A blog about deductive reasoning, sifting facts, U-Hauls, and new developments in the Bill Ewasko mystery.
I’ve been meaning to do a blog to follow up on my Bill Ewasko blog, and also talk a little philosophy about sifting facts. We’ll be enlisting the help of a famous fictional detective to do so.
The blog inspired some good conversation, some (well-meant and valid) criticism and some new theories and searches. Some of the response has helped evolve my thinking and made me reconsider a few of my ideas, which is great. If you’re looking at a mystery, the point shouldn’t be to be right, or to look smart. The point should be to find the truth.
So before we get into the new stuff, I want to talk a little bit about what I think are the ground rules of sifting information. It plays into why I have gone to bat for a few theories that people have criticized – understandably – as being pretty out there. Which is fine. My goal is to follow the facts and go where they take me.
So let’s get into it:
Sorting information is a big problem in our society. Every day, people are overloaded with input from various sources and aren’t equipped with the tools to figure out what’s b.s. and what isn’t, so they tend to stick to believing information from within their own tribe, or that flatters their own worldview, and disbelieving what falls without.
This isn’t just an issue in politics. It can color peoples’ entire perception of reality – to the point where people can’t discern opinion from fact, or make a relative judgment between how likely this or that bit of information is to be true, independent of bias.
We’ve all heard that word “bias” before. The problem, however, is that when people talk about “bias” there’s usually a crucial omission; their own. That’s why this kind of my-tribe-first method of sifting information will rarely lead us to objective truth – to the extent any of us can assess that. If you never question yourself, you’ll never learn anything, and reality never exists independently of your ego (this is why I hate well-intentioned phrases like “your truth” rather than “your perspective”). This can be flat-out dangerous if you are in a position of power (say, as a politician or member of law enforcement) over others.
While it’s not perfect (no human system is), the scientific method of reasoning offers a way to subject our own ideas to the same scrutiny we do others’…so that we critically think ourselves for the weaknesses in our argument before we advance it.
Crucially, this kind of apples-to-apples comparison also tell us that it isn’t enough to just poke holes in someone else’s theory; one has to assert an alternative theory that fits the facts better, using the same criteria, to supplant it. This is a step that’s usually missed, and it means conversations and ideas never tend to advance – because if we don’t subject our own ideas to challenge, and we keep them within a zone of approval, we never find the weaknesses and correct them. Likewise, if we just confine ourselves to scrutinizing the flaws in others’ thinking without coming up with another theory that is less of a stretch, then we’re not really getting anywhere that way either.
This idea of critically thinking ourselves, and comparing apples to apples, is something of a lost art outside of the scientific realm. It’s more common these days to advance narratives, assemble facts to fit story lines, look for confirmation of what we already believe. There’s a place for that. But to get to the truth, you have to subject your own ideas to scrutiny.
The Skeptic’s Bias
Now, a lot of people are already on board with this idea. But there’s yet another dimension. Skepticism itself is its own bias, because it tends to pre-emptively discard ideas that seem out there in favor of more mundane ones. Generally, as a shortcut, this is a decent default way to sort reality, but sometimes weird, unbelievable stuff really happens. Look no further than our current headlines.
To get to the truth, you have to go where the evidence takes you, even if it takes you away from the mundane into what seems fanciful. Occam’s Razor doesn’t mean the simplest answer is almost always right – it just states the simplest hypothesis with the fewest assumptions (very key difference there) should be tested first. If the simple answer doesn’t fit, we shouldn’t sit there clinging to it trying to force it to work because we think the answer should be simple. That’s adding a lot of assumptions to the mix and it no longer fits Occam’s Razor. We should chuck it and try something else.
This is why I’ve advanced a few theories that sound pretty far-fetched. Scratch that. They are far-fetched. But – they fit the facts as I knew them and, to me, they weren’t any further fetched than the alternate fact patterns if you weighed them equally, because the alternate fact patterns started to require too many assumptions that, taken together, raised a lot of questions.
