The Tragic Three-Day Disappearance of Hiker Eric Fernandes on Camelback Mountain
Cliffs near where Fernandes' body was located on June 3.
The oven-like heat of the late-May afternoon stunned the young Seattle man when he stepped outside of his car.
In the parking lot of the Glendale motel, Eric Fernandes, 23, put his hand near the grill of his red Pontiac Grand Prix. "Dad, I think the car's overheating," he blurted.
"No," said his father, Maximo Fernandes, 65. "Cars feel like that here in the summer." On Wednesday, May 28, the day they arrived in the Valley of the Sun during a road trip from Washington, the official temperature was 106. They never had experienced the heat of the Phoenix metro area. They were in town to visit one of Eric's friends, Ryan, whom Eric had met while playing an online video game.
Eric Fernandes, thin and fit with a slight build and a close-trimmed, black beard with no mustache, soon lost whatever concern for the heat he'd had. After lunch the next day, Eric told his father he planned to hike Camelback Mountain's rugged Echo Canyon Trail and even invited his old man to join him.
Maximo declined, saying it was too hot for him -- and maybe even for Eric. "Dad, trust me. I can make it anytime," his son told him.
About 1:30 p.m., Eric drove to a sporting goods store and bought a Camelbak-style hydration backpack. A few minutes later, he went to a grocery store and picked up a couple of small bottles of vitamin water.
With the blazing sun high overhead, Eric parked his car in the Echo Canyon parking lot near Tatum Boulevard and McDonald Drive. He wore Vans sneakers and didn't have a hat. No matter -- it was only 1.5 miles to the summit. He set off on the steep trail.
Sometime on that 108-degree afternoon, another hiker saw Eric at or near the top of the 2,704-foot peak. She noticed that he was very sweaty and looked tired.
It was the last time anyone would see Eric alive.
Long after darkness had fallen and the air had cooled to the mid-80s, Eric's Pontiac sat under the looming silhouettes of Echo Canyon's sandstone cliffs. It was there when the sun rose on Sunday morning.
Back at the Knight's Inn motel, Max's worry grew. His son, one of three, was a graduate of the University of Washington's Department of Chemistry in Seattle. He was a grown man, and grown men sometimes stayed out all night. Max had been concerned when Eric didn't come home Saturday afternoon but figured he was probably at Ryan's. Now it was Sunday morning, and he made plans to begin their long drive home at 10 a.m.
Something had to be wrong: Max discovered that Eric's mobile phone was either dead or shut off.
He drove to Ryan's. Eric wasn't there. They called police. Just before 4 p.m. on Sunday -- more than 24 hours after Eric started the hot hike -- rangers confirmed that Eric's car was still in the parking lot. Several rangers started looking for him on the mountain's main paths -- Echo Canyon Trail and Bobby's Rock loop on the mountain's west side, and Cholla Trail on the east. A Phoenix police helicopter began circling the 400-acre park.
A general description of Eric was conveyed to dozens of recreational hikers going up and down the trails, with the request to keep an eye out for him. If a 23-year-old man had collapsed or cried out for help on Echo Canyon Trail, which receives an estimated 750,000 visitors a year, surely someone would notice and call 911.
But after nobody reported seeing him, it was clear that Eric was perilously lost on one of the most popular hiking trails in America's sixth-largest city.
A sign installed on Echo Canyon Trail in May urges hikers to take precautions.
Inside the Pontiac, receipts for the hydration backpack and drinks were found. There seemed to be little question that Eric had gone hiking. But from the beginning, the search lacked a sense of urgency. Only a few firefighters and police officers hiked the trails, and some of the obvious off-trail spots.
The Phoenix Fire Department, with no patient to rescue, handed over to Phoenix police a missing-persons report, and Detective Will Andersen was put in charge of the case. By 8 p.m., he'd decided to put off a systematic but hazardous search of the park until 4 a.m. the next day.
"An organized search was not possible on Sunday," Andersen wrote in a report before midnight.
The three-day disappearance of Eric Fernandes attracted national attention -- and second-guessing.
Fernandes could have done more to avoid a bad situation from the beginning, to be sure. But the quality of the search also was criticized -- first by the missing hiker's father, who became frustrated over the city's frequent breaks in the search as it was going on, then by volunteer hikers and members of nonprofit search-and-rescue groups, who claim the city should have done more.
The wildland-rescue specialists claim that the Fernandes incident highlights a decades-long jurisdictional problem among their groups, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, and municipal emergency-response teams. The specialists say the search would have been handled differently -- and better -- if it had been up to them. Or if they even had been invited to help.
