Aaron Joseph Hedges, Disappeared September 7th, 2014, Body Found August 6th, 2015, Crazy Mountains, Northern Rocky Mountains, Montana.
Aaron Joseph Hedges, a 38-year-old hunter from Bozeman, went elk hunting in the Crazy Mountains in Montana in early September 2014 with his two friends Greg Leitner of Idaho and Joe Depew of Bozeman.
The hunters began their trip at the Cottonwood Lake Trailhead, around 20 miles north of the town of Billings in Montana. Hedges carried a bow and arrows, whereas his companions were armed with rifles. Aaron was last heard from on September 7th, 2014 and nine months later his body turned up, 15 miles from Sunlight Lake, his original destination, missing boots.
According to the most popular legend, the Crazy Mountains in Montana were named in memory of a woman whose family of homesteaders were massacred by some Native Americans whilst she was out walking. When the alleged perpetrators returned a week later, she burst from the cabin and attacked them using a tomahawk that had been used to slay the oldest of her three sons. The raiders retreated, watching in dismay as the “Crazy Woman” fled into the wilderness, never to be seen again.
Hedges became separated from the two friends who had accompanied him on the hunting trip into the Crazies. The group had walkie talkie radios and Hedges reportedly radioed his friends in the late afternoon to let them know he had missed a turnoff back to their camp.
Earlier that day the group got into an argument at their camp. Their mule had started bucking and several pieces of kit went missing including Aaron's sleeping bag.
His plan was to seek shelter near the Sunlight Lake area, where they had a hunting camp the previous year and where the group had placed a cache including a sleeping bag. Greg and Joe told Aaron he needed to come back into camp as the area is isolated and dangerous at night. He explained he was going to grab the supplies and return to his friends that evening. That was the last time they heard from him.
Whilst the hunters became separated on Sunday September 7th, Hedges wasn’t reported missing until his wife, Christine, notified the Sweet Grass County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday, September 10th 2014, after she was called by Greg and Joe. The time between Aaron's disappearance and the time when authorities were informed is somewhat puzzling. The two companions justified their decision by saying that they looked for Hedges on the Tuesday and he was armed and an experienced woodsman.
Corporal Gregg Todd, who headed up Park County’s Search and Rescue, was unable to draw any firm conclusions at the time. “I can’t,” he said. “It’s the million-dollar mystery we have right now. We just have so many unanswered questions that it really just doesn’t give us much of a direction. To me, that just seems too long to report somebody missing, I can understand if your buddy’s missing, you can go out and look for him for a day, but after that, (you) need more help. I might have waited a day - he might have killed something, and it might take some time to get back to camp, so I’ll go look for him the next day, see if he needs help getting stuff out. If I can’t find him by the end of the day, I’m getting the hell out of there and asking for help.”. “I can’t speculate or second guess,” Todd said. “I’ve been doing Search and Rescue for a while now, and people react differently. In the situation at hand, I can’t speculate on the thought process.” But the group could blame the remoteness of the area and the lack of cellular phone coverage.
By the time the official search had started, bad weather hit the Crazies with around two feet of snow and the temperature dropped to 35 degrees Fahrenheit (less than 2 degrees centigrade). The continuing storm made air searching almost impossible for the first couple of days and horse back riders were initially sent out before others joined in. Search and rescue teams focused their efforts on the area that stretches from the Cottonwood Lake Trail to Trespass Creek. 20 dog teams, seven horse teams, 59 ground searchers, and National Guard and private helicopters equipped with night-vision equipment and spotlights eventually joined the effort.
The only evidence found was a pair of boots, a Camelback bladder, a water filter, a fire starter and a wood pile near the Trespass Creek. The tube connected to the bladder had been removed causing searchers to believe that Aaron had tried to drink water. But it was very strange that he had removed his boots in this snow and cold weather. Even if hypothermia had set in causing him to remove clothing and his footwear he would have only got a short distance without his boots in two feet of snow. When people get cold, rather than wrapping up, in extreme temperatures they can paradoxically take off their clothes.