It’s not about being right or looking smart. It’s about finding the truth. If you have a bias against something that sounds too out there, you’re going to miss it when the wild scenario turns out to be true – something that we are all starting to learn in the U.S. right now.
Facts On The Ground
For me there’s a second dimension – which is to put myself as much as possible at ground level of the scenario. There’s a phenomenon that happens with us armchair sleuths – we tend to parachute in from above on an unsolved mystery and try to sort it out from the air, as it were, focusing on the fact sets and look for theories to fit them without spending much time about what’s plausible for a person in that situation to do, what would motivate them, how humans normally behave.
This isn’t meant as a criticism. I’ve sat there digging into cases and done it myself – because unless you’re a private investigator and go out and do the legwork, there’s not much more you can know. You can’t talk to the people first hand, gather impressions of their reliability; you can’t see the physicality of places where something happened. It certainly may be the best you can do at arm’s length. But in terms of getting at what really happened, it’s got its limits.
This is one reason I get a lot further into mysteries involving stuff like hiking and maps. I understand those things; I can put myself in the position of the people involved and try to make some educated guesses that make sense. I’m not as interested in things that involve urban settings, gangs, or domestic violence. It doesn’t mean those things aren’t important; they’re probably more important. They’re just outside my realm of experience; I can’t put myself in that position and so my input’s not going to be that valuable.
Sherlock Holmes and Deductive Reasoning
Now, Sherlock Holmes is a fictitious character, but he was based on a real person and a real method of assessing reality – deductive reasoning. The quote of his I keep coming back to is “once you eliminate the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The idea being that you start outward and try to whittle down the possibilities until you arrive at the one you can’t whittle down – and that’s your most likely answer.
To do that, you also have to go through the facts you have at hand and assess, logically and without bias towards a particular solution (“it is a capital mistake to theorize in advance of facts” is another Holmes quote), how well each one holds up so that you can assemble a fact pattern based on the most accurate information. One might break evidence into these categories: definitely true, most likely true, possibly true, most likely not true, giving greater weight to the earlier categories. How do we determine these categories? Again, we use the scientific method – weigh each fact on its own, and weigh the evidence in favor or against its truth, compare them, and see where it takes us.
So to understand my approach to the Ewasko blog, you have to get that it’s not that I think this or that thing happened. I don’t know.
It’s about what I can practically eliminate, or not eliminate.
So the point was/is to organize the information and go: these are the known facts as best as I can assemble them. There are a certain set of possibilities. I can eliminate A, B, and C. I cannot eliminate D, E and F. Given that D, E and F are the remaining possibilities – here are the scenarios that make the most sense, given what we know and what we think we know, about those possibilities.
If some of those scenarios sound far-fetched – that’s fine. But it’s also irrelevant. Far-fetched things happen. To knock those things out of consideration we have to show how those things are so unlikely as to be impossible (not just that they sound crazy), and advance a better fact pattern to address the facts as we know them.
So has some of the feedback/criticism of the blog met that standard and changed the picture?
Let’s go back to the Bill Ewasko case, walk through some of the logic and some of that feedback, and see where we wind up.
The Notorious U-Haul
Pretty much everyone agreed that the most off-the-wall thing I posted on my blog was the theory that Bill’s car was put back at Juniper Flats Trailhead after being transported there inside a U-Haul. And look, I get it; if it was me, I’d think that was pretty out there too. I admitted as much on the blog (though as you can see from the above photo, it is very possible).
Again, I am just taking the facts, as we know them, and seeing where we wind up. Sure, I can go “wow, that sounds too crazy, maybe people will make fun of me, better not write that” – but that’s chickening out, and it’s also not scientific.
So let’s walk through the logic.
We have two scenarios to assess against one another:
- Bill’s car was moved.
- Bill’s car was not moved.
Simple enough, right? So let’s look at what has to happen for one or the other to be true.
