Last Photo of Firefighter and Teens Before Fatal Camelback Rappel Shows Missing Evidence

A photograph taken by a Camelback Mountain hiker of Phoenix firefighter Gary Johnstone and two teenagers a moment before a fatal August 8 accident shows a now-missing key piece of evidence.

The picture (above), taken by hiker Edgar Hernandez, who turned it over to police, depicts a still-unidentified teen as he began his rappel.

Seconds later, the anchoring system Johnstone was using failed for still-unknown reasons, causing the three people in the picture to fall about 40 feet.

See also: -Key Evidence Missing in Probe of Camelback Mountain Fall That Killed Firefighter and Teen

Johnstone, a technical-rescue team member and 15-year veteran of the force, had taken his teenage son and two of his son's friends on the outing to Camelback for some rappelling practice. He died at the scene.

Trevor Crouse, 15, apparently standing in the picture to the right of Johnstone, who has the teen rappeller on belay, succumbed to his injuries after 10 hours at a local hospital. The boy on rappel was hurt badly, but survived. Johnstone's son had been the first to rappel that morning, and was at the bottom of the "Sugar Cube" formation when his father and the teens fell.

Hernandez, hiking with a friend that morning, found the rappellers an interesting sight. He asked the friend if he could borrow her phone, snapped the shot, then forwarded it to himself, the report says. Moments later, they heard screaming and went to the scene to try and help.

New Times was unable to reach Hernandez for comment.

The photo supports the finding by a police investigator that an orange sling was a primary anchor point being used by Johnstone. As we related in our December 20 article about the case, the sling subsequently disappeared while in the fire department's custody, causing the investigation to stall.

A report by Phoenix police Detective Derrell Branch concludes, "Evidence shows that a component of the failed anchor system was a piece of orange webbing strap. It is unknown whether the failure was in the strap itself, or in a knot tied in the strap. The orange strap has not been located as of the writing of this report, in spite of exhaustive efforts..."

As the picture shows, and as Johnstone's son told Branch in an interview, Johnstone had attached the orange piece of webbing to a steel eye bolt embedded into the rock formation. The orange sling was then attached to Johnstone, and the rope being used for rappelling and belaying. He used no back-up anchor, according to the report. When the boy on rappel slipped, Johnstone lurched toward the edge and wasn't stopped by his anchor. Crouse, reportedly attached to Johnstone with a red sling, was pulled down as well.

The metal eye bolt was found to be in perfect shape. We reviewed the evidence photographs of Johnstone's extensive array of gear -- it's all very new-looking. The odds that the orange sling in the picture was also in nearly-new shape seem to be good. Such pieces of tubular webbing, designed for use in rock-climbing, are often rated to hold 4,000 pounds of force before breaking.

So what happened? One possibility is that, despite his extensive experience, Johnstone didn't tie the orange webbing correctly to the eye bolt, or to himself. His son told Branch that Johnstone tugged on the orange sling after fastening it to the steel anchor, so perhaps the bad knot -- if that's what it was -- was where the sling attached to his harness.

Hernandez's photo proves the orange webbing was used in the anchor set-up. No one will know for sure why it failed to prevent the falls, though, because it's the only piece of gear that turned up missing in the investigation.

Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Ray Stern on Twitter at @RayStern.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.