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HomeSearch and Rescue

The Hesselschwerdt Case

by Timmy Trumpet

Webmaster's note: Please also see the Addendum to this story, posted Jan/04, at the bottom of this page
Webmaster's 2nd note (July 2014): I was contacted in July 2014 by the boyfriend mentioned in this story. From his email I could feel the pain of his loss even now, almost 20 years later. He feels that the story implicates him in her death and he naturally found this quite offensive and hurtful. He also mentioned there were several inaccuracies in the story. When I offered to have him correct these, he instead requested the removal of the entire story.
Upon careful re-reading of it I feel that the story should remain on the website for the valuable lessons it contains about tracking skills and about not getting lost, and edit out references to these implications. I hope that this compromise will satisfy those who are involved. My sincere sympathy goes out to the boyfriend.

I'll share a story I heard this month at the Back-to-Back class in the Pine Barrens. I love the way this account illustrates the importance of conducting an interview before beginning a lost-person search. It also illustrates how the landscape plays the animal (or person).  (Please be sure to also read the Addendum farther down this page.)

"To track is to become the animal we are tracking." (Grandfather, 1958)

On the afternoon of July 9, 1995, a 37-year-old Massachusetts businesswoman named Jeannie Hesselschwerdt was driving from Fresno to Yosemite National Park with her boyfriend. On the road to Glacier Point, the couple pulled over at a turnout and took separate, short walks. When the boyfriend couldn't find Jeannie fifteen minutes later, he returned to the parking area and asked other tourists if she had been seen. No one recalled seeing a woman who matched her description. He searched for another fifteen minutes with no results.

The man drove immediately to get the park rangers stationed a short drive down the road, who were searching for her within forty-five minutes. Within two hours, a chopper was in the air. The next day dogs were called in. Bloodhound owners don't like to be told their dogs can't follow a trail, so when the dogs turned right and circled back to the road, the dog handlers insisted that Jeannie was not lost but rather the victim of foul play. The FBI was notified.

A massive ground and air search ensued, the largest in National Park history, involving many hundreds of personnel. They conducted grid searches on foot, scrutinising forty square miles, step by step. They brought in smoke jumpers (paratrooper fire fighters). Search and rescue groups from all over the Central Valley came up. When the search was called off, two clear footprints that matched Jeannie's boots had been found: one near where she was last seen, and another CROSSING one of the most heavily travelled hiker trails in Yosemite, the Bridalveil-to-Yosemite Valley trail. It made no sense to the searchers that a smart businesswoman like Jeannie would ignore such a heavily used footpath, so the print was dismissed as an anomaly.

Two thirds of the search had focused on the area to the left of the woman's presumed direction of travel. In the Standard Classes, Tom teaches that a lost person usually walks in a circle of about one square mile, always turning toward the dominant side. In retrospect, it seems that the only trackers used in the case were dogs. A good tracker would have been frustrated because she knows that if you find one track, you have a trail, a string of tracks leading to the individual. However, not knowing the skills of a good tracker, the searchers simply moved their grid searching and extended it through the direction beyond the clear print, thus trampling the area and destroying any chances of finding and following the trail.

One month later, the woman's roommate called the Tracker School, asking if they would help. The family and friends held little hope that Jeannie was alive, but did want to learn what had become of her. Tom referred the case to a tracker student in California. The student had been taking Tracker classes for several years, and remembered that Tom had said that an interview was MOST important for getting into the mind of a lost person. So the student called the roommate and talked for several hours, asking about Jeannie's habits, preferences, backwoods experience, work demeanour, moods, recent history, you-name-it. He also spoke with several others associated with the case: the ranger in charge of the case, the federal agent and park investigators, and the person in charge of the search and rescue. From all of these sources he began to form a profile of Jeannie.

The profile was of a self-assured businesswoman who was headstrong and confident, if not stubborn, but who knew little about the woods. Yet it was more than just a profile. It was an attempt to get inside the head of the lost person, to become that entity.

The student called a fellow tracker student who lived nearer to Yosemite, and asked him to help out with the case. This student checked out the place where the woman had disappeared. He found no sign of Jeannie (just sign of lots of searchers), but did notice that the area consisted of stands of aspen trees. It occurred to him that when the wind blew through the leaves, the resulting noise closely resembled that of a car driving by on a paved road. Unfortunately, if one were to search for a road by walking toward the noise, one would be walking away from the true road. This was the key to the two students' piecing together what had happened. Jeannie had got turned around and simply kept walking towards the sounds she thought were the sounds of cars on the road ahead of her.

The first tracker student obtained the reams of search report data, sat down at his desk, and plotted everything on a topo map: ground search grids, dog searches, air searches, two clear prints, and an aspen forest.

Starting at the point last seen, he drew a one-mile-radius arc on the topo map in the direction of Jeannie's dominance. How did he know her dominance? From the interviews, he was fairly sure she would be right dominant. Also, the areas to the left were so thoroughly searched as to be virtually ruled out. The arc crossed the Bridalveil trail in the vicinity of the footprint. Why didn't she use the trail? At this point, she would have been in such profound shock as to not even realise she had crossed the trail. A lost person typically goes into shock as they become aware of their situation. It causes them to do irrational things, such as drop canteens of water, or remove coats in cold weather. Tom tells of a hunter he had tracked that in his panic had crossed the Garden State Parkway, then only a two lane road, and not even known it.