If Bill’s car was moved, it means the eyewitnesses reports were all, or at least partially, correct. If all were correct, it means it was there on Thursday evening into Friday morning (based on three eyewitnesses), gone Friday afternoon through Saturday morning (based on the ranger that passed the parking spot four times), back Saturday afternoon but parked reverse to how it was found (based on a different park employee’s testimony) and then found late Saturday afternoon parked as it had been Thursday evening but closer to the curb then the Friday morning witnesses described (based on photos of the scene).
If Bill’s car was not moved, it means all but the first eyewitness was mistaken in some way about what they saw.
So, which is more likely?
Well, actually, at least some of the eyewitnesses being mistaken is very likely. Eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable, so much so that it would be surprising in this case that they all were right.
However, that’s not really enough; it’s just a little too pat to say the eyewitnesses were simply all wrong. We need to throw some bricks at this assertion and see if it holds up. To quote Occam’s Razor, how many assumptions do we have to make for this to be true? What are the counterfactuals to discrediting the eyewitnesses?
- The hiking couple on Friday morning went out of their way to note that the car was a few feet from the curb. They correctly remembered the position of the car relative to how the first Thursday eyewitness saw it, which bolsters their credibility.
- Ranger Grayson missed the car four times – two trips in the area, coming and going. Tom Mahood has shown there is a clear line of sight to where the car was parked from the road Grayson drove by on (something that, to be fair, I have not personally verified, but appears to be true from satellite photos). As part of his patrol Grayson was specifically tasked with looking for Bill’s car. So it’s to be assumed he was on the alert for it. On the Friday night trip, he did not mention Juniper Flats specifically in his report, though we know he drove past it…but he did on Saturday morning. So even if he missed Juniper Flats on the first trip, it’s to be assumed he checked it on the second.
- Park Employee Mimi Gorman claims that the car was parked back to front when she saw it parked at Juniper Flats on Saturday afternoon. To her credibility are the following points: a. She customarily went to the parking lot for lunch, so she had a reason to be there and note the car’s presence (since she decided to park elsewhere owing to that). b. She was absolutely adamant about the car’s position. There was no ambiguity or uncertainty about it. The official report says she exclaimed “that’s not how it was parked!”. c. She stated that there was a bright colored object in the windshield of the car that she claimed was facing her. There was, in fact, a yellow senior pass in the windshield.
So we have some problems here. (1) not so much; it’s a minor detail that would be easy to get wrong. On its own, this is a discrepancy hardly worth bothering with; it only takes on weight when taken with everything else – since if the car was moved and then put back in its original spot a difference in its position relative to the curb would be corroboration of that. (2) is hard to credit. You have a ranger who was tasked with this assignment, knowing someone’s life was in balance, failing to notice a car that he was patrolled to find four times over the course of two visits. (3) is also tough. We have a park employee – assumedly a more credible witness, if only slightly, than a regular civilian – who is adamant about what she saw and correctly identifies, at least partially, something in the windshield that she may have not been able to see if she was mistaken about the position of the car.
Now, that said…none of this proves all these people weren’t mistaken. If they were all correct in every detail that would be a little surprising. But owing to the individual facts, it makes it considerably harder to simply dismiss the eyewitnesses testimony as a whole that the car may have been moved, because we have to assume Grayson was a complete incompetent, and Mimi Gorman made a big fuss about something she was totally wrong about, and somehow was able to see the senior pass through the back of the car (or just got lucky with a wrong recollection of something that was actually there).
Taken together, they make it much harder to simply dismiss the eyewitness testimony. To get back to Occam’s Razor, it requires too many assumptions. What we need, then, are some alternative theories that eliminate some of these assumptions and/or knock out the U-Haul idea as being improbable (for specific reasons, not just on its face) or impractical.
