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Searching for Norman Cox

At the end of January, 2011, I received an email from Jack Freer, the Chief Deputy for the Carson City Sheriff’s Office in Nevada.  He had read press reports  about finding the Germans in Death Valley, and wanted to know if I’d be interested in another “challenge”.   Just seeing that word should have made me delete the email, but I often times have little sense.

As Jack related the story, they had an elderly resident of Carson City by the name of Norman Cox, who in August of 2010 mailed letters to his family stating he was going to commit suicide by unknown means in Death Valley.  On August 7, 2010, the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office located Norman’s van in the parking lot at the Badwater visitor area.  Inyo County Sheriff’s Office (ICSO)  and Death Valley National Park (DVNP) personnel conducted an air and ground search for three days, doing what they could in the extreme August heat.  Other than the van, they failed to turn up any trace of Norman.

Jack, being something of  an accomplished desert rat and frequenting the Death Valley area on hiking and camping trips, told Norman’s  family he would continue searching for Norman when he could, in an unofficial basis.  He had made several trips out there so far, exploring the steep canyons east of Badwater.  Now he was attempting to suck me into his scheme.

Jack, no doubt due to his extensive law enforcement training, was able to quickly zero into my weak spot without even knowing me:  data. He sent me the ICSO report on the incident, and later he sent the DVNP report.  Whatever I asked for, he sent, then some.  Then some more.

Of course there’s  Jack’s side of how he came to be involved with this and how he managed to con me into his delusional adventures (I’m usually doing that to others). For his side of the story (possibly even accurate), pop over to Jack’s new Desert Fog website and check out his writeup on “Finding Norman”. It’s a good read. To add to that, here’s Patrick’s accounting of the adventure.


The reports described Norman as 71 years old and living alone in Carson City.  The official reports described a variety of physical ills, including a broken leg that hadn’t healed properly and dementia (more on this later).  Norman had apparently got his affairs very much in order, sent final letters to his family and headed off to Death Valley.  He made no mention of how he intended suicide, but that was clearly his goal.  It was also clear he thought he would be found, as he left instructions for funeral arrangements.  Yet he vanished into thin, hot, air.  What was going on here?

Norman’s locked van was found at 5 PM at the Badwater parking area by an ICSO deputy.  Inside was an envelope containing money and a note.  At 5 PM that day it was 116 degrees.

DVNP rangers immediately began an initial search which ranged a mile north, south and west of the parking area.  They also looked into the steep canyons on the east side of the parking area, continuing until dark.  The next morning, starting at 6 AM, searchers fanned further out to as far as 7 miles from the parking area, concentrating on the vast salt flats of the valley floor.  This is Badwater, the lowest and hottest spot in the United States.  Aiding the ground search was a California Highway Patrol (CHP) helicopter, and a search and rescue Seahawk helicopter from the China Lake Naval Weapons Station.

By 1 PM the ground temperatures were exceeding 120 degrees and ground personnel were recalled.  The CHP helicopter reported their instruments were malfunctioning due to the heat and had to divert.  The Seahawk fared better and was able to continue the aerial search until   3 PM when its crew could no longer tolerate the high temperatures.  At that point all operations were cancelled until the following moring.

At 6 AM the next morning, the search began again.  Ground teams searched the Mesquite groves on the west edge of the valley floor and the CHP helicopter resumed the aerial search.  At 10 AM a dog team arrived and was used to check the Badwater area.  With heat in the extreme, all teams were recalled at 1 PM and shortly thereafter the search was terminated without finding a single trace of Norman.  Given Norman’s stated suicidal intent and the environmental dangers to the searchers, all reasonable efforts had been made.  There was also the issue of a serious brush fire that had erupted elsewhere in Inyo County and personnel were needed to deal with that.

There were a few things that struck me immediately from reading the reports.  One was that the person portrayed in the reports was that of a rather decrepit individual not capable of traveling very far.  Yet the surroundings had been searched for miles around without finding a trace.  The floor of Death Valley at the location is nothing but a vast, white salt flat without shrubs to hide beneath, so a body would be easily visible from the air.

The second was the report of the dog tracking results.  Dog tacking can be difficult in the best of conditions, but here was a situation where it was extremely hot and dry, and several days after a person had passed by.  Getting reliable canine results here seemed highly  implausible.  That was compounded by the two different narratives of the canine tracking results.  They almost seemed like two different events.

