Mike Herdman - Strange deaths in U.S. forests

Mike Herdman, Disappeared June 13, 2014. Body found June 27th 2014. Sespe Wilderness, Los Padres National Forest, California.

mike herdman, los padres national forest

Mike Herdman, 36, was a firefighter in Arcadia, California. On Friday, June 13th, 2014 he went on a  four day backpacking and camping trip in the Los Padres National Forest near Fillmore with his friend and work colleague, Tyler Byars. At some point during the evening of the second day of the trip in the area around the Sespe Wilderness, Mike's dog ran off downhill and he was last seen chasing after the dog called Duke, without any footwear and with only t-shirt and shorts.

Los Padres national forest sign

Byars tried to find Herdman through the night and the next day. He then tried to find his own way out of the forest and got lost. Some fishermen came across Byars "dehydrated, dishevelled and disoriented" and guided him back to the beginning of the trail at Tar Creek, where Byars and Herdman's trip began. At this point Mike was reported missing by Byars. 

Nearly 90 searchers took part in a search over a 50-square mile are, assisted by flight crews and two drones. Several were treated for heat exhaustion and injuries from rock slides. One was bitten by a rattlesnake and needed 52 vials of antivenom to survive.

The dog was found June 23rd in a parking lot where Mike had previously parked his vehicle at the start of the camping trip after being spotted several times by searchers but he was unable to be caught. The German shorthair mix was dehydrated and exhausted.

los padres national forest

His body was found Friday, June 27th less than a mile from where he was last seen after being spotted by a helicopter search crew who noticed "something that didn't belong" in the very rugged terrain near Sespe Creek, according to Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean. The pilot said "It was something that was not meant to be there. It was a change in color." At first, he thought the object was a black sleeping bag. As he got closer, he realised it was a body. It was airlifted to a medical examiner's office, where the identity was confirmed using dental records as the body was well decomposed.

Sespe Wilderness of the Los Padres National Forest.

The death was ruled accidental and caused by "blunt force" injuries, according to the Ventura County medical examiner. Investigators said there were no signs of foul play and Mike appeared to be dead for several days. They theorised that he might have fallen off a cliff, after he tried to climb up in the dark. The area had not been closely examined in the two-week search effort because authorities thought it was unlikely that Herdman would have climbed up there.

The autopsy also found that Mike had ecstasy and alcohol in his system when he died, according to a toxicology report. The coroner’s report shows that at the time he was found he had amphetamine and MDMA,  two primary compounds in ecstasy, in his liver and muscle tissue, but were in low amounts. Chief Deputy Administrator Armando Chavez, of the medical examiner’s office, said“In Mr. Herdman’s case, just because he has that drug or something in his system, that doesn’t mean it is considered as his immediate cause of death. From our office’s standpoint, we’re only required to release the immediate cause of death.”

The science of postmortem toxicology is complex and firm conclusions can be difficult or impossible to draw when examining a body already well into the stages of decomposition.The Ventura County autopsy report noted Herdman’s body was recovered in a state of “moderate postmortem decomposition and mummification,” also noting that animals had depredated the remains.

Chemicals within a human body tend to redistribute following death, making it increasingly difficult as time passes to determine the amounts and significance of drugs in a person’s body at the time of death. As a result, when a drug such as ecstacy is discovered within the system of a decomposing body, it’s difficult to know how much the person had in their system when they died, or whether a person was intoxicated. The amount of Adderall reported in Herdman’s body also did not necessarily point directly to abuse, as such an amount could all within the threshold of a “therapeutic level,” Adderall is a stimulant often used to treat conditions such as narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Alcohol poses it’s own set of challenges in the scope of a postmortem medical examination as the body naturally releases ethanol as part of the decomposition process. Ventura County medical examiners noted a blood-alcohol level of .056 percent. While such an amount does not rule out the consumption of alcohol prior to death, it could also be accounted for by the decomposition process.

Mike's demise has been misreported in some articles as they state he boots were strangely not on him. But his fellow camper, Tyler Byars, stated that Mike ran off after his dog without his shoes. The question is why he decided to bolt off into the forest after his dog with no thoughts of his safety and to climb up a cliff in the dark, perhaps his judgement was impaired by alcohol or drugs as the toxicology report indicated Adderall and Ecstacy were in his system.