The Alternative Argument
For years now, a number of folks on the San Jacinto Hiking message board have been delving into this mystery. These are all highly intelligent men and women with a great deal of real-life hiking experience, each of whom has a slightly different perspective (or bias, if you like) that they bring to bear in discussing it. As a group, it’s a very potent combination. To their credit, when I put out my blog, they all reviewed it and fairly grappled with the ideas it raised…in so doing they came up with a few pretty compelling facts that, I think, change the picture quite a bit.
Let’s go to the eyewitnesses first. The San Jacinto Hiking Board members brought up these counter explanations for the eyewitnesses missing the car:
1. Ranger Grayson May Have Been Fired For Cause
This is actually not a new theory; Tom Mahood (the main person that’s been driving the search for Bill for years) early on found indications that Grayson may have been dismissed not long after the Ewasko disappearance. We have no direct proof of this. It’s as I said: if the car was there, then Grayson was grossly incompetent. We don’t know either way but there is indirect evidence, though not certain proof, of this.
Though others discussed this and added corroborating information, Tom’s explanation covers the basics:
“A couple years after Bill vanished I spent some time digging around for related info, and I stumbled upon an online roster of all national park employees (these days it’s long gone). It included the employee postings, phone and email addresses. So I looked up Grayson. To my surprise, he wasn’t listed at JTNP. In fact, he wasn’t listed anywhere within the NPS.
I’ve worked in governmental agencies all my life and there are some things that a “normal” person may not notice when agencies put things in writing. And something that always jumped out at me was the rather assertive wording in the Ewasko narrative regarding Grayson’s reporting. It was extremely literal and detailed. While I thought it odd, I put it aside….until I was unable to find Grayson in the employee roster.
Having been involved in the termination of government employees, I know that it is a very hard thing to do, and requires a lot of documentation of the transgressions of that employee. To me, based upon my experience, that narrative wording sure sounds like it was part of a setup for some sort of termination proceeding or forced retirement.”
2. The Differences In The Observed Positions of the Car Are The Result of Optical Illusions
In terms of the car’s being “feet” from the curb on Thursday, as opposed to close to the curb as it was found on Saturday, poster RichardK while dismissing the U-Haul idea as a “flight of fancy” (see above discussion about bias for my thoughts about that), admirably followed that up with what’s required: decent alternate theories that attempt to address the facts at hand.
“On Friday, David and Cheryl Haber reported Bill’s car as being a couple of feet from the curb. From the picture in the ranger’s report, the car is at least a tire’s width and more from the curb. The curb’s shadow makes it seem closer to the car than it really is. I’m willing to say that the Haber’s casual statement of a couple of feet is not significantly different from what is in the picture.”
I frankly don’t buy this. The point about the curb shadow is well taken, but the picture shows what it shows — there’s no way the car is “feet” from the curb — and to me this is stretching to fit a desired outcome.
However…I’m not sure it matters. This to me was the weakest piece of eyewitness evidence. The Habers may well have been mistaken about the distance from the curb. It’s a minor discrepancy that only becomes suggestive when it’s taken together with the other eyewitnesses that suggest that the car may have been moved. If we can knock them out, then the Habers’ judgment about the distance from the curb can probably be discarded too. Mimi Gorman, with her partial ID of the tag in the windshield and her emphatic insistence that the car was parked the wrong way around, is the hardest person to dismiss.
RichardK comes up with a much stronger theory in this instance, one that I’m very impressed by:
“The parking area is at an angle to Park Road. That may explain Ms. Gorman’s sighting of the car in a seemingly different position.”
Ric Capucho, another member of the board who has long had an interest in this case, fleshed out this idea further:
“The dogleg alignment of the parking area to Key’s View Road plus the further diagonals of the “correct” parking plus the patently incorrectly parked Chrysler Sebring all came together to give Mimi a very different view from the ground as to what she saw on the screen. Perspectives, basically.”
Ric further posted the following picture to show the alignment of the parking lot. Remember that Bill’s car was parked facing southwest, against the curb (rather than perpendicular to the curb as mostly shown below)…so Miss Gorman, driving north, with the parking lot being at an angle towards her direction of travel would likely have been able to see Bill’s front windshield and mentally registered the car as being parked back to front instead of merely being parked outside the lines facing partly towards her.
