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FOIA Fun – Dropping the big hammer, 8/11/2011

Now I really do prefer to get along with others (despite any conclusions you may have come to reading this!). That’s always my first choice.   But when those “others” get in the way of me doing something I think is important, well, I sorta lose patience rather quickly.  I get cranky.

After JTNP’s non-reaction to our finding of strange stuff in the backcountry during JT21, I knew this was never going to be any type of partnership in finding Bill.  I won’t go as far to say they didn’t care, but perhaps they had other things to do they thought were more important.  That’s fine, but give me what I need and get out of my way.   Not the sort of folks I work well with.  On top of that, I had pretty much exhausted the data we had to date, yet there was much more we had never seen in JTNP’s files.  And they weren’t going to share.

I was doing my best to keep it from becoming an adversarial situation.  It was, in fact, already an adversarial situation.  it’s just that  JTNP just didn’t know it yet.  But I did. So I decided it was time to bring them up to speed with me.  It was time for a FOIA.

A FOIA, for those of you who haven’t tangled with the government, is a Freedom of Information Act request.  Once you submit one of these babies to the Feds, they are required by law to respond to you, with the exception of certain classified, personnel matters or special privilege items.  And they must do so in a fairly timely manner, at no or little cost.  In previous adventures, I had FOIA’ed the CIA.  The National Park Service was the minor leagues.

So on June 5, 2011, I submitted a FOIA request in writing to the National Park Service regional FOIA office in San Francisco.  By submitting it to these guys, and not JTNP directly, the FOIA comes down to JTNP from above them in their food chain, and the FOIA officers keep after JTNP until they comply.  Also, from my previous dealings with the Norman Cox Death Valley case, I knew exactly what forms they used and which documents to officially request.  And since Bill was by now presumed deceased, he no longer had privacy privileges which JTNP might try to invoke to withhold files.

Responses from the San Francisco FOIA office kept me well informed as things moved along. They really were a good bunch.  When things seemed to be taking longer than they should for the rather simple documents I had requested, they were very apologetic and said some items were redacted that shouldn’t have been, and had to be redone.  Nice service!

On August 10, 2011, I looked in my mailbox and found a small, tan envelope.  Hmmmm….That wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.  It should have been a thick envelope stuffed with copies.  Opening the envelope I found a CD and a DVD. On the CD was a 16 meg pdf file, with 512 pages (!!) of fantastic documents. Incident logs, team sign ins, assignments, receipts, weather reports, news clippings and all sorts of other stuff.  The DVD was even better. There was about  about a gigabyte of stuff on it. It had all the GPS tracks (even the ones we made and submitted),  pdf versions of the SAR maps and assorted GIS files.   This had clearly been a lot of work for JTNP to assemble.  Had they responded to the rather modest requests I had made earlier, it would have been about a fiftieth of the work.

I spent almost a week pouring over the data in detail.  Much of it, like receipts for items used during the initial search, weren’t useful.  But there was a very detailed narrative of the case, clue listings, radio logs, team sign in sheets and assignments and reports back from the field teams on what they saw.  It also took a great deal of time to sort through the GPS tracks from the initial search, clean them up and import them into my usual GPS software (Garmin Mapsource) as well as Google Earth.

Some of the highlights of the FOIA data:

