A key piece of evidence is missing in the investigation into how a Phoenix firefighter and his son's teenage friend fell to their deaths in August at Camelback Mountain.
Gary Johnstone, a technical rescue team member and veteran firefighter for 15 years with the department, was pronounced dead at the scene on August 8; Trevor Crouse, 15, the son of a Phoenix police officer, survived for 10 hours before succumbing to his injuries. Another boy who fell at the same time recovered from his injuries.
A Phoenix police report released on Thursday and reviewed by New Times only deepens the mystery of how and why three people fell at the same time during rappelling practice.
The evidence, a piece of orange nylon webbing used by Johnstone as an anchor point, disappeared while in the custody of the Phoenix Fire Department, making it impossible to know for sure what happened.
Two friends of Johnstone's teenage son had spent the night at Johnstone's home before the day of the accident, and they had plans to go rappelling the next morning. By sunrise on August 8, the group was setting up on Sugar Cube, a rounded rock formation about 50 feet high that's used often by firefighters and climbers for technical rope work practice.
Johnstone had come to the training session far more prepared than an average climber. Besides a few thousand dollars in equipment, most of it new-looking, he had a duffel bag with syringes, bags of saline solution for an IV hookup, adrenaline shots, wet-wipes, a blood-pressure cuff, and a plethora of other first-aid gear.
A thick, steel eyebolt was cemented into the rock years ago, reportedly by the Phoenix Fire Department. It's what climbers would call a "bomb-proof" anchor. (Meaning it's so sturdy, it wouldn't fail if a bomb hit it.)
Johnstone's son confirmed to investigators that his father had attached a bright-orange piece of nylon webbing to the eyebolt, then to Johnstone's harness. The webbing became a primary anchor point that should have prevented anyone from falling.
A green climbing rope was attached to the orange webbing. Johnstone tossed one end to dangle over the side of the Sugar Cube for rappelling. He used the other end of the rope to belay each rappeller by use of an "ATC" belay device.
Normally, no back-up rope belay is used for someone on rappel. This appears to be a step Johnstone took in order to be extra-cautious.
Johnstone's son, whose name was redacted from the report, rappelled down first with no issues. At the base, he watched as another boy, who wasn't named, started over the side. Like the others, the boy was wearing a climbing harness and was attached to the green rope by two points: By the rappelling device affixed to the rope and clipped to his harness; and by one end of the green rope tied directly to his harness (or tied to a carabiner clipped to his harness).
Then something happened, Johnstone's son saw. The boy on rappel slipped and slammed into the rock. Johnstone fell, too, and began sliding down the slope on his stomach toward the drop-off.
Johnstone's son "saw his father coming over the edge of the rock. Gary was holding the belay rope in his hands, and his fall was arrested as he was holding [the boy on rappel] from falling. Gary was on stomach at first, and then rolled to his side, rolling back and forth as he held the rope. They remained in this position for about three to five seconds, and then they fell."
Crouse fell at the same time. He and Johnstone were attached to each other by a piece of red webbing, the report indicates.
A group of National Guard soldiers were conducting a training run up the popular Echo Canyon Trail when they heard screams for help. They arrived just before firefighters. Johnstone and Crouse were unconscious with multiple fractures and bruises. The boy who'd been on rappel was injured, but conscious and "somewhat responsive."
Staff Sergeant Kimberly Hesterman of the Guard told police all three victims had been connected by the piece of red webbing, which her "squad mates" removed. (We find it somewhat unusual that the boy on rappel would also have been connected to the red webbing that tethered Johnstone and Crouse.) Hesterman was also asked by Johnstone's son to retrieve some his father's medical gear from the top of the rock, which she did.
Fire Department Captain Ardell Deliz had just begun her shift at Station 91, just up Tatum Boulevard in Paradise Valley, when she received the call to Echo Canyon. Rescue teams arrived at Echo Canyon Park just four minutes after receiving a 911 call, records show. Deliz was one of the first on the scene.
"She recognized Johnstone immediately as she had known him her entire career," the report says.
Johnstone, wrapped up in the green rope, had no pulse and was having trouble breathing.
