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.

A Passing Motorist Brings A Search to a Close

The man we were looking for had been missing for three days, having failed to show up at a prearranged rendezvous time after another of his many camping and "walkabout" trips in this area he knew well. I know I wasn't alone in my assumption that he wasn't "just" lost.

Hypothermia was a possibility, though. It had rained some in the past couple of days, and the subject apparently wasn't well prepared for the cold, wet weather. Injury was, of course, another possible scenario as was a potential miscommunication with the family member who'd gone back to get him on Saturday. Based on information we were given in our briefing prior to starting the search, we had reason to believe this may have been the case--that he had decided to stay out there longer but failed to contact his ride about his change of plans. Given the weather, though, and the fact that he wasn't properly equipped, our SAR Coordinator decided to call out the team to look for him sooner than later.

The subject had also made prior statements about taking his own life, so that too was on our minds.

We had been divided into teams of two, in this case one experienced member with one new member as the split was pretty much down the middle. It was good to see so many new SAR teammates from the latest academy come out for the search.

We were all in or on vehicles--SUVs, trucks, quads and the UTV--slowly driving unpaved roads and two-tracks, looking for the missing man's campsite and any other clues that might be associated with him, not to mention the man himself. We'd been told he preferred to stick to walking roads as opposed to traveling cross-country, so that's what we were starting with. As always, we were scanning the landscape and looking for any sign of tracks or clues, hoping to get a direction of travel. The team did find a number of things--the campsite, prints, a jacket--which turned out to be related to our subject.

But the search lasted only a couple of hours from the time we reached the area and deployed.  A 9-1-1 call from a motorist on westbound I-40 about 21 miles east of Flagstaff, several miles from where we'd begun our search at the man's last known location, reported seeing what she thought was a body hanging from a billboard. It was difficult to see from the highway, so I'm thinking the person who spotted the lower portion of the man's body behind the billboard was an observant passenger.

Soon, Sheriff's deputies and SAR personnel confirmed the body as that of 39-year-old Stephen Dale Sterling, bringing our search to an end. (See the story in the Arizona Daily Sun.)