About Coconino County

About Coconino County

Encompassing 18,661 square miles, Coconino County, Arizona, is the second largest county in the U.S. but one of the least populated. Our county includes Grand Canyon National Park, the Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai and Hopi Indian Reservations, and the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world. Elevations range from 2,000 feet above sea level along the Colorado River to 12,633 feet at the summit of Mt. Humphreys in Flagstaff.

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They Call Her Cinder Hill Cindy

Pushing through the brush, thorns tear at my clothing and skin, leaving snags, nicks, and blood streaks behind. Young locust trees, from knee to chest high, are everywhere. I'm down on hands and knees from time to time to peer under what I can't get through, then carefully pick my way around the worst of it, trying to stay at least somewhat even with the searchers to my right and left. It's difficult to maintain our line in this thick underbrush.

Our assignment today is to look for more pieces of "Cinder Hill Cindy," the name given to skeletal remains found a few days ago by some men working near this cinder hill, here on army depot grounds. As they were driving by, the men spotted what they thought was an elk antler, shining white in the sun halfway up the steep slope. Upon closer inspection, they realized that what they'd found were human ribs. Then a skull, mandible, and other bones were located nearby. Authorities were contacted, more searching and forensic tests were conducted, and it was determined that the bones, including a pelvis, belonged to a female between the ages of 25 and 35, with a mean age of 30.7 years. The pelvic bone also provided the approximate height of the young lady. We're told they found some teeth and hair, also, which are currently being analyzed.

Nine SAR volunteers are searching today, along with two detectives, a forensic anthropologist, and a medical examiner. We've ascended the cinder hill, spread out at roughly five-foot intervals, and are making our way across the top, which is covered with thick, thorny vegetation.

The idea is to space ourselves just close enough that we can spot something the size of a six-inch bone midway between one another. We're also on the lookout for anything else that "doesn't belong" here. Whatever we happen to see, we're not to touch. Instead, we call for the line to stop, mark the GPS location of the object, flag it with yellow tape, and wait for one of the detectives to come over and take a look. They'll decide if the object—be it bone, fabric, jewelry, or whatnot—has any merit in this case. Once we get to the end of our search zone, we'll pivot around and head back the other way, so as not to overlook anything between the out and the back. We're still missing significant pieces of Cinder Hill Cindy.

It's hot and buggy here, which adds to the discomfort. I've got prickly little bebbles stuck all over my socks, and I've given up some hair to the locust thorns. But I'm determined to check as many nooks and crannies as possible and try not to miss anything that may be on either side of me. There are some really overgrown areas, though, that are just impossible to check so thoroughly, and my imagination tells me those impenetrable areas must be where the bones and other clues are hidden, probably dragged under there by animals.

After an hour or more, finding only what turned out to be deer bones and one small piece of purple latex of some sort (part of a balloon? or could it be from a glove?), we arrive at the end of our search area and take a break before pivoting around to head in the opposite direction. We're not discouraged per se, but I don't think any of us are all that optimistic about finding anything significant. More experienced SAR members tell me they've been on lots of these evidence searches and often found nothing at all. One of the detectives had joked, just before we started out today, that we should locate the young lady's wallet, please. Yeah, wouldn't that be helpful.

Well, guess what.

Liz makes the find of the day, and what a find it is. Clothing. A full set, laid out just so. Jacket, pants, trail runner type of shoes, underwear. And a credit card and drivers license in plain view! The detectives are astonished. They set down numbered markers and dial their cell phones at the same time.

Now Cinder Hill Cindy has a real name, and this find has solved a missing person case. Two years ago, this young lady, aged 32, was reported missing from back east. A year and a half ago, during the winter, a backpack belonging to this same person was found on I-17, which is between 15 to 20 miles from this location. And now, we've discovered her fate.

But now that one big question has been answered, many more have been created. How did she get here? This is a secure area, which we had to have an escort to enter. Could she have climbed a fence along a more remote section? Did someone bring her here, or did she get in on her own? What happened to her? How did she die?

We're told the skull and other bones found thus far show no signs of trauma. Neither did the clothing, laid out so neatly and still that way after two years. And the credit card and ID right there, face-up on the ground? I'm told that not only do hypothermic people often end up disrobing but place their clothing neatly as well. Could that explain this situation?

We discuss the possibilities for the next couple of hours, until we finally sign out and part ways back at the SAR building. And I'm sure we'll be talking about this one for a long time to come. I hope, as we were promised, detectives will let us know when... that is, if any conclusion is ever made.