The Central Arizona Mountain Rescue Association, an organization that's been around since the 1960s and which now operates within the nonprofit MCSO Search and Rescue Posse, offered to assist with any rappelling needs on June 1. City officials declined the help.
Phoenix police and fire officials are defensive about postmortems of the Fernandes case that benefit from hindsight. They argue that they did the best they could under the circumstances, both to look for Fernandes and to keep their personnel as safe as possible.
But no typical search-and-rescue team was sent out. Instead, Andersen called out members of the volunteer Community Emergency Response Team, a group that was created after the 9/11 attacks. Critics say CERT, which has some members with wilderness search-and-rescue experience, appears to have been inadequate in the Fernandes case.
Eric Fernandes bears responsibility for what happened to him on Camelback. The Valley's mountain parks may be in the middle of a populous area, but they are not to be trifled with. In combination with the area's infamous heat, they're especially hazardous to unprepared out-of-towners. Death can come in as little as four hours for such people.
The popular Echo Canyon Trail, which reopened to the public on January 15 after being closed for a year for much-needed renovation, also is one of the most troublesome, as far as rescues go. As our January 16 cover story on Camelback detailed, the scenic park and preserve usually is the scene of about 50 fire department calls each year. Most of the emergencies stem from problems on the Echo Canyon side, which has most of the park's steep cliffs and a high-intensity summit trail. As the police report on the Fernandes case noted, Echo Canyon is known as a "difficult" trail, and the Camelback area in general can be "treacherous, with sliding rocks, snakes, beehives, and thick bushes."
With no sign of foul play or a medical ailment unrelated to his situation, Fernandes appears to have succumbed to the extreme environment and his own actions within it. The tragedy came only three weeks after a sign -- complete with a photo of a 25-year-old man who died from a fall in the park in 2012 -- warning of the various risks was installed by the city in a prominent place on Echo Canyon Trail.
The information in this article is based on a review of police reports, interviews with experts (including Detective Andersen), representatives of the Phoenix police and fire departments, and public statements from Fernandes family members, who declined to speak with New Times.
Several mysteries remain, including whether Fernandes should have been found sooner. And if he had, would he still be alive?
Phoenix emergency responders weren't kicking back on that crucial first day -- if anything, it was the opposite problem. The Fernandes case was Detective Will Andersen's second one involving a missing hiker in a mountain park that day, June 1.
A few hours before Fernandes was reported missing, Andersen already had helped coordinate the rescue of a 78-year-old man in the 16,000-acre South Mountain Park/Preserve. The man had sat down in shade at 9 that morning, unable to go on after running out of water five hours into his hike on Kiwanis Trail. The Phoenix resident and longtime hiker called his son, who began looking for him and eventually called 911. Police and fire crews started to search by 1:40 p.m., sending rescuers on the trail and dispatching a helicopter. The man recovered enough on his own to make it to a spot near San Juan Road, where a park ranger found him and got him treatment for dehydration.
Andersen was working on that case when the fire department got the first call about Eric Fernandes, at 3:46 p.m.
He agrees that he would have handled the situation differently if Fernandes had been, say, a child. In that case, with a life clearly hanging in the balance, he tells New Times, he might have "grabbed a flashlight" and started combing the landscape at once. But Fernandes was 23 and without any physical or mental disabilities.
Having made his decision to wait, Andersen turned to CERT commander Don Peyton, who contacted his volunteers. The next day at 4 a.m., a search party made up of fire, police, and CERT volunteers gathered in the Echo Canyon parking lot. Members of the news media were on hand to observe. A small crowd of civilian hikers initially was kept out. The decision soon was reversed and rangers let them in, handing them missing-person flyers with Eric's picture and asking them to help in the effort.
By noon, with temperatures rising to 110 degrees, Andersen decided to "scale back" the effort for the day, unwilling to put officers and volunteers at risk. He denies "calling off" the search. However, while the official effort ended for that afternoon, plenty of recreational hikers continued to use the summit trail. Some of them had come specifically to look for Eric.
A desperate Max Fernandes stood near the trailhead begging hikers to shout Eric's name as they went. He asked the public for help via the news media in the parking lot.
Around that time, an odd and apparently pointless clue turned up. Surveillance video at the sporting goods store where Eric had purchased the hydration backpack showed that he had entered, shopped, and left with an "unknown Hispanic male." Police issued a public bulletin with a grainy picture of the man, who wore shorts and a T-shirt. The man never has been identified. But his presence at the store, and the mystery of who he was, lent weight to the idea that maybe Eric Fernandes wasn't on the mountain at all.
