The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office has been stretched thin over the past month.
According to the Sheriff’s Office, deputies and the department’s Search and Rescue Unit responded to more than 36 search and rescue missions spanning an area from southern Utah to the Mogollon Rim in the first 23 days of September.
“There were days when we had three or four going at a time,” said Sheriff’s Office Commander Rex Gilliland. “At some point, we get tapped out of resources and end up saying, ‘You’re going to have to wait until we can get there or we can call for help from some other location.’”
The Search and Rescue Unit started the month with a busy Labor Day weekend that included more than a dozen calls for help. The first came Friday, Sept. 4, when an armed 18-year-old man who had made suicidal comments left his family’s vehicle on State Route 89A and ran into the forest in Oak Creek Canyon at approximately 1 p.m. He was finally found after an extensive search by the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, the Cottonwood Police Department, and Arizona Department of Public Safety officers and Air Rescue helicopter crew.
“None of the agencies in northern Arizona are big enough by themselves to handle all these things,” Gilliland said. “We rely on each other.”
The next day, Search and Rescue had four more calls to find a total of six overdue ATV riders and nine overdue hikers, most of whom had simply gotten lost. Those searches took searchers to the Woods Canyon Lake west area of Forest Lakes, the Kaibab National Forest near Perkinsville Road, the Arizona Snowbowl ski area and the West Fork Trail.
“Obviously, Flagstaff has been discovered and we are becoming an outdoor recreational Mecca,” Gilliland said. “With that comes some increased demands on law enforcement and Search and Rescue — and not only law enforcement, but fire and medics.”
Most of the searches ended with the lost or overdue parties having no or only minor injuries, but not all.
That Sunday, there were three more search and rescue calls, including one where a man was killed rolling his ATV at the Pink Bowl in Flagstaff’s Cinder Hills OHV area. The long weekend ended with five calls involving overdue ATV riders, lost hikers and a Yavapai County search for an injured climber who had fallen on Granite Mountain in the Prescott area and survived being impaled by an agave plant.
While the Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Unit was busy darting across northern Arizona to find people who had become lost or injured during their holiday recreation activities, two more Flagstaff residents disappeared. Ashley Darby, 23, was reported missing Sept. 3 when she failed to show up for work in Bellemont. Her boyfriend, former Northern Arizona University lecturer Jeriah Hildwine, 35, was reported missing five days later. Darby’s vehicle was spotted by a U.S. Forest Service employee at the Abineau-Bear Jaw trailhead on the north side of the San Francisco Peaks Sept. 5, but it was not reported to the Sheriff’s Office until Sept. 19. Investigators found a suicide note in the car.
Search and Rescue did a cursory search of the area without locating Darby or Hildwine. They also responded to seven other calls to assist lost or injured people during that two-day weekend.
This past Wednesday, deputies and Search and Rescue personnel, including two dog teams, resumed the search for the Flagstaff missing couple. Within two hours, searchers found Darby and Hildwine’s bodies in the forest. They had both been shot to death in a possible double suicide. That investigation is still ongoing.
The previous week, the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office had been tasked with responding to the deadly flash floods killed at least 12 women and children on the Arizona-Utah border. On Sept. 16, 11 Search and Rescue personnel assisted the sheriffs’ offices in Washington County, Utah and Mohave County in the isolated towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City. That same day, Search and Rescue had two separate calls to look for overdue hikers who had ignored flash flood warnings in the Paria Canyon area in northern Coconino County. One group had to be airlifted to safety and the other declined assistance.