The DVNP report stated the dog arrived at Badwater at 10 AM.  The dog tracking indicated Norman had left his vehicle and used the restroom  located at the parking area, walked along the boardwalk west of the parking area and that his scent headed south along Badwater Road for approximately 50 yards and disappeared. The canine unit reported that there was no reason to believe that COX had walked out onto the valley floor or crossed the road to enter the canyons east of the road.  The DVNP report’s conclusion was that the canine indicated that  Norman was not in the area and had possibly left the area in a vehicle heading south.

Now contrast this to the ICSO report of the canine results.  That report stated the dog arrived on the scene at 6:45 AM.  The dog picked up Norman’s scent and followed it to the public restroom.  It then went down the ramp to the boardwalk and then to the boardwalk to the edge of the water north of the boardwalk.  The scent then went west onto the dry lake bed, and ended about 200′ west of the boardwalk.  So one report had the scent heading south on the road and ending and the other had the scent ending out west on the lake bed.

As far as Norman’s physical condition went, Jack obtained clarification from Norman’s family.  They told Jack that Norman wasn’t suffering from dementia (or at least no worse that anyone else 71!) and was completely  coherent.  This was suggested by the clear and detailed instructions Norman had left his family.  It was true that Norman had broken his leg several years before, but it was not giving him any problems and he walked and rode a bicycle daily.  This latter piece of information was important, as it suggested Norman might be more capable than the searchers had thought and have possibly made it outside the limits of the search area.

In pondering all this, including the contradictions, and bouncing things off Jack, I started to pull together a plausible scenario.  It seemed to me that Norman, who had hiked out at Badwater earlier in his life, had decided to do a variation of an old sailor walking into the sea.  I thought it likely that Norman decided to use the environment at Badwater in August (about the hottest time of year there) as a “natural” means to achieve his goal.  And perhaps the reason he hadn’t been found was that he made it clear to the far side of the valley floor, passing outside the search area before succumbing.

In reviewing the search records, I knew the searchers hadn’t performed any searching west of Westside Road, despite it being shown as Area 7 on the map below.  They also seemed to be working under the idea that Norman had decided to take a last hike, and felt it was in the direction of Hanapauh Canyon.

DVNP search areas and location of Norman’s van (DVNP report)

Now I had been to Badwater a number of times and was familiar with the terrain.  The area to the west of the parking area is vast, white and flat for miles.  It is also, of course, the lowest spot in the western hemisphere.  It seemed to me that someone setting out to the west would chose some distant landmark as a target, to avoid curving around.  And what better a target than Telescope Peak, the highest peak of the Panamint Range, looming to the west beyond Badwater?  Its bearing was slightly south of Hanapauh Canyon and wouldn’t have had the searchers’ attention.

I was so very pleased with this theory.  It made complete sense, at least to me.   It was real genius.  Norman was somewhere west of  Westside Road, and south of the primary search area. And unfortunately once I start believing this sort of thing, my enthusiasm infects others and we end up setting search dates.  In this case I conned Jack and some of my former RMRU team members to join in. We set dates of March 19 and 20 to do some searching juggling it around my Grand Jury duties.

I set about doing a search plan.  I like search plans.  I like to draw GPS crap.  Here is what I came up with below.  Pretty, eh?  The blue lines are the boundaries of the original DVNP search Area 7 that wasn’t really checked (other than by air).  Westside Road runs along the east boundary of Area 7.  The black dotted line is the line of sight between Badwater and Telegraph Peak.  The red dotted lines were out 2 miles and back paths that would be laid into our GPSs and serve as a “line search”.  We would be searching along the path someone would be taking if walking direct from Badwater to Telescope Peak. The plan was to do that on day one. If no luck there, we’d move just a bit north, to the north of the dirt Hanapauh Canyon Road and check out that area.  Such a nice plan…

Norman Cox search plan  (T. Mahood)

As the March 19, 2011 search date neared, weather became a concern.  There was a nasty winter storm approaching, due to hit toward the end of that weekend.  Very high winds were expected and possibly even some rain in Death Valley and maybe snow just slightly higher.  This was certainly not my choice of weather to be out in trying to do line searching, but we had set up the date long in advance and Jack was coming down from Carson City.  Most of the RMRU guys suddenly found more reasonable things to do for the weekend, leaving only the slightly insane Patrick McCurdy from that bunch.  Jeri seemed to think it could be entertaining, even if she ended up staying in the vehicle (and I needed the extra body anyway!).  And Jack was meeting up with his friend Gordon.  The day before we left the forecast was for winds increasing to 30-33 with gusts to 55 at Badwater.  Gusts to 40 at our planned campsite.  Twenty to seventy percent chance of rain Sunday, depending on the source and exact location.  Snow level to 5’000.  It was going to be, as Patrick likes to say, “sporty”.

