The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Department is sending a crew into the Santa Rita Mountains on Wednesday, two days after a hiker apparently discovered several items that belonged to a man who went missing there in February.
The hiker found keys, a shoe, a fanny pack, two hiking poles and other items that appear to have belonged to Joseph Smallwood, an 82-year-old Ohio man.
Mark Wilson made the discovery Monday and detailed it on his hiking blog with a photo of the site where he found the items.
“I opened the waist pack and as soon as I saw the car keys, I knew this is what this was,” Wilson told the Green Valley News on Tuesday night.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada said Tuesday the items didn’t include identification, “but there was other stuff that may have indicated it belonged to Mr. Smallwood.”
Estrada said the department has contacted Smallwood’s family.
“I thought it was important they know that something was found and could lead to find him or his remains,” he said.
Wilson said he found the site about a half-mile from Mt. Hopkins Road just below Whipple Observatory, close to a ridge line.
After making the find, Wilson hiked to a dorm operated by Whipple, where a man who had worked on February’s search and rescue effort went through the fanny pack and said it appeared to belong to Smallwood, according to the blog post.
Smallwood was hiking alone Feb. 5 when he called 911 about 4 p.m. and said he was lost and couldn’t find a trail. The call launched a search in the snow-covered mountains involving 120 people and agencies from eight counties. It was called off a week later, with Smallwood presumed dead.
According to the National Weather Service, it snowed in the Santa Ritas that first night, with temperatures dipping to 29 degrees and wind gusts reaching 30 to 40 mph.
Smallwood told dispatchers he had some food but searchers didn’t think he was equipped to spend the night.
Wilson said he found the items near a fallen tree at the end of a long hike where he also became lost for a short time, according to his post.
He wrote on his blog, “I discovered this scene and I immediately understood the implication. The lost Ohio hiker had sought shelter beneath that log and in front of it was a pair of hiking poles, a waist pack having a set of car keys and other items and one, hiking shoe. … I of course also realized another hiker had been here, searched for hours and died. I did not see any human remains but I also didn't look. I had my own issue to solve. I took the waist pack and put it in my back pack but left the other items.”
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A short time later, according to the blog post, Wilson found a ravine that led to a road, and then found the Whipple building and an employee inside.
“I explained my predicament, she called John from the observatory, a mechanical engineer who brought a battery charger for me. John had been part of one of the SAR (search and rescue) crews back in February and all of them were nagged by the question of what had happened to the lost hiker. He examined the contents of the waist pack and confirmed it was Mr. Smallwood's. John called the region's SAR administrators and the sheriff department.”
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Estrada said it appeared searches “might have been a little off location” in February.
Wilson said he found two empty Gatorade bottles in the fanny pack and that the hiking boot was laced up. He said he didn’t smell any foul odors but quickly left the area.
“I would just love to be part of an effort to bring closure to this,” he said.