Johnstone's distraught son was walked down the trail by another firefighter. The report says he told several firefighters that the equipment had malfunctioned.
Captain Bobby Dubnow of the fire department was among the few firefighters who examined the top of the Sugar Cube. Hesterman had untied a purple sling also attached to the eyebolt and brought it down for some unknown reason; Dubnow had her come up and re-tie it in order to show him what it had looked like.
Hesterman declined comment for this article.
That afternoon, Fox 10 News (KSAZ-TV) reported that Phoenix police Sergeant Steve Martos had said a "line snapped," causing the rappellers to fall. But police later disavowed the statement, saying the information had come from Captain Mark Vanacore, a Phoenix Fire Department spokesman.
Vanacore, though, "emphatically denied having released that information to the media, telling me that he had no idea a line had broken," Detective Derrell Branch wrote in his report.
Branch also asked Battalion Chief Scott Grane about the news report. Grane told him he'd been informed by firefighters who inspected the top of the Sugar Cube that, "the line ... did not appear to have been cut or damaged, or that it had failed in any way."
Meanwhile, Crouse's parents rushed to Phoenix Children's Hospital, where their son had been taken. He never regained consciousness and passed away about 10 hours later.
The report states that Patrick Crouse, Trevor's dad, had been worried about proper supervision for the rappel outing, but he was friends with Gary Johnstone. Also, he was "under the impression that this incident was a Phoenix Fire Department training exercise and assumed there were other Phoenix firefighters present when this rappelling exercise occurred. Patrick heard there was an equipment failure and wanted to know exactly what happened."
Branch never was able to determine a cause for the fall, though.
A collection of Johnstone's equipment, much of which was labeled with his name, was taken from the scene to a fire station. Branch could find no one who admitted to taking it there.
The orange "strap" that had served as an anchor, according to Johnstone's son, had been in one bag of equipment taken to the fire station -- that much was certain because a photograph had been taken of it. Captain Tom McCracken had seen the bag and the orange webbing mixed in with other gear. He gave the bag to Battalion Chief Bryant Johnston, who took custody of it. But Johnston reported to Branch that he didn't know anything about the orange piece of webbing.
Branch interviewed about a dozen firefighters, but none of them knew what happened to the orange strap.
Branch knew Johnstone's son was correct about the orange tie-off because of a picture of the rappelling group taken by a hiker just before the accident.
Edgar Hernandez had been hiking with a friend when he snapped the shot of Johnstone and the teens getting ready to rappel, interested by what they were doing. The picture, submitted to Fox 10 News and then obtained as evidence, reportedly shows the orange webbing tied to the eyebolt and being used as a primary anchor point.
(Unfortunately, neither that picture nor the picture of the orange webbing in Johnstone's bag were among hundreds of photographs related to the incident released last week by Phoenix police. New Times has submitted an additional request for the shots.)
Before the accident, Johnstone had shown the teens how to make an anchor by tying off a piece of webbing to a palo verde tree. The evidence revealed, though, that Johnstone never used that or any other back-up anchor at the top of the Sugar Cube. Whatever happened to the primary anchor, this was a tragic failure in Johnstone's set-up. As the 1988 book, Rappelling, by Tom Martin states, "Where possible, use two or more anchors."
The Crouses could not be reached for comment.
The last entry in Branch's report, written on October 20, notes that the case will remain unresolved until more information comes in, or the orange strap is found.
"Evidence shows that a component of the failed anchor system was a piece of orange webbing strap," Branch wrote. "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..."
No other piece of equipment went missing, it seems. So it's rather odd, to say the least, that the one piece of gear that could have explained what happened can't be found.
"We will not theorize on what might have happened it it," Sergeant Trent Crump of the Phoenix police says.
Battalion Chief Shelly Jamison, spokeswoman for the Phoenix Fire Department, says this was an off-duty accident and the department has no comment about the missing orange webbing.
"The fire department has every interest in fully assisting in the investigation," she says. "Gary was a beloved member of our organization. We continue to mourn his loss, as well as that of Trevor Crouse."
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