Pinal County Sheriff's Office Criticized Over Handling of Search for Missing Superstition Mountain Hiker
Chris Hensley with his daughters, Alexa and Alyssa, during a visit to the Grand Canyon.
"Is daddy living in the mountains now?"
It's a heartbreaking question that 5-year-old Alexa has been asking her mom, Tonya Hensley.
It's been nearly two weeks since members of the Superstition Search and Rescue (SSAR) traced Chris Hensley's steps into the Superstition Mountains and located his remains in an area known as No Name Canyon.
"He's in Heaven watching over you," Hensley says, trying to explain their father's absence to Alexa and 7-year-old Alyssa.
The search-and-rescue team that discovered Hensley's body worked alongside the Pinal County Sheriff's Office for more than two decades. But after Sheriff Paul Babeu was elected in 2009, he snubbed the all-volunteer team and started his own crew.
Although the PCSO and other search volunteers scoured the desert and mountains for more than 800 collective hours, SSAR members found the body about two hours after they joined the search early Friday.
It's a source of frustration for Tonya Hensley, one that prompted her to share her story even as PCSO officials maintain they conducted a tireless and selfless search.
See also: Paul Babeu Sticks It to Taxpayers and a Volunteer Rescue Team
See also: Body of Missing Lost Dutchman Hiker Possibly Found by Superstition Search and Rescue
See also: Superstition Search and Rescue Team Finds Human Remains in Same Area Where Missing Gold Prospector's Campsite Was Found in 2009
Tonya Hensley says she is grateful to all those who searched for her husband and risked their own safety in doing so. But she says PCSO officials managing the search left her feeling embittered because they didn't listen to her when she told them where or how high up the mountain they should search.
She believes that if they had, Chris would have been found much sooner and it would have shortened the days of agony the family experienced not knowing what happened to him.
Her youngest daughter still wants to save a place at the dining room table for her father.
When they get older, she will tell them that he fell about 200 feet off the flat face of a massive rock, that he slammed against at least two rock ledges before landing on the ground. She'll tell them that death investigators say that his broken ribs punctured his left lung. She'll tell him that he died unattended in the wilderness, laying on his back and laying partly under bushes.
Chris Hensley set out on the afternoon of April 15 for Flatiron Peak, a massive tower of rock in the Superstition Wilderness more than four miles from his mother-in-law's house in Apache Junction.
It was supposed to be a quick hike before heading home and having dinner and ice cream with the family. And, they had a full calendar the following day. The couple had stopped at Glendale Community College earlier in the day and both planned on signing up for classes. They were also planning a move from Mesa to Glendale.
Chris had just returned the day before from Indiana, where he had visited his mother for about a month. A born daredevil who loved rollerblading, extreme sports, and spending time outside, he was itching to venture into the wilderness. He planned to make it to the top of Flatiron Peak.
He'd done it once before his trip to Indiana and, Tonya recalls, it was an exhilarating experience for him.
At about 5:30 p.m. on April 15, he reached Shiprock Street and Geronimo Road, an intersection of rural roads just half a mile from the base of the mountain. He snapped a photo of the street signs, texted it to his wife and then called her.
They spoke for seven minutes -- the last conversation they'd ever have.
Hensley tells New Times that her breathless husband chuckled on the phone, telling her that he was out of shape. Chris explained that he'd cut through the yards of homes close to the mountain, borrowed a water hose to wet himself down and refill his bottle of water.
"He told me that if he was too tired to walk back home, he wanted me to pick him up at this intersection," she says. "He told me he could see the base of the mountain from where he was."
She and her daughters waited for a call, but it never came.
She texted him and asked him if he was okay. When he didn't reply, she sent another message, telling him that she was getting worried. Still no reply.
She loaded up the girls in her car and drove to the intersection where she hoped he would be waiting. Nothing. She drove around for two hours, up and down private roads. Nothing.
Her children grew restless, so she drove back to her mother's house and dropped them off. She returned to the intersection and waited in her car. It was dark, so she kept her foot on the break so Chris could see the red lights and know that she was waiting.
When her desperation and fear peaked, she drove to a nearby police station. The building was closed. She pounded on the doors and honked her car horn, but no one responded. She looked on her GPS and found the next closest station about 20 minutes away. She got there and it, too, was shuttered for the night.
She called her mom and asked her to find a phone number for a law enforcement agency. Tonya ended up on the line with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office dispatcher.
"Is this an emergency?" the dispatcher asked.
"Yes, it is. My husband is missing," Tonya says she told her. "He went hiking and he hasn't come home."
Tonya Hensley says PCSO Deputy Jeff Love told her on the night that she reported her husband missing that they would assemble the agency's team of search-and-rescue volunteers and get a helicopter to the area.