View of the Badwater parking area. Norman’s van was parked in the south (left) side of the parking lot. Photo taken October 2010 by Jack Freer

The five of us met at the Badwater parking area at 11 AM on Saturday the 19th.  The idea of meeting there was for a sanity check to see if the Telescope Peak bearing made sense before we relocated to the west side of the valley and started the search.  It turned out all  my ideas and planning were, well, crap.  When actually looking at Telescope Peak from Badwater, the straight line doesn’t just go across the salt flats.  In fact it cuts across the Badwater Road that heads south from there.  The road sort of swings out into the valley floor and interrupts the sightline.  It really didn’t seem like a direction someone would choose to walk off into nothingness.  But which did?

The five of us joined the throng of tourists braving the high winds and walked out onto the salt flats of the valley floor.  We saw what Norman had seen, but in much gentler temperatures.  We walked out on the salt about a quarter mile to where the worn tourist path ended, stopped and looked around.  If one wanted to walk out somewhere and not return, what direction would they choose?  Surprisingly, there looked like an answer.

The Panamint Range sits on the west side of Death Valley forming a massive wall.  However it’s not exactly straight.  At some places it’s closer, and some further away.  We could see, looking slightly northwest, that the range pulled away a bit, forming a large bowl.  It was clear that there was a direction that “felt” more remote than others, and we were looking directly at it.

Well, that was just great.  It was obvious we’d be wasting our time if we held to my brilliantly crafted but now totally bullshit search plan.  Of course that held all of the GPS data that told us where we had to go.  We had no GPS data for where we were looking (several miles north of our original plan) and, in fact, needed to be.  So, it was time to “make things up as we go along”!  Yay!

We picked our preferred line and identified some geographical features on the range of mountains behind it, about 8 or 9 miles distant.  We then took our vehicles and relocated to Westside Road  close to where we thought we were looking.  To get about 7 miles away from Badwater, we had to travel a route around 25 miles in length!

We started  a line search westerly of Westside Road on the alluvial slopes that form the west edge of the valley. It was very open, but cobblely, and walking was difficult. After traveling south for just over a mile, paralleling Westside Road, we concluded that a 72 year old man, after traveling 6 miles across the salt flats in high temperatures would be unlikely to have been able to cross the ankle busting terrain we just moved through. So we turned east and dropped down toward the salt flats, crossed Westside Road, and planned on checking out the Mesquite tree clumps between Tule Spring and our vehicles as we returned to them. The areas we had covered to that point were all outside the initial search area by at least a mile, and hadn’t been checked other than by air.  By now conditions had deteriorated.  The wind had picked up to the point where I had put on goggles to continue.  I was quite the geeky sight.

We passed by Tule Well, swung around it and formed another line along the 1/3 mile between Westside Road and the edge of the salt flats. Patrick and I were checking the Mesquite tree clumps on the edges of the flats, which would have been the first shade Norman would have come to after traveling 6 miles across the flats, and thus maybe an attraction.

There is a fairly well worn trail from the Tule Spring parking area, running due east out on to the salt flats and used by tourists.  I crossed that trail and 150 feet away were a couple of small Mesquite tree clumps. Given the proximity of the trail, they seemed unlikely, but were on the way to a more promising distant tree clump I was interested in. This was an excellent time of year to check out these pods of trees, as almost all leafing was absent, and it was possible to see into their centers. Not so in August when Norman went missing.

As I rounded the clump I saw a large long bone on the ground, typical of burro bones we have seen out there. But it lacked weathering and further, had a metal piece protruding from one end. This made no sense in my mind at first.  Then I remembered from the written reports, we knew Norman had surgery for a broken leg and had a pin installed to promote healing. Looking up, I saw another long bone about 20′ away.

I called the others via radio (who were hoping to get back to the vehicles!), and they started heading over, Patrick being only a short distance away. In going over the site we found a number of other skeletal pieces, a vehicle remote key fob with a single key attached, a bit of plaid fabric and under one of the trees a straight stick that looked like a hiking staff. Later, we came across a couple of vertebrae that had been fused together with a couple of metal plates and screws.