Despite finding this tantalising evidence, by September 22, officials decided to scale back the search until they received more information.
The following summer on August 6th, 2015, and around 9 months after the disappearance, Roger Beslanowitch, a butcher from Powell, Wyoming, came across Hedges' belongings while visiting relatives at the Rein Anchor Ranch in Sweet Grass County. Beslanowitch had to wait a while whilst a relative was done fixing a fence in the area, so with some time to kill he wanted to look at a beautiful view and decided go on top of a ridge above. After taking in the vista, Beslanowitch took a shortcut through a stand of timber and he saw an orange hunting vest, as well as a backpack and clothing. He said “My first thought when I saw clothes piled up against a tree, I just knew there was going to be a body there. There is a lot of bear activity, where they flip the rocks over to eat the bugs underneath. I just knew there was going to be a body there, but there wasn’t.” Beslanowitch’s inventory at the scene included a “bow, backpack, socks, shirts, sweatpants and a vest.” The backpack had holes in it, which he assumed were caused by small animals. Wrappers from granola bars, along with other debris, were scattered nearby.
“I thought some out-of-state hunter got cold and disoriented and wanted to go home but he couldn’t find his stuff,” Beslanowitch said. “So I gathered it all up to put it in the backpack to haul it back out. When I was just about done, I saw a piece of paper and it was part of his license and it had his name on it. It said Bozeman, Montana.” The gear was only a couple miles from the main ranch house and safety.
Law enforcement were shown the skeletal remains of a skull and then began a systematic search of the area where they uncovered less than 80 percent of Hedges’ skeleton, all within about 50 to 70 yards.The majority of the remains were concentrated in a 20-yard area. The spread of the remains was not atypical according to Undersheriff Alan Ronneberg, "You have to consider that he has possibly been there over a year. Within that year you have weather events, predation, scavenging, everything from ants to bears.”
“It’s still an ongoing investigation. Are we going to be able to tell what the man died from? Probably not,” Sweet Grass County Sheriff Dan Tronrud said. “There’s not bullet holes in the skull, there’s nothing else that we can see. The forensic pathologist will look to see if there’s knife wounds on the bones, or hatchet marks … but I’m guessing it’s going to go down as one of those mysteries.”
Investigators found a Samsung cellphone on Aaron's body and were initially hopeful to recover data from it to gather further insight into his death. But it was found to be corroded beyond repair by a Bozeman-based data retrieval service in late August 2016, having been exposed to the elements for nearly two years. It was given multiple chemical baths in an attempt to remove corrosion.
Landowner Rebecca Rein described the location where the items were found as full of pine trees, broken down branches and tall grasses. "It's pretty low where it was, actually," Rein said at the time. "It wasn't too far off (Rein Road) ... We just would have never guessed it was that close — he could see the house."
Could it be, that being hypothermic and disoriented, Hedges removed layers of clothing and boots and headed in the wrong direction? But if the hunting party began their trip from the Cottonwood Lake Trailhead on the west side of the mountains, and Hedges was bound for Sunlight Lake to the north, how did he end up on the east side of the range? The distance he would have had to walk would be around 15 miles, much of it off-trail and through tough terrain including rocks and heavy foliage. With a big storm battering the area, the decision to travel east along the Sweet Grass drainage would have presented a considerable challenge for even the most experienced outdoorsman.
The distance covered without boots in fairly deep snow in freezing temperatures seems impossible. Searchers were certainly very sceptical that Aaron could walk in bare feet from the creek to the area where he was found. As the crow flies it is around 13 miles from Sweet Grass Creek to the Rein Ranch and probably double that in reality because of the terrain.
Aaron was also within sight of buildings and close to a road given where his remains were found on the Anchor Rein Ranch. "He was very close, but just didn't quite get there," said Sweet Grass County Undersheriff Alan Ronnenberg. Police believe he may have passed up the opportunity for shelter out of fear of getting caught trespassing. All three hunters were known for trespassing and poaching. When Christine Hedges initially reported her husband missing, she told dispatch he had entered the area by trespassing on the Park County side.