Jeannie Hesselschwerdt - Strange disappearances from US national parks

Jeanne Hesselschwerdt, Disappeared July 9, 1995, Summit Meadow, Glacier Point, Yosemite National Park, California

Summit meadow, Yosemite national park

On the afternoon of July 9, 1995, a 37-year-old Massachusetts businesswoman named Jeanne (Jeannie) Hesselschwerdt was driving from Fresno to Yosemite National Park with her boyfriend, Mike Monahan. They had lived together in Arlington, Massachusetts for over ten years. The couple took highway 41 and arrived in Yosemite at just after 10am. They travelled on Glacier Point Road, a highway which is quite desolate, with few cars,  and only open during the summer. 

On the road to Glacier Point, the couple pulled over at a turnout near Summit Meadow and strangely decided to take separate, short walks and they agreed to meet back at the car. The couple set off in different directions, Mike had binoculars and went ahead to an overlook where he thought he would do some bird watching.

Fifteen minutes later Mike returned to the car but Jeanne was nowhere to be seen. He asked other tourists and a park employee emptying bins if they had seen her, but no one recalled seeing a woman who matched her description. He waited and continued searching the area around the car to no avail. Jeannie was wearing leather hiking boots, a T-shirt and walking shorts. She was not carrying a backpack or any supplies.

At 12.30 pm Mike drove to get the park rangers, who were based a short drive down the road and they started searching for her within forty-five minutes. Within two hours, a helicopter was also in the air and the following day eight teams of sniffer dogs were deployed. The dogs immediately circled back to the road and the handlers insisted that Jeannie was not lost but must have been the victim of foul play. Some of the dog handlers believed that the boyfriend was the culprit and must be hiding something.

A huge search and rescue grid search operation continued,  the largest in Yosemite's history, involving many hundreds of people over forty square miles including fire fighters, search and rescue teams from all over the Central Valley. The FBI was unusually called in due to the suspicion of foul play and polygraphed Mike. The test was negative and he was dismissed as a potential suspect.

When the search was eventually called off two weeks later there was still no trace of Jeanne or her clothing.  However, two clear footprints that matched Jeanne's boots had been found, one near where she was last seen near the car, and another near one of the most popular hiker trails in Yosemite, the Bridalveil-to-Yosemite Valley trail. To the searchers this made no sense, as someone like Jeannie would have walked down this main trail until she found help, so the boot print evidence was dismissed.

GLACIER POINT, YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK

Two thirds of the search had focused on the area to the left of the woman's presumed direction of travel as a person usually walks in a circle of about one square mile, always turning toward the dominant side. 

One month later, Maureen McConnell, the friend of Jeanne's roommate, Vickie Fortino, called a prominent tracker school run by a renowned tracker Tom Brown Jr., asking if they would help given the lack of success from the formal investigation.

The family and friends held little hope that Jeannie was alive, but did want to learn what had become of her. The tracker school case was referred to a tracker student in California. The student called Vickie (the room mate) and interviewed her for several hours, asking about Jeanne's outdoors experience, habits, personality etc.  He also spoke with several other people associated with the case such as the ranger in charge, the federal agent and park investigators, and the person responsible for co-ordinating the search and rescue. From all of these sources he began to form a profile of the missing person.

The profile was of a self-assured businesswoman who was headstrong and confident, if not stubborn, but who knew little about the woods. Yet it was more than just a profile. It was an attempt to get inside the head of the lost person, to become her.

The student called a fellow tracker student who lived nearer to Yosemite, and asked him to help out with the case. This student checked out the place where the woman had disappeared. He found no sign of Jeannie (just signs of lots of searchers), but did notice that the area consisted of stands of aspen trees. It occurred to him that when the wind blew through the leaves, the resulting noise closely resembled that of a car driving by on a paved road. Unfortunately, if one were to search for a road by walking toward the noise, one would be walking away from the true road. This was the key to the two students' piecing together what had happened. They believed that Jeannie had got turned around and simply kept walking towards the sounds she thought were the sounds of cars on the road ahead of her.

The first tracker student obtained the reams of search report data, sat down at his desk, and plotted everything on a topographical map: ground search grids, dog searches, air searches, the two clear foot prints, and an aspen forest.

Starting at the point last seen, he drew a one-mile-radius arc on the topo map in the direction of Jeannie's dominance. How did he know her dominance? From the interviews, he was fairly sure she would be right dominant. Also, the areas to the left were so thoroughly searched as to be virtually ruled out. The arc crossed the Bridalveil trail in the vicinity of the footprint. Why didn't she use the trail? At this point, she would have been in such profound shock as to not even realise she had crossed the trail. A lost person typically goes into shock as they become aware of their situation. It causes them to do irrational things, such as drop canteens of water, or remove coats in cold weather. 

The tracker student surmised that once Jeannie was across the trail into the Bridaveil watershed, dusk would have been falling and Jeannie would begin to catch glimpses of the lights on the floor of Yosemite Valley. She would become resolved to get herself out of this mess by making a beeline for those lights. No more right-dominant arc. To get to those lights, Jeannie would begin to descend some very rough terrain. She would soon come to Bridalveil Creek, swollen dangerously with snow-melt runoff. Because she was not backwoods savvy, she would not know that to attempt a crossing would be suicidal. No matter where she would choose to cross, she would undoubtedly slip on the wet, polished granite, probably to hit her head on the rocks and drown unconscious in the cold water. She might have sensed the danger, but the combination of shock and fear coupled with stubbornness would have pushed her onward toward the lights.

The tracker student followed the course of the creek as shown on the topo map and chose a likely spot for her to have attempted the crossing. He called the authorities and gave them co-ordinates (elevation at the stream) where they would likely find the woman's body. This was pure landscape tracking done while seated at a desk, and the student's suggestion was met with great scepticism. The investigator believed there was no way Jeannie would have attempted to enter that area, as the terrain was so rugged. He assumed that the tracker student had simply chosen the one area in the entire region not yet grid searched and said, "Check here." But the student assured the authorities that he and his tracker friend would personally find the body the following weekend.

On September 3, 1995, two fishermen, Mike Ulawski and his friend,  finally found Jeanne's body in a small pool in the river within a quarter mile of the student's estimation, at the correct elevation. They were fishing three-quarters of a mile above Bridal Veil Falls, around 3 miles from where Jeanne disappeared. The national park service was called and a helicopter picked up the body the next day and it was in a bad shape as it had clearly been in the water for several weeks and identification was only possible through dental records. Mike said that "the area is really inaccessible to anyone other than rock and mountain climbers, it's really rugged."

Park spokesman Bob Clopine said, "The woman apparently was walking in a rugged area of the park where there are no trails and the creekside rocks are especially slippery, The creek was rushing faster than in other years because of the huge snowpack melt". 

A newspaper article gives voice to scepticism from park officials. Yosemite park spokeswoman Nikyra Calcagno said, "Investigators do not believe the body could have been carried to that spot by rushing waters because 'the creek is fairly choked with debris". The authorities did not have a theory, however, as to how the body got to where it was. The two students from the Tracker School never received anything but a thank you from the roommate and the lead investigator believed it was just luck.

Many questions remain about Jeannie's disappearance and death. Was Mike, the boyfriend, involved? How did she end up in such a rugged, inaccessible area of Yosemite? Why didn't dogs pick up her scent - was she abducted from the parking area and later dumped?