This story is Part 2 of a series
When David O’Sullivan was reported missing in the San Jacinto Mountains in 2017, his mother in Ireland thought the whole of California would be out there searching for her son.
In reality, hardly anyone was.
O’Sullivan, 25, had come to the United States in March to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile route from the southern border with Mexico to the northern border with Canada. But he made it only about 180 miles, to the Riverside County town of Idyllwild, before disappearing in early April.
If local authorities had been notified immediately that he was lost or injured and his life may have been in danger, the initial response certainly would have been different. But O’Sullivan wasn’t reported missing until July.
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department conducted one large-scale search. Officials later told O’Sullivan’s parents that it could be years, or never, before his remains were found out in the vast wilderness.
A report written when authorities closed O’Sullivan’s case in October 2017, just three months after he was reported missing, indicates that investigators weren’t even fully convinced he had gotten lost in their jurisdiction.
That sounds familiar to the families of some other people who have gone missing in that area in recent years.
“I can tell you my experience — I’m not satisfied,” said Theresa Sturkie, whose husband, John, disappeared in the same mountains in January 2019 and was found dead months later. “They really did not take me seriously. It was really quite disturbing actually, how they treated us.”
After Maggie Garcia Zavala’s mother, who was showing signs of dementia, vanished last July, her car was found a couple of days later abandoned on a rocky unpaved road. Authorities spent less than two full days searching the area, according to Garcia Zavala and a report by a volunteer search-and-rescue team.
Two more searches in August and September also failed to locate Rosario “Chata” Garcia — even though, as it turned out, her body was less than 500 feet away from her car.
It was a group of volunteer searchers — the same people who helped Sturkie look for her husband when the sheriff suspended the case and who are still searching for O’Sullivan — who used drones to find Garcia’s remains early this year.
While Garcia Zavala is glad to finally have closure, “by the same token it was upsetting because you know — I was angry. All this could have come to an end during that first week” if authorities had just kept looking, she said.
- More on these cases: Missing in the mountains: 4 families ache for those lost
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, along with the highly trained volunteer search-and-rescue organizations it relies on for large or very difficult responses, do rescue multiple people each year who get lost or injured in the mountains. Many of those rescues are undoubtedly life-saving, and rescuers sometimes risk their own safety in the process.
But to Idyllwild resident Jon King, a prolific hiker and volunteer ranger with search-and-rescue experience who is helping with the efforts to find O’Sullivan, it sounds pretty typical that local authorities would call off a search after a few unsuccessful days.
“If they can’t find someone — not alive — and can’t find them straight away by getting a ping off a cellphone or a GPS point, then the Sheriff’s Department just gives up really quickly,” he said.
The Sheriff’s Department turned down multiple requests for interviews for this story. Spokespeople did initially respond via email to a few questions about the search for O’Sullivan, but then said they would not comment further because the investigation is actually still open. They declined to respond to the criticism of how they’ve handled his and others’ cases, or to answer more general questions about how decisions are made and resources are allocated in search-and-rescue operations.
One of the only questions sheriff’s officials were willing to answer was what advice they had for people when a loved one goes missing: “Contact local law enforcement and report the incident,” Sgt. Lionel Murphy wrote in an email.
Murphy did not support the idea of families carrying out their own searches after the case has been suspended or closed, “due to the inherent dangers. It is best to leave the searches (to) law enforcement professionals.”
Riverside County Supervisor Chuck Washington, whose district includes the San Jacinto Mountains, said he didn’t want to pass judgment without being more familiar with all the details. However, speaking generally, he said that these situations require balance.
On the one hand, authorities should do everything they can to protect people, but on the other, hikers have a responsibility to understand and prepare for the risks they’re taking.
And while Washington could understand the Sheriff’s Department not wanting to divert resources away from high-priority calls for recovery missions, “It doesn’t mean that you can’t take a missing person report” — something relatives of two other people who went missing in the mountains last year said authorities initially wouldn’t do. “It doesn’t mean that you don’t treat folks with respect and dignity.”
O’Sullivan goes missing
O’Sullivan was carrying very little technology: no working cellphone, and a Kindle tablet that could only connect to the internet over WiFi.
