Nita Mayo, 2005, Patricia Sue Tolhurst, 2014, Breck Phelps, 2016, Donnell Vista Point, Highway 108, Stanislaus National Forest, Tuolumne County, California.
Three people, Nita Mayo, Patricia Tolhurst and Breck Phelps have mysteriously disappeared in the area of California's beautiful Donnell Vista Point in the last 12 years. Though the area has dangerous terrain it seems possible that foul play was involved in one or more of the cases. To date, no sign of these missing visitors has ever been found despite huge searches in the area.
Summit District Ranger Molly Fuller said “It is dangerous, but there’s a lot of dangerous places in the forest. There’s really no explanation for why people have parked there and disappeared. I have no explanation.”. Strange cases indeed!
Donnell Vista is 15 miles east of Strawberry and 12 miles west of Kennedy Meadows Vista point in Tuolumne County, California. Between them is a backcountry with Highway 108, situated close to it.
The viewing vista is down a winding quarter mile trail from the parking lot and is a surrounded by meandering tracks of pines and cedars, granite rock formations. It is a picturesque location to catch amazing views of the Dardanelles, the Middle Fork Stanislaus River Canyon and the Donnell Reservoir. It is at the top of a steep, rocky slope with slippery rock. It’s a day-use area, not a campground, so you can’t stay there overnight.
The tract of land around Donnell Point id described as “large and vast” with “extreme changes in elevation, deep canyons with heavy foliage and cold, fast, running water that filled crevices and ledges."
Nita Mayo, 75, was last seen at the Strawberry Store near Pinecrest on Monday, August 8th, 2005, and her vehicle was found at Donnell Vista. She left her home for a day trip over Sonora Pass to do some shopping and sightseeing.
Nita Mayo was born and raised in England and married an American soldier in the Air Force. The couple moved to the states and settled in Oklahoma.
She would drive over to Yosemite or go over the pass to Tuolumne County, take a picnic basket, and she was writing her life story.
A Caltrans worker saw her car that Monday night and again the following morning. Because backpackers often park at Donnell Vista overnight, the worker didn’t think too much of it.
When Nita didn’t report for work Tuesday, August 9th, her co-workers at Mount Grant General Hospital called the Mineral County Sheriff’s Department in Hawthorne, as well as the Tuolumne and Mono County sheriff’s’ departments.
On Wednesday, a Tuolumne County sheriff’s sergeant spotted Nita Mayo’s 1997 Mercury Sable station wagon at Donnell Vista and began a search of the immediate area before nightfall.
By then, Mayo’s children, Cindy, Shelley, Tracy and Pete, had flown in from Oklahoma, Tennessee and North Dakota. When they heard she was missing, they figured she had run off the road somewhere, but then they got the call her car was found at Donnell Vista on Sonora Pass.
Nita had bought souvenirs from the Strawberry General Store on August 8th that were found in her locked car, along with her purse, wallet, glasses and the keys to the car. The car was locked via a keypad on the door. Missing from the car was her camera and prescription sunglasses.
When dogs searched the vista point area, they picked up no scent of her other than right at the car. Nita Mayo’s children searched for her for three or four months. Large, organised searches with volunteers were held every weekend, and Pete Mayo said he was out every day searching for his mom.
The family think she met with foul play, and have always suspected a man who had been a patient at Nita’s clinic in Hawthorne who showed up there claiming he’d heard Nita Mayo had disappeared but had been found. The man later failed a polygraph, but no arrest was ever made. Her daughter Tracy, said “They hadn’t even started the searches yet. He was really weird.”
Tracy drove 21 hours from her home in North Dakota to Midland, Texas, where the person of interest now lives. “I didn’t tell him I was coming,” she said. “I went alone, which probably wasn’t too smart. When I had some questions that needed answers.” She went to his place of work, sat there and waited for him. “When he saw me, I didn’t say a word,” she said. “He said, ‘Hello, Tracy. How are you?’ ” He was nervous as they talked, she said. But she extracted no new or potentially incriminating information from him.
Her family maintain that Nita was scared of heights and so wouldn't have likely ventured to a precarious point for photographs.
Search teams found no trace.
News reports about Nita Mayo’s disappearance appeared in California, Nevada, Oklahoma and on news wires. Nita's sister in Cornwall, England, was interviewed by British news agencies. The search was also broadcast on “America’s Most Wanted” television show.
Pete her son said “I know she’s not right around Donnell’s Vista. I crawled on my hands and knees around that place for weeks and found not one scrap of evidence,. I know that place better than most locals. I scoured it for months. It’s hard to live with the fact that you let her down.”
She was declared legally dead in 2013. A bench was installed at the Vista dedicated to Nita, located in the rock overlooking the vista point, which took over two years of work and organisation to have installed. There is, additionally, a dedication plaque for her outside the Strawberry Store, which she visited on the way to Donnell Vista.
Patricia Sue Tolhurst
Patricia "Patty" Sue Tolhurst, 48, the owner of Patty’s Shack, a restaurant in East Sonora, was last seen in Twain Harte on April 18, 2014. On April 20, she sent mailed letter to some friends saying she was going to go hiking in the area. Her abandoned white Toyota 4-Runner car with her keys and personal identification inside was found at Donnell Vista on April 22nd.
A friend told authorities Patty planned to visit Kennedy Meadows Resort, 8 miles further east. An over-weeklong search yielded no clues to her whereabouts.
Thomas F. Kelley, Patty’s father, said Pat had been raised in the Bay Area but always had a fascination with nature. “She loved that whole area up there ever since she was very young,” he said. “She liked everything that had to do with the outdoors.”
She has never been heard from again.
Breck Phelps, 68, disappeared from Donnell Vista while on a fishing trip in early October 2016. His Nissan Versa car was found a quarter-mile away near a trail leading down to the Stanislaus River. On October 5, the search was officially “scaled back” after a four-day search.
His cellphone had been powered down so he was unable to be tracked by searchers. Tuolumne County Search and Rescue was assisted by the National Guard out of Sacramento, a Black Hawk helicopter, an unmanned Stanislaus County aerial vehicle, heat-sensing equipment, boats, and California Highway Patrol helicopters and six dog teams, over the course of the search. Boats were used to search the Donnell Reservoir.
Search and Rescue Sgt. Jeff Hunt said his crew approaches each search by the same procedure, but the terrain at Donnell Vista does “make it difficult to search. That area has extreme elevation changes within short distances which can limit areas people can travel in, due to cliff faces, and trying to access areas over the top of large sections of granite to search. So access does pose a challenge."
No sign of Breck was found.