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Homicide Suspected in Joshua Tree Hiking Fatality

July 25 2004 at 11:59 PM
roger  (Login dipper)

Response to July 2004 Accidents/Rescues

Helicopter crews looking for lost hiker Eric Sears likely searched the same rugged stretch of Joshua Tree National Park where volunteers later found a body presumed to be that of the missing 17-year-old Carlsbad youth, a park official said Saturday.
Even after the grisly discovery Friday near the Twin Tanks backcountry trailhead, helicopter crews still had trouble finding the searchers and the body in the harsh landscape of towering boulders and thick brush, Supervising Park Ranger Cindy Von Halle said by phone.
She explained that most of the park's earlier searches for Sears had targeted the Jumbo Rocks area, about 2 ½ miles from the Twin Tanks region. Sears' longtime friend, Ben Fogelstrom, also 17, had told another camper on July 15 that he and Sears had become separated during a hike.
"The campground itself is so rocky, we spent a lot of time looking in crevices and holes," said Von Halle, adding that it is not uncommon for rangers to find lost hikers in the fissures around Jumbo Rocks. "We thought he had fallen into a crack or crevice, so that's where we focused our search."
The decomposed body, believed to be that of a white male in his late teens to early 30s, will not be positively identified until after an autopsy, scheduled for Monday at the Riverside County Coroner's Office in Perris, according to Riverside County sheriff's officials.
Investigators probed the site of the body's discovery from 3 until 10 p.m. Friday, sheriff's spokesman Cpl. Dennis Gutierrez said.
On Monday, homicide investigators launched a criminal investigation into Sears' disappearance after receiving reports from park visitors of possible foul play. Three days later, detectives served a search warrant at Fogelstrom's house, removing unspecified evidence. At the time, authorities called Fogelstrom a focus of the investigation, but said he has not been arrested and is not considered a suspect.
A relative at the Fogelstrom's Carlsbad home declined to comment Saturday.
Jordan Ahle, a close friend of Sears', said Saturday that he had heard that Fogelstrom "is hurting really bad from this. He really wanted Eric to come home."
The Sears family could not be located for comment Saturday.
Will Despathy, 70, of Indio was among the team of 14 volunteer searchers - many of whom were Sears family friends - that found the body Friday. The group was led by Carlsbad firefighter and Sears family friend Mark Berklite.

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