Based upon what we knew of Norman, this seemed like a good match. If it wasn’t Norman, it was somebody. Jack, good man that he is, had a satellite phone which he used to call one of Norman’s  family members who served as a point of contact. That family member verified that Norman had a only single key for his vehicle on his fob, he had a wooden hiking staff he liked to use, and he did have fused a vertebrae from a fall he experienced. So, although it wasn’t good news for the family, it was closure, and they received it the moment it happened.  This later miffed the Inyo County Coroner who took an rather lengthy amount of time to do the actual, official identification.

Some of our group departed to relocate our vehicles (parked about 1.3 miles away) to the Tule Spring parking area. Again on his satellite phone, Jack called in the GPS coordinates we were at to the Inyo County Sheriff, and they sent a deputy out to take over. Patrick and I had flagged any pertinent items we came upon, so we made it less involved for the deputy. The taking of statements was made easier due to the fact that Cox was a resident in Jack’s jurisdiction, and they had an open case on him.  Seeing as how I already had dealings with the Inyo Sheriff’s Office over finding remains in the backcountry, I faded to the back and let Jack do all the talking.  As far as I was concerned, we were just friends of Jack’s unofficially helping with a case.  I would rather not have the ICSO wondering why this Mahood guy kept being involved in finding human remains in their county.

Gordon, Jeri and Tom waiting to be turned loose  (Jack Freer)

By 5:30 PM or so we were released, and we all headed to Furnace Creek   As we drove out, we passed by the Inyo Sheriff’s evidence team on their way in to secure the scene.   The deal was that if we found Norman, Jack would buy us all a steak dinner at the Wrangler steakhouse.. Usually with these sort of things, it’s a pretty safe bet there’s going to be no dinner. Not so in this case! Very tasty!

Following dinner, Jeri and I decided to head for home, as the bad weather was arriving. Winds most of the day had been in the 20 mph range, with gusts into the 30 and 40 mph range and it was getting faster.  So we got out of there, feeling a bit sorry for the Inyo deputy that would have to spend the night at the site, securing it until the Coroner arrived the next day.

It was a lot for a single day trip, Irvine to Death Valley and back. Our hiking distance covered  about 4.5 miles, all off trail. We found Norman just under 2 hours after leaving the vehicles. It turned out Norman’s location was right at the very edge of DVNP’s drawn search map, and perhaps a couple miles or more from their primary focus. Norman had managed to make it 6.25 miles across the salt flats in 118 degree temperatures.  That’s pretty damn amazing and he certainly has my respect for that.  I’m not sure I would have made it that far.

Norman’s location at edge of original search area  (DVNP report)

The spot Norman chose to take shelter in would not have been visible from the air, due to the amount of foliage at that time of year. In any event, he had no desire to be rescued and probably wouldn’t have signaled had he still been responsive during the helicopter fly-bys. The location was only about 150′ from a path, surprisingly close.  But it probably was little, if ever, used in the several months following his disappearance due to high temperatures.

Norman’s bush, on the right, trail from Tule Spring in foreground  (T. Mahood)

Norman’s bush on the left and Badwater in far distance at base of mountains  (T. Mahood)

Later on, I plotted where we found Norman against the direction we thought felt most remote when standing out on the salt flats west of Badwater.  The image below shows the view in Google Earth.  The red pin is floating over where we found Norman.  The blue squigglies on the left are the wreckage of my original search plan (and you can see how the topography intrudes from the left).  The light blue behind Norman’s pin were our GPS tracks when we found him.  As you can see, we pretty much nailed the direction.  As much as I’d like to think it was skill, it was probably just dumb luck!

Google Earth simulated view from Badwater  (T. Mahood)

The real joy in all this was working with Jack Freer, and indirectly, the Carson City Sheriff’s Office.  My relationships with other agencies when doing this sort “unofficial” searching is usually cool at best and sometimes downright adversarial.  Information is power and agencies like to hold on to it.  It couldn’t have been more the opposite in this case.  Whatever we asked for in the way of reports or background information, Jack made it happen.  And after we found Norman, the Carson City Sheriff’s Office treated us very, VERY well. Perhaps that was in fact an unfortunate thing.  Because now we know how well it can work, and the usual agency bureaucratic bullshit now seems so much more annoying.

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