The sense of relief that washed over her was short-lived. After two hours, she called Love and asked for an update. She says he told her that he couldn't get volunteers out that night, but they'd get a chopper in the air. She called again at 5:30 a.m. and says she learned that no helicopter had yet searched the area.
PCSO officials claim the deputies' search started immediately and volunteers joined the following day.
Tonya says she quickly lost faith in the people overseeing the search. She says she told them they were searching in the wrong area. She says she told them they weren't searching high enough on the mountain.
Meanwhile, her sister and other family members in Michigan and New York feverishly searched the Internet for ways to help find Chris.
They posted a plea on Facebook, craigslist.com and reddit.com asking for help. The day after he was reported missing, Tonya posted this on the website:
"He walked from the corner of Scenic and N Cactus to Geronimo and Shiprock. He walked straight down Shiprock towards the mountain then went to a house at the end of Shiprock to fill up his 24 oz bottle of water and he drenched his head (with) the hose. He walked behind the house to the mountain. That is what he told me as of 5:30 p.m. Monday night."
Tonya says that she gave that info to the PCSO, telling them where her husband started his hike and where he intended to go. But she says she was repeatedly told by PCSO officials that Chris couldn't have made it as far or as high as she was telling them he went because it was too dark and he was wearing only shorts.
She notes that even the PCSO was reading that online thread, citing PCSO representatives posting warnings that untrained volunteers shouldn't join the search.
"Why would I hold back any information? I just wanted Chris to come home," she says.
They also told her and her mother, who often joined her at the command post for updates, that it was too dangerous an area for the volunteer search-and-rescue teams to explore and that their search area was limited by their insurance carrier, she says.
PCSO officials tell New Times that the office's insurance covers all its volunteer searches. It's a confusing revelation to Tonya, who says she was told two days into the search that it didn't, as a way to explain why the search wasn't more expansive.
By April 18, a Thursday, Tonya's sister stumbled upon a phone number for Robert Cooper, the commander of the Superstition Search and Rescue. She gave him Tonya's number and, within an hour, he was at her mom's house.
Tonya stayed at her mom's place because it was near the search command post.
Cooper examined the area around the home for Chris Hensley's footprints. He got information from Tonya -- the same information she says she shared with PCSO searchers -- about his hiking plans.
Cooper went to the edge of the mountain that same evening and determined where his team would begin its search. The following morning, a Friday, a team of 11 Superstition Search and Rescue members embarked into the mountain through a wash that runs between houses situated near the base of the Superstitions.
Superstition Search and Rescue located Chris Hensley's body in this part of No Name Canyon.
They followed a path into No Name Canyon and spotted his footprints. They traversed higher and found cigarette butts matching the brand he smoked. They trailed the clues and, in about two hours, discovered the body.
Tamra Ingersoll, a PCSO spokeswoman, tells New Times that members of the department's search-and-rescue spent more than 800 hours on the mountain and that a similar team from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office also spent hundreds of hours searching.
She said they all wanted the same outcome: to give Tonya answers and closure.
"We had searchers who went from the bottom the mountain of the same canyon which Christopher was eventually located in, all the way up to the Flatiron several times," Ingersoll says.
Ingersoll also says Tonya Hensley didn't give searchers enough information at first, such as that Chris Hensley had previously hiked No Name Canyon. She said that PCSO had to send detectives to her "to fill in the holes."
She says that any information Tonya had and passed along to Superstition Search and Rescue stemmed from the efforts of the PCSO's research.
Ingersoll, defending PCSO Search and Rescue and the commanders who managed the search, says it was the agency's volunteers and staff who located all the Facebook posts that showed where Hensley had gone before.
"Our teams figured out which canyon he had been in before," Ingersoll says. "We shared with Tonya the names of the areas that we believed he was in as she had never told us any of that information . . . We gave her all our info. If she took that info and gave it to others that is her right, but the reason she had the info to give was because of our SARs unit and posse members tireless searching to narrow it down."
Hensley isn't sure why the PCSO now is denying the things they said to her, not in private, but in front of her mother and other volunteers.
"Tuesday, after the first search team went out, I told them that Chris hiked before and made it to the bottom of Flatiron," she says. "I pulled up Facebook on my phone and showed them the photos! I did that; not them."
An information board at PCSO command post during the search for Chris Hensley.
Chris Hensley's previous hike in the area was scrawled out on at least as early as Wednesday on a briefing board leaning against the PCSO command trailer: "Subject hiked (mountain) 6 weeks ago to 'No Name' Canyon."
No Name Canyon is where the SSAR found Hensley.
His wife now says that even if, as it claims, the PCSO gave her the information she passed along to Superstition Search and Rescue, the fact is the SSAR managed to use it and find her husband within a couple of hours.
Cooper says that he didn't know where the PCSO had or hadn't searched. He just had the information that Tonya gave him and his team.
