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.

Updates and Clarifications

Last night, our SAR unit held its monthly general meeting, where we discussed this month's missions and received updated information regarding a high-profile mission that took place more than two years ago.

So I wanted to share some of what we learned.

Regarding the flood in Havasu Canyon, there have been some misleading news stories floating around, not the least of which was a Fox news report I personally saw yesterday afternoon, stating, "The Grand Canyon will be closed for four weeks, following extensive damage caused by flash-flooding. 173 people were airlifted out of the Canyon." No, the Grand Canyon isn't closed; Havasupai is closed to tourists until further notice, but the National Park is open as usual. So if the NPS sees a sudden and dramatic decline in visitation to the Canyon, I guess they have Fox news to thank for the solitude (and loss of revenue). And I believe the official number of people evacuated from Havasupai was 406. We counted names while working on the list back at the Sheriff's office on Tuesday.

We were told the Coconino County Sheriff's Office had to set up a call center, in large part due to at least one news organization that reported a dam had broken at the Grand Canyon, and then they showed a picture of Glen Canyon Dam! People were freaking out, calling to say they had loved ones in the Canyon and on the Colorado River. What actually failed was the small, earthen Redlands Dam about 45 miles upstream of Havasupai. That dam failed after days of heavy rain, up to 8 inches since Friday, but the flooding in Havasu Canyon was occurring even before the dam breach.

I'm also unsure about my previous statement that two homes may have been lost in the village of Supai. While I did hear that bit of information while working at Haulapai Hilltop on Sunday, other reports stated that no structures were lost, so I'll count that as rumor at the moment. Surely, many of the houses in Supai were in disrepair before this past weekend's flooding, so it's possible that even minor flooding in the village area (which is higher up than the campground) did just enough additional damage to count some homes as "lost." But not having seen the village myself or received official word on that, I can't be sure.
Some of you may have read my earlier report called "Cinder Hill Cindy," the name given to then unidentified skeletal remains found on Navajo Army Depot grounds in early August, near Bellemont, Arizona. I later updated my blog with the name of the woman once a positive ID was made, following our evidence search in the area and subsequent forensic testing. You can read a Coconino County Sheriff's Office news release here.

Last night at our meeting, the lead detective on the case filled us in with some additional detail. Thirty-three year-old Julie Renee Windhorn's backpack had been found in the early spring of 2007 near Old Munds Highway by some boys looking for salamanders. In the backpack there was a passport and a note with suicidal implications. An attorney from Virginia, Julie had been having some emotional and mental health issues before her disappearance, so the note did follow suit. In the backpack was also a vehicle insurance card, but Julie's vehicle has yet to be located.

At this point, the cause of Julie's death is still considered unknown, but evidence points to hypothermia. Julie's remains, along with her neatly laid-out clothing and ID, were found about 15 miles from where her backpack was discovered a year and a half earlier. Our unit may be called out later this year, when the leaves have dropped off the thick underbrush in the area, to do another search for more bones and any other evidence that might turn up. At this point, there is no indication of foul play in this case.
One case that did involve foul play was that of Tamomi Hanamure, the 34 year-old Japanese tourist who was murdered at Havasupai in May, 2006, the same area where the flooding occurred this past weekend. Tamomi was reported missing when a maid at the Supai lodge discovered that the young woman's personal belongings were still in her room after checkout time and the bed had not been slept in. A search was initiated involving multiple agencies, including Coconino County Search & Rescue.

I was not yet on the team at the time this mission took place, but I've heard numerous conversations about it since I joined, as well as a previous update by the FBI after the 19 year-old perpetrator's guilty plea was accepted and sentencing took place. The killer, Supai resident Randy Redtail Wescogame, tried to be the "hero," telling authorities he'd discovered the body, when in fact he'd gotten nervous seeing all of the uniformed personnel and bloodhounds closing in on Hanamure's location. Wescogame somehow thought the attention would be focused on other people if it was he who led them to the victim.

An FBI dive team later located the knife used in the attack, in the water not far from where Tomomi's body was found. In addition, testing at a crime lab revealed that the t-shirt worn by the killer contained Tamomi's blood, though that blood couldn't be seen by the naked eye. This evidence, along with Wescogame's eventual detailed confession, resulted in four consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole.

You can read a press release by the Office of the U.S. Attorney here.

Last night, we saw a slideshow of the search for and discovery of Tamomi Hanamure's body. The detective said it was one of the most emotional cases he'd ever worked on, and I know it had a significant impact on my SAR teammates who participated in the mission. Hanamure was just enamored with the United States and the Grand Canyon in particular. She'd been to the canyon two or three times before, and this time was going to visit the waterfalls in Havasupai as a 34th birthday gift to herself. The detective told us that Tamomi was an only child and her father's world. I couldn't stop staring at her photo up on the screen, taken shortly before her hike into the canyon.
Well, I do hope the next couple of days at least will be quiet ones when it comes to Search & Rescue. I absolutely love being part of the team and the volunteer work we do, but it sure seems like it's been non-stop activity lately, following a relatively quiet July. Somehow, though, I sense that my trusty little pager is juuuust about to sing.