No organized search effort took place on the night of June 2, either. The next morning, the officials and CERT volunteers gathered again, searched for a few hours, then called off the effort about 11:30 a.m., again because of heat and that it seemed unlikely that Fernandes -- without sufficient water in a superheated environment -- would be found alive. Fernandes' two brothers, having flown from Seattle with their mother, joined the recreational hikers who kept looking for Eric.
Andersen acknowledges that "Eric's father . . . made a very impassioned plea when I told him we were scaling back."
Max Fernandes told media early Tuesday afternoon: "We have lost precious time because of the heat, but when temperatures go down, [the city does not] have a second rescue team in succession to take advantage of the cooler temperature.I honestly cannot understand -- that is a shame."
Phoenix police spokesman Sergeant Trent Crump took the high road for the department, responding that "we're not about to argue with the Fernandes family in any way, shape, or form."
It turned out that Max Fernandes wasn't the only one who didn't understand.
Members of Superstition Search and Rescue in Pinal County and those with CAMRA, a similar outfit affiliated with the MCSO, followed the story of the missing hiker closely when it broke on June 1.
Robert Cooper, commander of the nonprofit Pinal group, didn't like what he saw on TV news reports. While images showed some firefighters hiking up the trail, there were no searchers with "backpacks and big-brimmed hats," like he'd see if his search-and-rescue group had been involved.
Credited with saving at least 2,000 lives over the past 20 years, the Superstition group has bragging rights. In 2012, SSAR made headlines when members recovered the body of Jesse Capen, a Colorado man who had been missing for three years. Capen's obsession with the legendary Lost Dutchman gold mine had ended with his death by dehydration in the Superstition Mountains east of Apache Junction.
Cooper has been highly critical of Sheriff Paul Babeu's 2009 takeover of search-and-rescue operations in Pinal County, as detailed in a 2012 New Times article ("Paul Babeu Sticks It to Taxpayers," December 20). Relations between the nonprofit group and the Pinal County Sheriff's Office following the takeover got so bad that Babeu threatened to arrest SSAR members who showed up uninvited to a rescue operation.
Cooper knew his group couldn't help with Eric Fernandes, he says, because "30 years ago, the fire departments took over the parks, and [nonprofit] search-and-rescue units were left to wilderness."
Jonathan Jacobs, spokesman for the Phoenix Fire Department, backed up Cooper's perception, to an extent.
"Pure search and rescue -- it doesn't really fall into our jurisdiction," he says. "It's not that we don't want to help out. We don't have the resources to put 30 to 40 firefighters out here."
That's why fire and police departments utilize Community Emergency Response Team volunteers to get "boots on the ground," Jacobs adds.
But Cooper says CERT may be vastly different from search-and-rescue units like his. A main difference is that not all CERT members are well-qualified for searching difficult terrain in high temperatures. Cooper says his group would have begun a night search at once on June 1 and continued day and night.
An MCSO official who didn't want to be named for this article tells New Times he was surprised, as he watched TV coverage, that city rescuers were not intensely searching.
The MCSO group offered up its services on June 2 "but was turned down," the source says.
Maximo Fernandes, seen here with sons Shawn and Ryan, at a June 5 vigil for Eric held at Echo Canyon Park.
"In the mid-'80s, our team did all the searches at Camelback," he says, but now the city and the nonprofit Maricopa County rescue team have an "interesting relationship."
Like Cooper, he considers it wrongheaded that the city called off the search the first night and around noon on the following days even though the prevailing theory was that Fernandes was on the mountain.
"Camelback's a pretty small area," he says. "At night, we'd call in the dog teams . . . and keep searching until we exhaust every clue."
Some of the harshest criticism, however, comes from two members of an unofficial "extreme Camelback hiker" group who searched for the missing man on their own, using their intimate knowledge of the mountain park.
"How do you call off a search?" hiker John Clever spewed a few days after helping to look for Fernandes. "They were lying [to the media by] saying they were up there when they weren't."
Clever says he and other extreme hikers were scouting various off-trail areas on Monday afternoon, "but no one else was."
Another frequent Camelback hiker who asked not to be named tells New Times he was surprised by how few official searchers he saw in the two days that he and about 15 other hikers not associated with CERT spent looking for Fernandes.
"They didn't really have a [legitimate] search-and-rescue [effort]," he says. "Other than the helicopter, they didn't really have a lot of authority on the mountain."
