A Seattle hiker whose disappearance on Camelback Mountain in June launched a tepid, three-day search died of heat-related complications, officials say.
The body of Eric Fernandes, 23, was found on June 3 by a hiker who, along with some friends, had taken it upon themselves to keep searching after authorities held back. New Times covered the tragedy and the authorities' lackluster search, in a July 9 feature article
"There was no evidence of foul play," wrote Dr. Mark Shelly, Maricopa County Medical Examiner, in a report obtained by New Times on Friday. Fernandes "likely developed an elevated core temperature that led to unconsciousness and ultimately death."
Fernandes was last seen on May 31 hiking the popular and rugged Echo Canyon Trail, a summit route that climbs about 1,200 feet in 1.5 miles.
A graduate of the University of Washington's Department of Chemistry in Seattle, Fernandes had some experience hiking, but not in the heat. He had driven to the Valley with his father to see a friend, and during his stay decided to hike Echo Canyon by himself. The temperature reached 108 degrees that afternoon.
A witness who encountered him near the summit noticed he looked tired. Police told New Times that he'd taken a Camelbak-style water pouch with him but hadn't filled it with water. Receipts showed he'd bought a couple of small bottles of water beforehand, and may have consumed those before or during his hike.
Fernandes' father contacted authorities the next day when his son didn't return to the motel where they were staying. Although Fernandes' car was parked in the Echo Canyon parking lot, police were unsure whether he'd left the mountain by himself or with someone else. His cell phone had died, and a surveillance video from a sporting goods store showed him accompanied by a still-unidentified man while he was shopping or his water backpack.
His body was found in an obscure area below the summit, wedged between two boulders in a spot that can be seen from the trail.
The medical examiner's report leaves some questions unanswered, such as how Fernandes came to be in that spot, and precisely when he died.
However, the report, based primarily on an autopsy conducted June 4, indicates that the remains were in an advanced state of decomposition, suggesting Fernandes died closer to May 31 than June 3. Shelly was not available this morning for an interview.
X-rays showed no evidence of broken bones, and in general the body showed no sign of "definitive significant trauma." A small amount of alcohol found in the liver was likely due to decomposition, the report states.
Shelly deemed the death an accident.
We left messages with Fernandes' father, Max Fernandes, and Phoenix police Detective William Andersen, who oversaw the missing-persons investigation and official search. We'll update this article if we hear back.
As our July 9 article covered, frustration and criticism marked the search effort, which had been scaled back several times due to heat and darkness.
Undisputed is that Camelback Mountain can be dangerous. Since Echo Canyon Park was reopened on January 15 after a year-long, $4.5 million refurbishment project, four people have died in mishaps related to the area.
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A 25-year-old college student died after falling about 10 feet while hiking Echo Canyon Trail on September 19 in what authorities said was likely a heat-related case. On August 8, Phoenix firefighter Gary Johnstone and a family friend, 15-year-old Trevor Crouse, died after falling from a popular rappelling site just off the trail.
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