Two weeks into his hike, he stopped in Idyllwild on April 5, 2017. On April 6, he sent his final email to his parents, saying he intended to return to the trail the next morning.
“He had told us prior to leaving that he could have difficulty in keeping in touch on a regular basis and not to worry,” said his mother, Carmel O’Sullivan. “We unfortunately took this to mean that weeks could pass without news.”
By May, his family was worried. They contacted police in Ireland, and took to Facebook to ask if other PCT hikers had seen him. They also reached out to his bank and were told that his account was still active, according to his mother. The family uneasily went back to waiting for him to email.
The bank information turned out to be incorrect — the activity they saw was from scheduled payments. In reality, he’d made no transactions since Idyllwild.
When O’Sullivan still hadn’t gotten in touch by the end of June, his family went back to their local police and contacted the Irish consulate in San Francisco. Their lack of knowledge about jurisdictions on a different continent convoluted the process of getting O’Sullivan reported missing in the U.S.: An Irish outreach group in San Diego got involved. Someone there talked to the owner of an Irish bar in Murrieta — a Riverside County city 50 miles from Idyllwild — who knew a local police officer who also was Irish.
That officer, Sean Lawlor, entered O’Sullivan into the state and federal missing-persons databases on July 13, the day he was contacted, and alerted the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, which has jurisdiction in Idyllwild.
Investigating the case
Before the sheriff’s emergency response team organized a ground search, they asked the detective’s bureau to develop some better information about O’Sullivan’s activities in Idyllwild.
A sheriff’s investigator spoke to people at a couple of places O’Sullivan was known to have visited, but no one remembered him out of the hundreds of PCT hikers who come through town each year. One of the people recommended investigators reach out to a Facebook page set up for that year’s hikers. However, a search of that page shows no such posts.
Another investigator contacted a water district that operates a drinking fountain where the trail reaches the desert floor after a long, steep descent out of the mountains. Almost every PCT hiker stops there, and the district has surveillance cameras set up in the area to discourage trespassers.
An image of O’Sullivan could have confirmed that he did actually make it out of Idyllwild. The investigator asked a district employee to review the footage. They never got a response, according to the sheriff’s report.
An investigator also tried to reach Amazon to see if O’Sullivan’s Kindle could be tracked. Amazon also didn’t respond.
The investigators talked to a couple of people who thought they’d seen O’Sullivan at points north of Idyllwild. One was a man in his early 60s named Dennis Neal, a “trail angel” — someone who gives hikers things like rides, food, water or even a place to sleep — who said he helped 100 to 150 people in 2017. Following PCT custom, Neal went by a nickname, Hillbilly.
Sometime between April 10 and 15, he remembered picking someone up at an exit along Interstate 10 — which runs through the thin strip of low-elevation desert that separates the San Jacinto and San Bernardino mountains — letting him rest at his home for a few hours and then driving him back, according to the sheriff’s report. The person kept to himself, but Neal remembered the accent and told investigators he didn’t meet many Irish people on the trail.
Cathy Tarr, who is leading an ongoing volunteer effort to find O’Sullivan and spoke to Neal before he died in June 2018, thinks Hillbilly was confused.
“After contacting all the PCT hikers we could who hiked right around the same time as David,” she said, “not one of them remembers being at Hillbilly’s with David or getting a ride back to the trail with David.”
She noted that there were people from 31 countries on the PCT that year and accents can easily be mistaken. She’s also collected a small photo gallery of 2017 hikers who look remarkably similar to O’Sullivan. She even has a picture that someone thought was O’Sullivan with Neal — but the people in the photo are neither O’Sullivan nor Neal.
Tarr’s team managed to tie up some of the loose ends that she says the Sheriff’s Department never did. Tarr got in touch with Amazon and found out O’Sullivan’s Kindle was last used April 5, and it didn’t have a GPS app so it couldn’t be tracked. The team also learned that the Desert Water Agency didn’t actually have any photos from the water fountain, Tarr said.
In late July and early August 2017, the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit volunteer group scouted out a few areas ahead of a large-scale air and ground search Aug. 12 that was organized by the Sheriff’s Department. The search encompassed an almost 20-mile stretch of the PCT from Fuller Ridge — a treacherous section that was still covered in snow and ice while O’Sullivan was there — to the Riverside County line in the desert just north of I-10. No sign of him was found.
