Randy Morgenson, disappeared July 21, 1996, body found July 2001, Window Peak drainage, Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, California.
Randy Morgenson, 64, was midway through his 28th season as a backcountry ranger at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks and was the most senior ranger in the High Sierra with unparalleled experience of the wilderness. On July 21, 1996, he left a note on his tent (the date he'd written was June 21st even though it was July) to say he would be away for two or three days and then he left his station near Bench Lake leaving his Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum behind. Randy was never seen alive again.
This is a fascinating case of adultery and death in the High Sierra wilderness involving one of the most experienced park rangers. Randy was sick and tired of what he called "Swinus Americanus," the species of backpacking tourist whose litter he had to pick up and whose foul temper could be the bane of his existence.
Kings Canyon National Park is a national park in the southern Sierra Nevada in California and includes Kings Canyon, a glacier-carved valley more than a mile (1,600 m) deep, several 14,000-foot (4,300 m) peaks, high mountain meadows, fast flowing rivers, and some of the world's largest stands of giant sequoia trees. Kings Canyon is north of and adjacent to Sequoia National Park, and the two are jointly administered by the National Park Service as the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Sequoia National Park is in the southern Sierra Nevada east of Visalia, California and has 404,064 acres, with Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet (4,421 m) above sea level within its boundary.
The park is famous for its giant sequoia trees, including the General Sherman tree, the largest tree on Earth. The General Sherman tree grows in the Giant Forest, which contains five out of the ten largest trees in the world.
The combined Pacific Crest Trail/John Muir Trail, a popular backpacking route, traverses the entire length of the park from north to south. It is estimated that 99 percent of the parks' backcountry visitors stay on designated trails, which means that most of the park's landscape is left to backcountry rangers.
Randy was a seasonal ranger for the National Park service which meant he had to reapply for his job every season with no medical benefits or retirement plan. Out of fourteen backcountry rangers, more than half of them who reported for duty in 1996 had been coming back every summer for more than a decade, many for two decades. They certainly weren't in it for the money, it is often said that Rangers like Randy are paid in sunsets. In the event of death, their families were eligible for a one time $100,000 payment but no pension.
Before the start of the 1996 season, Randy has seemed depressed to colleagues saying "You know, after all these years of being a ranger, I wonder if it's been worth it." It was not surprising since Randy had recently received divorce papers from his wife Judi. For many years she had accompanied him in the backcountry but in recent years had decided to pass. Randy had recently had an affair with a fellow ranger, Lo Lyness, and this was the consequence. He had told a close friend and fellow ranger that at times he felt suicidal. On July 20th, 1996 he had radioed the same colleague and his wife to ask some mundane questions that they interpreted as "Randy just wanting somebody to talk to." The short conversation had ended when Randy said abruptly, "I won't be bothering you two anymore."
Four days later, Randy was reported missing. Randy was always known to have a low impact on the environment but the rain that day meant that his exact direction and destination were unknown.
Randy Coffman, the incident commander, had instructed the Rangers searching for Randy to read Morgenson's logbook to gather any hints where he had gone. He also conducted a secret ballot amongst them to assign each segment of the search area a POA (Probability of Area) and then a ROW (Rest of World) probability if Randy was somewhere outside the designated search area. The percentage points assigned by each ranger for 16 segments plus the ROW segment had to add up to 100 points. Nobody could assign a zero for any area.
The Bench Lake Basin area was the highest-percentage POA at 26.2 percent, while Marion Lake and its surrounding cirque was the second highest at 19.2 percent. The ROW option was voted as the lowest POA by everybody except Ranger George Durkee, a close friend, who assigned that choice a high percentage knowing his depressive tendency at the time. Each segment was between 500 and a gigantic 7000 acres, making the operation difficult and hazardous to the rescuers. What if Randy didn't want to be found?
Nearly 100 rescue personnel searched in 80 square miles of wilderness. They hoped his radio was not working because it was in a dead zone on the mountain or had broken. A short time before his disappearance, Randy's radio had stopped working and he was forced to hike to another station to pick up a replacement.
A Special Investor employed by the park service found out that Randy had been threatened with violence on two separate recent occasions, but both of these individuals had alibis. Some speculated he had just left the park to start a new life, but Randy's car was found where he'd parked it. Bank records showed no withdrawals and credit cards were unused.
The computer program, CASIE (Computer-Aided Search Information Exchange), was used and designed to simplify most of the calculations involved in managing a search emergency. A computer printout provides basic information about how each segment has been searched (air, foot, dog, horse) and how effective the searchers believe they were in clearing that area. Using this method, the leader of the search, can cross off search segments once they were clear. However, the system presumes the missing person is not on the move and has not re-entered an area already cleared. In addition, segments searches are generally limited to surface areas–meaning they don't factor in locations underwater, underground, or under a rockslide.
Over the following days, there was plenty of frustration as dogs followed scents that seemed to abruptly stop and random pieces of gear were found in several different locations, but none could be positively linked to Randy. A FLIR helicopter equipped with an infrared camera picked up a campfire burning on a hillside but with no one in sight tending it. Eventually the search was called off with no sign of Randy or a body.
Then a letter arrived at Randy and Judi's Morgenson's home in Sedona, Arizona, from Randy. Judy opened the letter and noted it had been postmarked 2 days after his supposed disappearance. Since there is no postal service in the national park, she couldn't understand how Randy could have mailed this letter. That added to the suspicions that had left the area.
Finally, in July 2001, five years after the search was called off, a trail worker found some new evidence near a creek in a gorge in the Window Peak drainage, very near the outermost borders of the search area, below the pools of a waterfall. Rangers soon discovered a tattered shirt with Morgenson's badge. Then a backpack with the buckle fastened and a boot. On close examination of the boot which was half submerged in water, it had something white protruding from it - a leg bone. The boot and pack seemed to match the description of gear that Randy reportedly had been using.
Investigation and recovery teams were flown in. Shortly after, a functioning, park-issue radio was discovered resting on top of the falls, not at the bottom like the other evidence. It was turned to the on position. This discovery confused matters even more. Although these remains seemed to confirm Randy had been in the mountains the whole time, investigators weren't certain whether this is where Randy had died. Rangers had remembered searching this gorge, and crossing at the exact spot where the radio was found.
Retired Sierra subdistrict ranger Alden Nash, believes Morgenson had fallen through a snow bridge and broken his leg, and his body had simply been hidden beneath ice throughout the search. (During the rescue attempt, Judi had dreamed of a dead man floating in a lake.)
"I don't think it was an accident," says Eric Blehm author of The Last Season, a book about the disappearance of Randy Morgenson (well worth a read). Blehm says Randy may have wanted to appear to have died on the job to make sure Judi, his wife at the time, got her $100,000 benefit from the government, a policy not honoured in the case of suicide. "If he wanted to throw off the dogs or sucker people into believing something happened, he did a great job," Blehm says. "After so many years, with the bones gnawed, there's no way to say exactly what happened."
Eric Blehm "The Last Season" book
Disappeared episode "Radio Silence" (Season 5, Episode 8)