Eight Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit (RMRU) volunteers played a lead role in discovering what are likely the remains of three Germans missing in Death Valley since 1996. Multi-agency search teams including RMRU, Inyo County Search and Rescue, China Lake Mountain Rescue Group, San Bernardino Desert Search and Rescue, Calaveras County Search and Rescue, National Park Service, and U.S. Customs conducted an expanded search on Saturday Dec. 5 in a remote area of the vast national park. Thirty searchers and 3 dog teams participated in the mission.
A previous private search conducted by RMRU volunteers Tom Mahood and Les Walker on Nov. 12 triggered the expanded mission. Mahood and Walker, employing a search theory developed by Mahood, found what are believed to be the remains of the fourth member of the party, Cornelia Meyer. Positive identification of all remains awaits forensic confirmation by the Inyo County Coroner’s office.
Two U.S. Customs Homeland Security helicopters flew teams in early morning Saturday, Dec. 5. Teams were at the seach site by 8 a.m. The mission used Mahood’s search theory to canvas an expanded area centered on the site where Mahood and Walker found Meyer’s remains. Teams fanned out in half -mile radii from the site of the initial discovery. The RMRU team consisted of Les Walker, Lee Arnson, Tom Mahood, Tom Marshall, Lew Kingman, Nick Nickson, Chad Marler, and Pete Carlson.
According to RMRU President Lee Arnson and Walker, the combined teams found what are believed to be remains of the missing three by end of day Saturday, Dec. 5. Conditions on the day of the search were difficult, with winds gusting to 40 M.P.H. and nighttime temperatures dropping into the teens. Search teams camped overnight on the 5th, worked the site on the morning of the 6th, and hiked 19 miles out.
According to an account from Arnson and Walker, the search area was rugged high desert, remote and pristine. “It’s the most remote place I’ve ever been,” said RMRU team member Carlson. “Other than the four Germans, I don’t think anyone has ever seen this area before we did,” said Walker. “We spent the night at the site. I hiked up on a knoll and looked out over miles and miles of nothing — never a light and not a sound but the wind.” Arnson, remembering the desolation of the search area, wondered, “How in the world did they [the Germans] get here?” Walker observed that the Germans, as Europeans, probably had no comprehension of the vastness, desolation and danger of the American west, especially Death Valley in the summer. As to why they had taken the road they did, before getting stuck in a wash, Walker said, “They may have been intrigued to see this secret military base [China Lake Naval Weapons Testing Center].” Both noted the Germans couldn’t have made worse choices.
Arnson said teams tagged and secured the remains of the additional three. But authorities are keeping the exact location under wraps to prevent any unauthorized interference at the site. “We don’t even know the exact location,” said Walker. “We had to turn over all our GPS information coordinates to the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department.”
Once back at base camp, Arnson and Walker had to go back to perform another rescue, this time of a very sick member of another rescue team who had participated in the search and could not hike out on his own. They recruited a Park Service Humvee to bring the sick man in.
At the conclusion of the rescue, “All the other team members were shaking our hands,” said Walker.