None of the people critical of the official response, however, would go as far as saying that a more robust search -- even if launched as soon as possible that Sunday night -- would have resulted in Fernandes being found alive.
Eric Fernandes' remains were found by one of John Clever's extreme-hiker companions just after 5 p.m. June 3. His body was on a level spot on the south side of the mountain, at a point about 200 feet lower than the summit and hundreds of feet from any established trail.
As seen in police photographs, the body was wedged between a couple of three-foot-high boulders under the thin yellow branches of a half-dead paloverde tree, almost as if he had sought the scant protection of the rocks and brush. It's also possible that he slipped while walking on the low boulders and fell between them. His body position was unexpected for someone who may have died from excessive sun: He was on his back and left side, his left arm dangling between the rocks, abdomen turned slightly skyward. His left shoe was off the foot and laying on the gravelly surface two feet away.
Police saw no obvious sign of foul play or trauma to the body. A helicopter flew the decomposing body off the mountain.
New Times was able to locate the body-recovery site using GPS coordinates from the police report. A stuffed animal that looked like it had been well-loved by a child years ago had been left there by a family member, along with flowers that had dried out.
To get to the location, it's clear that Fernandes would have left the well-worn Echo Canyon Trail (or Cholla Trail, if he went up and over, then cut back west) and climbed down steep, loose, boulder-strewn terrain.
Once arriving in the flatter area where he was found, Fernandes would not have been able to proceed directly south toward homes visible in the distance because of impassable cliffs. Just to his north was a fortress-like wall of steep rock, dirt, and cactus.
But on the ridge of the wall, a couple hundred feet up, hikers could be seen marching along Echo Canyon Trail during New Times' exploration of the area. This begs the question of why Fernandes couldn't get the attention of hikers, and why no one saw him struggling down below. However, it is unknown when or why Fernandes left the main trail or when he came to the spot where he died. Perhaps it was at night, after the park was closed. Or maybe he was too incapacitated by heat exhaustion to see any hikers or to get their attention.
In this challenging environment, the Seattleite was not fully prepared, police found. He had bought the hydration pack but had not filled it with water before starting the hike. A twist-tie still fastened the dispensing nozzle to the pack. The bladder was flat, new-looking, and had no sign of moisture or condensation, Andersen says. The detective believes Fernandes took the two small bottles of vitamin water he had purchased on the hike, though no bottles were found near the body.
In theory, Fernandes might have been found barely alive after 24 or more hours in the heat. But that doesn't mean he would have recovered. Even after medical attention, victims of extreme dehydration often have suffered too much organ damage, says Douglas Casa, chief executive officer of the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut. The institute's named after Korey Stringer, a Minnesota Vikings player who died of heat stroke during a 2001 preseason practice.
A sustained temperature of 105.5 or more can badly damage the body's cells. From there, it is all a matter of time: If the temperature comes down within 30 minutes, the damage usually is not a problem. Between 30 and 60 minutes, the victim probably will survive but with "lasting complications," Casa says. "People over the 60-minute mark might die three to five days later."
Confusion, bad decision-making, even maniacal behavior, are "not surprising" in overheated patients.
"I've been around 167 heat strokes in my life providing medical care," says Casa, a professor and director of athletic-training education at the university. "Half of those people are some of the craziest people you could ever be around. They yell, they scream -- it's like you're in a temporary lunatic stage."
In a major announcement for the institute in late June, Casa presented new guidelines for coaches and emergency responders who treat victims, summed up by the phrase, "Cool first, transport second."
That's not always possible in a mountain park. The solitude sought by visitors works against them when time is of the essence. In July 2009, a 14-year-old from Alaska on a family outing at South Mountain ran out of water and passed out after four hours of hiking.
When firefighters reached him on the trail a half-hour later, he had no pulse and wasn't breathing. He was declared dead at a hospital.
A May 2012 case on South Mountain involved Jeremy Barlow, 31, of Missouri, who became lost off-trail while hiking with a friend. Neither had much water, and when Barlow began vomiting, his friend had trouble guiding rescuers to their location. Like the Alaska teen, Barlow died about four hours after beginning his hike.
Where Fernandes was found, had he attracted someone's attention, help could have arrived in mere minutes.
But as it appears, no one even knew he was missing or having a problem for almost 24 hours.
As of press time for this article, a report on the cause and manner of death was still pending from the county Medical Examiner's Office.
Even with the Pontiac in the trailhead parking lot, factors such as Eric's age and the unidentified man who shopped with him at the sporting goods store caused even potential rescuers to doubt whether he was on the mountain -- which influenced the pace of the city's response.
