/05/2011, Juniper Flats trailhead to Juniper Flats.

JT18, 3/02/2011, Juniper Flats trailhead to Juniper Flats.

JT17, 2/27/2011, Quail Springs Picnic Area to Upper Lang Canyon cell areas.

JT16, 2/06/2011, Juniper Flats trailhead to southeasterly slopes of Quail Mountain.

JT15, 1/29/2011, Hidden Valley Picnic Area to cell phone zones on east slopes of Lang Canyon, then out to Quail Springs Picnic Area (car shuttle).

JT14, 1/22/2011, Quail Springs Picnic Area westerly to west slopes of Lang Canyon to complete cell zone clearing.

JT13, 1/20/2011, Juniper Flats trailhead southeast to a cell phone zone on a peak north of Lost Horse Mountain.

JT12, 1/15/2011, Quail Springs Picnic Area westerly to west slopes of Lang Canyon.

JT11, 12/30/2010, Park Blvd. to Samuelsons Rock, then circumnavigating around the hill to the north.

JT10, 12/28/2010, Quail Springs Picnic Area westerly to Lang Canyon.

JT9, 12/18/2010,  Hidden Valley Picnic Area to the ridge between Quail Mountain and Lang Mine.

JT8, 12/12/2010, A loop from Lost Horse Ranger Station to the head of Upper Lang Canyon with a large group.

JT2 – JT 7.5, 8/01/2010 to 10/23/2010:  Multiple trips focusing on the head of Johnny Lang Canyon.

JT1, 6/26/2010 to 7/5/2010,  The initial mutual aid search for Bill.