On Thursday, Nov. 12, off-duty Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit (RMRU) members Les Walker and Tom Mahood found skeletal remains likely those of at least one of four German tourists missing in Death Valley since 1996. Walker and Mahood organized the trip specifically to search for the missing Germans. They discovered remains in a remote area 2 hours southwest of Furnace Creek Visitors Center near the Panamint Mountains.
Inyo County Sheriff's Spokesperson Carma Roper said formal identification of the remains would be a long process and that the case is currently being handled as a criminal investigation. "But there is no evidence of foul play at this point," she said. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Interpol are also involved in the investigation.
Mahood, a retired engineer, had formulated a search theory based on a U.S. Park Ranger map probably used by the tourists that led him and Walker to concentrate on a previously unsearched area about 2500 feet elevation between a saddle that looks out over China Lake and the intervening area leading to a map-marked boundary of the China Lake Naval Weapons Testing Center. The area was eight to 11 miles from the tourist's abandoned vehicle. "Tom put this whole plan together to look in an area where no other teams had looked before," said RMRU President Lee Arnson. "All previous teams had GPS'd their search routes.
"We tried to put ourselves in their [the tourists'] shoes," said Walker, "using the U.S. Park Service map they probably used as a guide." Mahood's theory focused on a military base (China Lake Weapons Testing Area) marked on the Park Service map. He theorized that the Germans, lost, on foot and contending with temperatures near 110 degrees, might have decided to walk toward the military base thinking there would be people there. That logic paid off for Walker and Mahood. Walker found remains about two to four miles from the Weapons Center boundary. "We found them right where we suspected we might find them," he said.
"I first came across a wine bottle, something that was not in their van's inventory. Death Valley is a pristine area. I was not on any regular hiking route. The wine bottle seemed definitely out of place. This was not an old mining area. There was no reason for anyone to have been there. As I was looking at the bottom of the bottle to see if there were identifying numbers on it, I looked down and saw I was standing in an area of white-flecked bits - a bone yard. I was standing among bone fragments. I picked up a potential clue not knowing that I was standing in the answer. Had I missed the wine bottle, I might have walked on. I next found partial vertebrae in a nearby bush. Then I saw a wallet. I picked out a German photo ID of the missing woman. Nearby there was a human skull. A distance away was a daytimer and a small shoe. I couldn't tell if it was the woman's shoe or a child's shoe. I used my two-way radio to call Tom who was about a mile away. When he reached me we fanned out separately and conducted a larger search, a complete circle 100 yards around the remains."
The four Germans, Cornelia Meyer, 27, her son Max, 4, her boyfriend, architect Egbert Rimkus, 33, and his son Georg Weber, 10, disappeared in July 1996. Although numerous search teams, both public and private, had attempted to find the four over the last 13 years, none had succeeded until Thursday.
"They [official investigation coordinators] will fly us out there Friday [Nov. 20] for a Saturday and Sunday search to locate the rest of the remains," said Walker. "They want to talk to us about our way of looking at the search. About 100 people will be involved in the search - FBI, Inyo County, and the National Park Service." The Federal Bureau of Investigation, Interpol and Inyo County Sheriff's Department are securing the area.
Records indicated the German tourists checked out of a Las Vegas hotel room on July 22, 1996 and arrived in Death Valley the same day. Temperatures in the park had topped 120 degrees. Their last entry was on July 23, 1996 left in a guest book kept in a box on a metal pole in an abandoned mining camp, indicating the visitors were going through a pass, probably Mengel Pass. The entry was signed "Conny, Egbert, Georg, Max."
A team of 45 searchers, eight horses and four helicopters from California and Nevada law enforcement agencies mounted the initial search for the missing tourists. From 1996 until the present, over 200 searchers have looked for the Germans.
We will post updates as they become available.