Two months later, the Sheriff’s Department closed O’Sullivan’s case.
“At this time, there are no additional investigative leads,” an investigator wrote in a report dated Oct. 12, 2017. “No additional information has been received that would show O’Sullivan was in fact lost or missing along the portions of the PCT within (the department’s) jurisdiction, or prove O’Sullivan was in the Idyllwild area. This case will be closed Exceptional until further information is developed.”
In a criminal case, “closed exceptional” means police believe they know who committed the crime, but some circumstance — for instance, the suspect dies, a victim won’t cooperate or prosecutors decline a case — prevents them from closing the case through an arrest. Sheriff’s officials wouldn’t explain what the phrase means in a non-criminal, missing-persons case like O’Sullivan’s.
The next jurisdiction north is San Bernardino County. The Sheriff’s Department there never conducted any searches for O’Sullivan. A spokesperson said that was because the information they’d received was that O’Sullivan’s last known location was Idyllwild.
Just days after the case was closed, his parents, Carmel and Con O’Sullivan, arrived for their first of three trips from Ireland. The Sheriff’s Department put on a presentation to show what they had done, Carmel said.
“That was it. They said he might be found sometime in the next X number of years, possibly never,” she said.
Their second visit was in December. Only one detective met with them. No one was rude, Carmel said, but the O’Sullivans felt “encouraged to leave, really.”
“They did say if they were ever out training, that they would of course keep David in mind.”
‘Superficial at best’
To King, the Idyllwild resident who has been involved in the O’Sullivan and Sturkie searches, another missing-person case from 2018 exemplifies local authorities’ attitude.
David Bradish, an 80-year-old with Alzheimer’s disease who had recently moved to Idyllwild, took his dog out for a walk on Nov. 26 and never came home. He was reported missing within hours, and the Sheriff’s Department mobilized 70-80 searchers to carry out what the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit called “the largest search in the history of Idyllwild with over 3,330 acres of land searched” over the next few days. That’s more than 5 square miles.
That initial blitz was “pretty intense,” King said, “but when nothing was found, basically they stopped. They’d given up. … The weather did deteriorate. I guess they figured he couldn’t have survived.”
Nine days later, however, Bradish’s dog Ginger showed back up in town and reignited the effort. “They went and searched in that area, and lo and behold, they found his body, 1.1 miles from his house,” King said. “It was incredibly predictable.”
In O’Sullivan’s case, when officials knew they were not looking for a live person in danger, King called the search “superficial at best.”
That isn’t how all agencies treat recovery efforts.
In December 2019, an Irvine man went missing during a snowstorm on Mount Baldy in the San Gabriel Mountains. A desperate search ensued in extremely difficult conditions to find Sreenivas “Sree” Mokkapati before his time ran out.
Six days later, one of the more than 120 trained searchers involved, Tim Staples, fell down an ice chute and died. The ground search was suspended for being too dangerous.
However, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department continued aerial searches in the following weeks, and after the winter snow melted, ground searches resumed in May 2020. Two hikers found Mokkapati’s remains the next month.
In June 2018, a Virginia couple in their 60s disappeared while hiking in the desert wilderness east of the Amboy Crater, a popular tourist spot off Route 66 in the Mojave Desert, also in San Bernardino County. William Schmeirer’s body was found a few days later. Large-scale search efforts continued for the next eleven months, with sheriff’s officials and volunteers putting in thousands of hours, until Susan Schmeirer’s remains were also found in May 2019. Like her husband, she had died of heat exposure.
Carmel O’Sullivan seems resigned to the fact that the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department has stopped searching for her son.
“They’re looking from a completely different point of view,” she said. “They only have so much money … Recovery is not as important. He’s gone and that’s it.”
But that’s not it for her. Her son’s absence has left a dark and painful void.
“It’s just the worst, not knowing,” she said. “You don’t plan anything, you don’t think about what you’re going to do next month. You can’t go on vacation. You must be here, waiting for news.”
But could 2021 be the year he’s finally found?
Next in the series:
- Missing in the mountains: 4 families ache for those lost
- 4 years later, searchers seek an answer: What was David O’Sullivan’s fate?
Source: Orange County Register