As an alternate explanation, I completely buy this. It is very credible to me that the unusual position of the car, combined with the alignment of the parking lot, would have conspired to make Mimi Gorman believe the car was parked in reverse, and remembering the tag in the windshield would likely reinforce that memory in her subsequent interview….therefore no need for a U-Haul to explain her sighting…and no need to completely discredit a credible, and emphatic, witness just to suit a preferred narrative.
3. Unless Something Very Specific Happened, A U-Haul Is Unnecessary
But there’s another very strong counterfactual the U-Haul theory. It comes from Myth, a hiker who’s done some impressive searches for Bill of her own.
The first part had already occurred to me, and was dealt with in the original draft of this blog:
“JT does not allow commercial vehicles, not sure how a Uhaul would be classified. It would stick out like a sore thumb.”
My reaction to that is yes, and no. The question to me is if ATVs are allowed in Joshua Tree. I don’t know one way or the other (and nobody was able to answer this question) but Google suggests that they are. If so, they have to be brought in inside or atop another vehicle, so it stands to reason some of them would be in U-Hauls and so might not occasion much notice. And even if it did, as I pointed out before, it’s not like the person at the gate is going to go, at that point or later, “I think Bill Ewasko’s car is in there.” If it occasions notice, so what?
But Myth makes another point in passing that to me, removes much of the motive for having a U-Haul in the first place:
“JT also has open access, you can drive in at night if you wanted.”
*Face palm* Well, yes, of course! I should have thought of this myself, but didn’t.
The whole point of the U-Haul idea is that, in theory, someone drove the car out of the park, changed their mind, and needed to smuggle it back in. If that’s the case then the U-Haul theory, far fetched though it is, makes sense if it’s the only way to get the car back into the park unobserved. But if you can just drive it in before the gate opens, why bother? That’s just leagues safer than renting a U-Haul (which leaves a paper trail and is, as has been pointed out, highly conspicuous).
So Can We Eliminate The U-Haul? Not Quite.
Can I think of a scenario where a U-haul fits this new fact pattern? Sure.
If there is only one person involved (Bill himself in a self-disappearance scenario, or one murderer/accidental killer in a foul play scenario) that person would have needed a way to dump the car and then transport themselves out of the park. If you drive the car back in, you can’t then drive it out, it’s too far to walk, and getting a ride out requires another person to be in the loop. In that case, you’d still have a pressing motive to rent the U-Haul.
But in that case it still would be a way more attractive option to move the car in during the night when the gate was unmanned and nobody would see the operation underway. Why, then, wait until morning? Well, because you’d have to wait until the U-Haul office opened. If the car was moved, it was most likely moved on Friday afternoon. In such a scenario, it’s a safe assumption that the decision would not have been made the move the car back until after the U-Haul office closed. The U-Haul in 29 Palms opens at 8 a.m. If Mr. X went there first thing Saturday, rented the U-Haul, drove the car inside it discreetly somewhere nearby, and got it back into the park, the timing works out just about right for when it would have eventually have been spotted wrong way around by Ms. Gorman.
However…that’s now trying to make a theory work that no longer fits the facts as well as the alternate theory – that Mimi Gorman was thrown off by the position of the car and the alignment of the parking lot. We’re now making more assumptions for the U-Haul theory than for the eyewitnesses being mistaken theory.
Could the U-Haul theory still be true? If Ms. Gorman was right all along, and a certain very specific set of other things happened, sure. But to me, the new input shifts the balance of probability very firmly back to the idea that the car was never moved. We can’t eliminate it. We can, however, say that there’s an alternative hypothesis that requires fewer assumptions, is less “fanciful”, and fits the facts just as well.