The tracker student surmised that once Jeannie was across the trail into the Bridaveil watershed, dusk would have been falling and Jeannie would begin to catch glimpses of the lights on the floor of Yosemite Valley. She would become resolved to get herself out of this mess by making a beeline for those lights. No more right-dominant arc. To get to those lights, Jeannie would begin to descend some very rough terrain. She would soon come to Bridalveil Creek, swollen dangerously with snow-melt runoff. Lacking backwoods savvy, she would not know that to attempt a crossing would be suicidal. No matter where she would choose to cross, she would undoubtedly slip on the wet, polished granite, probably to hit her head on the rocks and drown unconscious in the cold water. She might have sensed the danger, but the combination of shock and fear coupled with stubbornness would have pushed her onward toward the lights.

The tracker student followed the course of the creek as shown on the topo map and chose a likely spot for her to have attempted the crossing. He called the authorities and gave them co-ordinates (elevation at the stream) where they would likely find the woman's body. This was pure landscape tracking done while seated at a desk, and the student's suggestion was met with great scepticism. The investigator believed there was no way Jeannie would have attempted to enter that area, as the terrain was so rugged. He assumed that the tracker student had simply chosen the one area in the entire region not yet grid searched and said, "Check here."

But the student assured the authorities that he and his tracker friend would personally find the body the following weekend. Two fishermen found the body the next day, Sunday, September 3, 1995, within one-quarter mile of the student's estimation, at the correct elevation. If you've been to Tracker School, you've heard Tom say, "Don't take my word for it--prove me right or prove me wrong."

A newspaper article gives voice to skepticism from park officials: "Investigators do not believe the body could have been carried to that spot by rushing waters because 'the creek is fairly choked with debris", park spokeswoman Nikyra Calcagno said. The authorities do not have a theory, however, as to how the body got to where it was. The only explanation that makes any sense is the Tracker students'. However, since it was after the fact, and since it was not "field work", the two students never received anything but a thank you from the roommate. The investigator believed it a fluke. The Tracker students called it right, but who are they anyway? Just a couple of Johnny-come-latelys trying to take credit. Neither of the two care much. They know the truth about what really happened to Jeannie Hesselschwerdt.

"First we role-play the animal, dancing the music of the pressure releases. We then surrender to the track and the animal moves within us--forever connected, by becoming we master, we are the tracks, the animal, the land, and the very earth."
-- Coyote Thunder

Copyright Timmy Trumpet


ADDENDUM to this story:

By Maureen McConnell

I am actually the person who called in the Hesselschwerdt case to the Tracker school. I was asked to by her college roommate and friend Vickie Fortino. It was a very frustrating experience for me because I had talked to Vickie while the search was still active and begged her to get the Tracker School involved right away. She talked to the family and they decided not to because they didn't want the Park Service searchers to take offence or feel that they weren't trusted. Weeks later Vickie called me back and asked me to contact the school. She knew the trackers would be looking for a body at that point, but the family needed to know what happened, so they could get some closure and end their fears that Jeannie might have been abducted.

After the body was found and identified through dental records, I went to the funeral here in Boston. It was a real heartbreaker. Jeannie's boyfriend told the story. They were hiking together. He had binoculars and went ahead to an overlook where he thought he would do some birding. He waited for her to catch up, and when she didn't join him he walked back to the car, thinking she had tired and returned. When she wasn't there he talked to a Park Service employee who was emptying the trash at the trailhead, and the authorities were called in immediately. The story on this page picks up the tale from there.

It was Nancy Klein who answered my phone calls to the Tracker School and who interfaced with Tom Brown Jr. He was already familiar with the case. The response was swift. When Nancy called back I just gave her Vickie Fortino's contact information and backed out of the way. There was no reason for me to be involved after that.

At the funeral, which was heart-wrenching, a couple of her friends asked me to teach them some wilderness skills, which I did at my cabin in Vermont. It was here that I resolved that I would try to reach out to the public and tell the story and encourage people to learn basic awareness skills. I gave talks in the area, but people always questioned her wisdom and almost never felt that anything like that could ever happen to them. Of the things we tried, it was the blind drum stalk that most made an impression. Maybe if I included the blind drum stalk as an exercise when I gave talks, I would have been able to break through the armor of people who think it could never happen to them.

In any talks I've given, and now I'm including talks I gave after my kayak accident in Maine, it's the men who ask sharp questions like "Why didn't you do this?" or "If I were there I would have done that." The women are more likely to talk about relatives that do outdoor activities and their desire to protect them. "Oh, I wish my niece was here, she hikes. I'll have to tell her what you said." When I point out that a car stranded in a snowstorm would put them in the same situation, I get blank looks from both men and women. I suppose it's denial. And when denial finally breaks, I suppose it turns into the blind panic that Tom so often talks about.

Since that time I've worked with Tom Brown Jr. and Jon Young creating exhibits on tracking and bird language at the Museum of Science where I work as an exhibit planner.

I am still haunted by that case and by my inability to convince others both during and after the search of the value of what Tom calls "the tracker point of view".

Maureen McConnell
Exhibit Planner
Boston Museum of Science