"It wasn't clear [whether] he was missing because he wanted to be," says Phoenix Fire Battalion Chief Shelly Jamison.
Her ex-husband, Ron Jamison, is the PFD's acting assistant chief of operations. He acknowledges that the Sheriff's Office's CAMRA is more qualified for search-and-rescue operations and would generally perform better in that task than CERT. But Ron Jamison says his impression from the beginning was that "it was never a search-and-rescue -- it was always a [body] recovery."
Without knowing for sure whether Fernandes was on Camelback, "how many people are we going to put at risk?" he says. "You have to look at the risk-benefit to the players."
Helicopter pilot Gary Bucklin put in seven to eight flight hours at a time, Jamison says, and personally was "upset" that he could not locate the hiker.
Shelly Jamison disputes the allegation that nothing was done on the first night of the Fernandes search, noting that some of Bucklin's mission occurred after dark.
This is true, but Andersen's report says the infrared technology in the helicopter was "not effective" because of the landscape's intense heat -- which supports the idea that city rescuers' physical presence on the mountain would have been imperative.
Andersen is assigned to the PPD's Missing and Unidentified Persons unit and has a cubicle at the Family Advocacy Center at 2120 North Central Avenue. The understaffed unit receives about 3,000 missing-persons calls per year.
People missing in mountain parks have made up only a tiny fraction of the number over the years. He's able to compile a list of about a dozen such missing persons over the past few years. Almost all were suicides or people known to have mental illness who wandered into a Phoenix park in the hot season. Only one case still is outstanding -- that of Brian Histand, who was 25 when he vanished last year. He was last seen on May 15, 2013, near 35th Avenue and Dobbins Road, walking toward one of the northern boundaries of South Mountain Park/Preserve.
Histand had been acting out of character in the months preceding his disappearance and was seen half-naked in an alfalfa field "praying" and picking up trash obsessively on the last day anyone saw him. His father, Michael Histand, a Pennsylvania police officer, says he believes his son will someday turn up homeless and in need of mental-health services. Andersen, an avid hiker himself, says he keeps an eye out for Histand (or rather, his remains) every time he is on South Mountain.
The Fernandes case ended up with Andersen simply because Fernandes was missing.
Everything seemed to point to the mountain. Except for Fernandes' phone, which last pinged a cell tower near the Glendale motel. Of course, it was always possible that Fernandes left in a different car. Still, Andersen deployed the 15 CERT members on the morning of June 2. And as usual with high-profile missing-persons cases, he began to receive "crap" calls that day -- well-meaning people calling to report that they'd seen Fernandes at a mall or working as a "sign twirler."
Then came the call from the woman who said she had seen Fernandes exhausted on the summit on Saturday taking pictures with his smartphone.
"Her, I believed," he says.
(It remains unclear why the phone, if it had power, could not be traced to the Camelback area.)
Nothing in the police reports on the case authored by Andersen and other officers suggest that the search primarily was made to recover a body. However, Andersen acknowledges that when he made his decision on June 3 to scale back the search again, hours before Fernandes' body was found, one of the next steps he pondered was bringing in cadaver-finding dogs -- given that it was unlikely the hiker would be found alive after three days. Andersen says he is used to people acting as "armchair quarterbacks" but that he stands by his decision. "I still think Camelback was a bad location for canine and night ops," he says. "There are too many people on the mountain [for dogs to be able to discover a specific human scent], and the terrain is bad for dogs."
The detective pushed backed against the claims of CAMRA and Superstition Search and Rescue's Cooper. While he could not "employ them for obvious reasons [such as liability, training, and compensation)," he says, they could have "stepped up" on their own.
With the popularity of municipal mountain hiking here even in summer months, another opportunity for the city and private search-and-rescue groups to work together -- or not -- no doubt will come up soon.
On the evening of June 5, near the new restroom building and trailhead staging area in the refurbished Echo Canyon park, Fernandes' family members and friends, police officers, hikers, and well-wishers hold white candles in remembrance of the deceased young man.
"We have a lot of anguish and even some anger," begins a preacher with the St. Theresa Parish in Phoenix before leading the group of about 50 people in prayer and asking that the family be allowed a "time of grieving and then a time of joy."
After the short service, Max Fernandes, his wife, Sandra, and their surviving sons, Shawn and Ryan, make a few statements in the parking lot. Max does most of the talking, thanking police and fire officials, volunteers, and everyone else who helped the family through their toughest days.
"You guys touched our hearts," he says, faltering. At least, he adds, "Now I am taking my son home."
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.