He adds that he and his team aren't allowed to just show up at a scene without first being invited by a family member. Those were the rules laid down when the PCSO started its own team.
Hensley couldn't contain the frustration and exasperation that had mounted with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office, and on April 24, she stood up and vented it during a Pinal County Board of Supervisors meeting.
"I was lied to and treated with disrespect," Hensley told the Supervisors. "The Sheriff's Office personnel acted like Chris was a bad person because he had a rough past. I felt they didn't care about my family."
She also told them that if "the sheriff's search team would have only listened to the information" she was giving them, her "husband wouldn't have been lying at the bottom of a canyon for four days."
She complained that the group that was in charge of this search didn't know what they were doing.
"All they had to do was go where I told them Chris was going. Chris told me exactly where he was going and exactly what route he would take," she told them.
Cooper says his team tracked footprints and searched for clues along the path Chris told his wife he was taking.
In the aftermath of the discovery, a press release went out announcing the discovery of the body, a headline noting that it was the PCSO SAR that found it. Ingersoll says that was an oversight on her part because she was rushing to get information out to media outlets.
When a sergeant arrived at the home of Tonya's mother and told her about the body being found, she collapsed. Her sobs shook her body. When she regained her composure, her daughter Alyssa asked her: "Did Daddy fall off the cliff?"
She wasn't aware that her daughters were nearby listening.
She broke down in tears again.
Under most circumstances, who discovered the body wouldn't matter much. Families would focus on healing and closure. But, in this case, and others like it, families have expressed frustration with the PCSO's handling of searches.
But the rift between the PCSO and the SSAR only magnifies such occasions.
New Times reported in December that the messy split between the two might have been seeded because the team wouldn't support Babeu when he asked for their endorsement during his first run for office in 2008. But, as a nonprofit, they are barred from political involvement. Later, SSAR members expressed a lack of trust in the PCSO officials overseeing the searches. SSAR members were concerned about a lack of safety, but say their complaints weren't fully investigated.
Although there are searches that the PCSO has successfully conducted, there are high-profile failures that stain the department's record.
The families of other missing individuals have expressed, just as Tonya Hensley has, that the PCSO wouldn't communicate with them, or listen to her pleas on where to search for their loved ones.
Consider the search for Apache Junction resident Jeff Block and Blue, his wolf-mix dog. The missing man's brother has said he couldn't get the PCSO to cooperate in his search effort, much less explain what it might do to help find his brother.
For several days after Jeff went missing on July 26, 2012, according to a blog Dan started to aid in the search, the PCSO didn't return his calls. When he recalls the 14-day ordeal, he says that nothing will bring back his brother. However, he told New Times, that a humane response from the PCSO might have saved him, his 84-year-old parents, and more than 100 volunteers many days of desperate searching.
Crystal Hayes expressed similar frustration when she reported her fiancé, Raymond Churchill, 26, missing on January 1, 2010. Churchill, who lived in San Tan Valley, called Hayes on New Year's Eve to tell her he was heading home from a local bar, but he never showed up. She told the Apache Junction News that two days of the PCSO's searching the San Tan Valley canal turned up nothing. Then, someone she would identify only as a "guardian angel" gave her a phone number for Cooper and SSAR. She called, and Cooper's team searched the canal after the PCSO left the scene. Within an hour, members discovered Churchill's body.
"The thing that upsets me the most is the relationship between the Pinal County Sheriff's Office and Superstition Search and Rescue," Hayes told the A.J. newspaper. "The fact that we had to notify [SSAR] ourselves. I don't know that the outcome would have been any different, but we wouldn't have had the stress of not knowing any answers for so long."
The PCSO also searched for Kelly Tate, whom friends reported missing in September 2009, when he didn't return from a wilderness hike. A PCSO sergeant commanded the search by more than 150 volunteers, who scoured the desert around the clock for five days -- on foot, on horseback, and by helicopter.
When the PCSO called off its search without finding Tate, SSAR members arrived on the scene. About an hour into their search, members located the missing man's body crumpled on a trail, just 150 yards from the parking lot where the PCSO had set up its command post.
Tami Villar, then-spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office, told New Times after the body was discovered by SSAR that PCSO didn't set out to do a "half-assed search."
And, Villar also wondered aloud whether Tate, who had suffered a heart attack, might have survived had he been found sooner ("Searchers Disappointed," September 16, 2009).
It's that thought that haunts Tonya Hensley as she struggles to think about a life with Chris. She's strapped financially, now trying to make ends meet on her own.
What if she had found a phone number for the SSAR sooner? Would she be listening to her husband sharing a harrowing near-death story instead of waiting for his funeral services in Indiana?
Anyone wishing to help the Hensley family can visit a Wells Fargo and make a donation to the Christopher Hensley Memorial Fund, account number 5141471093.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.