  • I finally saw the  precise coordinates for the red bandanna found during the initial search (33.99750, -116.23845).
  • I had heard of some water bottles being  found during the search.  It turned out they were stashed by another hiker for regular trips he had been making in the area.  He provided a hand drawn map to JTNP showing that cache and another.
  • There had been about 770 miles of GPS tracks submitted during the initial search by all the search teams.
  • Strangely, Bill’s NPS Senior Park Pass, found in his vehicle, was never scanned at either the West entrance station or the Cottonwood entrance station.  It does sometime happen that the ranger/attendant may be off using the restroom, or if there’s a long line, cars may be waved through without them actually scanning the pass.  That’s happened to me before.
  • There was a location in Smith Water Canyon where one of the search teams noted a “suspicious odor”.  Another team followed up on it, but nothing was found.
  • There were several civilian eyewitnesses to Bill’s vehicle being parked at the Juniper Flats trailhead, well before it was noticed by authorities.
But there was one thing above all that just jumped out of the records and stunned me:
JTNP first received notification that they might have a missing hiker early on Friday morning, June 25th.  And by 8:30 AM, they had received info on Bill, and the make and model of his rental vehicle.  Initially, they thought Bill might be at Carey’s Castle, as that’s what Mary had told them.  By later morning, after checking the trailhead for Carey’s Castle and finding no one had been there for weeks, the park expanded the search to other areas.  Around 1:30 PM that day, Friday, a ranger was dispatched to check the parking areas at Keys View and Lost Horse Mine for Bill’s car.  To get to both of these locations, the ranger had to drive past the Juniper Flats trailhead parking area, both coming and going.  He failed to see Bill’s car parked only about 75 yards off the main road!

Now that’s pretty bad.  But wait, it gets worse.  The next day, at 9 AM Saturday, June 26th, the same ranger drove out to Keys View again to check for Bill’s car.  As before, he drove past the Juniper Flats trailhead parking area coming and going.  Not only did he not notice Bill’s vehicle again, he specifically stated there were no vehicles at the Juniper Flats trailhead parking area!

Now there are only two possible explanations for this.  The first is that Bill’s vehicle really wasn’t there, and then it suddenly was.  If this were the case, then something extremely criminal involving a missing person was occurring. The other explanation is that it was an instance of extreme incompetence.  It’s one or the other.  There are no other choices here.

So far, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office, the agency in charge of the investigation of Bill’s disappearance, seems to think it’s a straight missing person case with no credible indication of foul play.  And there were a total of three civilian witnesses (hikers) who saw Bill’s vehicle during the period it “wasn’t there”.  So where does the evidence come down?  Yeah, I thought so.  It makes me more than a little sick.

Think maybe I’m making too big a thing of this?  Think it was an honest mistake?  I agree.  The first time was an honest mistake.  I’ll give that to anyone.  But the ranger drove by this parking area total of four times and didn’t notice the vehicle. The first pass-by could be excused, the next three aren’t.   See the layout for yourself.  The terrain is very flat, BTW:

Juniper Flats trailhead parking area

Moving on (because thinking about this just makes me angry), there was a business card in the JTNP file for a Verizon engineer, a Mr. Odette out of Ontario, CA.  I presume he was the Verizon contact who provided the ping information.  I sent him an email on August 11, the day after I got the FOIA data dump.  I explained my involvement with all this, and posed some technical questions as to how ping distance might be figured by their system, at the same time acknowledged the privacy issues.  I never heard back from him.

As an aside, that was the second time I struck out on following up on the ping data.  This is apparently an elusive subject.   On June 3, 2011 I had emailed my ping questions to Deputy Mario Martinez , the Sheriff’s case investigator, along with my analysis of  how Verizon’s system worked.  I was asking if he could put us in touch with Verizon folks with whom we could speak technically (You know, geek speak).  I mentioned that RMRU had been trying to get in touch with him on that same matter also, but their requests seemed to go nowhere.  I never got a response to that email either.

Maybe it’s just me?

As a final FOIA note,  disheartening  as the run up to locating Bill’s vehicle was, it was totally counterbalanced by the quality of the actual search itself which began after the vehicle was found.  As I said, I spent a lot of time going through all the FOIA’ed  files.  To improve my understanding I made detailed chronologies of what teams were sent where, and what they found.  I also had the luxury of viewing the entire operation in hindsight.  All that said, it was, in my opinion, a fantastically well run search.  It appears as though the appropriate resources were deployed to the proper areas, from beginning to end.  I don’t see anything at all I would  have done differently.   Given the quality of the search operation that was run, Bill really deserved to be found.

Oh, one last thing.  Now that I finally had what I really wanted, the GPS tracks from the initial search, I resumed sending in the tracks we had made to JTNP, including the accumulated ones I hadn’t sent.  After all, it seemed only fair…..

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