Stephen Michael Morris, Disappeared August 2, 2014, Body found March 2015, Billy’s Peak - Stoddard Lake area, Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
Steve Morris, aged 59, and his wife, Carrie, ran a family therapy practice in Santa Rosa, trained and licensed as professional marriage and family therapists.
Steve went camping with a group of friends from the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Rosa around Stoddard Lake in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest on August 2nd, 2014. Stoddard Lake in the Trinity Alps, covers more than 2 million acres and includes Mount Shasta. Morris was an experienced hiker and they went for a hike to Billy’s Peak and back to camp. But, Morris was hiking ahead of the others and for reasons unexplained never returned to camp with his fellow hiker. Only when Steve didn't appear at camp, did they have concerns for his safety. He had some water and energy bars with him.
The group retraced the trail in search of Morris but couldn’t find him. Two campers hiked to where they could get cellphone reception and were able to call for help at about 10:14 p.m.
The area where the group was camping has an elevation of about 6,000 feet and at night temperatures dropped to around 20 degrees.
Trinity County as well as Marin and Contra Costa Counties Search and Rescue began searching for Morris on the morning of Sunday, August 3rd but were unable to locate any signs of him. Efforts were hampered by the difficult steep terrain, decomposed slippery granite and also a nearby wildfire. The next several days included ground and air searches by CHP helicopters, Marin’s elite Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit, Human Remains Detection Dog teams, Black Hawk helicopters ferrying searchers up to the high peak, and over 100 Certified Search and Rescue volunteers. After four and a half days the Trinity Sheriff’s Department suspended search operations.
But a huge number of volunteers and family members continued the search for Morris and eventually found the trail and some of his remains.
On August 10, 2014 Jim Higgins, a private citizen and helicopter pilot from Chico, California contacted the Morris family to offer help. When asked what he would charge he said, “I don’t want any money. Just pay it forward someday.” That was the beginning of an extended private search endeavor involving: Ground searching and search support by over 60 family and community volunteers (most from First Presbyterian Church of Santa Rosa), Analysis of over 5,000 photos of the search zone by 135 volunteers with ASIST (Aerial and Satellite Image Search Team), Three Certified Trackers through Joel Hardin Professional Tracking Services, Seven Certified Human Remains Detection Dog Teams, Over $42,000 raised by 341 supporters to fund the search via GoFundMe.
By low-flying helicopter, Mr. Higgins was able to locate a slide area descending from the 7,500 foot peak where Steve was last seen. Footprints were present at the base of the slide. From that point, the team conducted 21 expeditions over 10 months. They painstakingly tracked Steve’s route more than two miles down the mountainside. The team eventually found evidence which ultimately tested positive by cadaver dog “Buster” Dostie, microscopic analysis by Bode Technologies and state of the art forensic analysis by Dr. Arpad Vass (formerly of University of Tennessee). The Sonoma County Superior Court has examined the evidence and issued a death certificate.
What happened to Steve that day when he became separated from his hiking partner and why did they split up? Was he caught in an unexpected slide as suggested by the location where his remains were found? A strange death and disappearance indeed for an experienced hiker and perhaps in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bravo to the searchers for locating his remains.