Of course, nobody thought the U-Haul theory was very likely, anyway. But that’s not the point. The point is to demonstrate why it’s unlikely and offer an alternative explanation that equally fits the facts. Which the gang at the San Jacinto Hiking Board did here, admirably. Bravo.
So if the car was never moved, does that mean we can eliminate foul play or self-disappearance as possibilities and get back to focusing exclusively on a lost hiker?
Mmmm…no. The possibility of the car moving was something I dismissed, just as Tom did, for years, until I could not reconcile other parts of the case. Once I started looking at it differently, the car weirdness seemed to dovetail with alternate explanations that already were starting to suggest themselves. But I didn’t look at it more carefully until after other things didn’t seem to add up. I think if that the car did not move that lessens the indications that something strange happened here, but it doesn’t make all of them go away.
So can we go further? Can we eliminate those other possibilities entirely? Let’s try.
I also took a bit of criticism – I think fairly – for posting a Google Earth screenshot of a private inholding within range of Bill’s hiking area, and implicitly linking that to a foul play scenario. I need to again stress that I know very little about that inholding or how likely it would be for it to play a role in Bill’s disappearance. Because of the unfortunate words “criminal enterprise” – wish I hadn’t used that phrase – people assumed that I was talking about Bill blundering into a Breaking Bad kind of situation and getting killed that way.
I was never thinking that specifically. There are a lot of other scenarios that make more sense to me – an accidental shooting by people doing some informal (intoxicated?) target practice in the area is one that doesn’t strain my credulity too much. Such impromptu shooting ranges (which might be as primitive as a bottle on top of a spare tire) are so common in remote parts of the desert that it’s almost incomprehensible that there wouldn’t be one somewhere on this inholding. A Reddit user suggested that it couldn’t happen because Bill could hear shooting from far away, but as I pointed out from my own personal experience, he wouldn’t be able to triangulate the precise location of the shooting range. It’s easy for me to imagine a scenario where Bill is lost and looking for help and is attracted by the sound of gunfire but miscalculates his approach. To the further raised objection that safety precautions would prevent an accidental shooting, I have to say: in such an out-of-the-way location, I doubt it very much. It nearly happened to me once in a different part of the desert, so this is not far-fetched at all to my way of thinking.
Regardless of that particular scenario, people in remote areas in the Mojave get up to weird things. I don’t get too caught up in the idea of a drug deal, but based on my own wanderings, I don’t find it hard to believe that something weird is going on at some point at any remote, private location in that part of the world. People generally have private inholdings in the desert because, well, they want privacy. That’s just how it works.
Now, let me again say: I don’t have any relevant information about that inholding, and all of the scenarios that would have Bill coming to harm here are, taken each on their own, admittedly unlikely.
But again, let’s return to the idea of sifting facts: for the purposes of the blog, and why I posted the picture, that’s irrelevant. It’s not about coming up with a specific scenario for Bill to come to foul play. It’s about ruling foul play in or out.
Let’s go back to the principle of deductive reasoning – you eliminate the impossible and focus on what’s left. I had for a long time dismissed the foul play theory (unless it occurred at the parking lot, for which we have no evidence at the scene – sign of struggle, blood, etc. – and it’s hard to imagine why something like that would happen there) for the simple reason that there’s almost nobody out in that region in the first place, and if someone came across Bill on his hike for some reason and did him harm (again, why? Trail rage?), they’d then have to get rid of his body…on foot, in rugged terrain, without leaving any evidence – and since it would necessarily be a random act (it’s not like anyone knew where he was going, or would be sitting there waiting to bash a random hiker when one likely might not come that day), such a person probably wouldn’t have things like a shovel handy to get rid of the body. Those scenarios don’t add up.
However – if there’s a way to get the body out of the area in range of Bill’s hike by vehicle through private land, that changes everything. You then can envision a logistically possible scenario where Bill wanders into this area and somehow comes to grief, and then there’s a means to dispose of the body.
So the important question is not about how Bill would be killed. It’s about how Bill can encounter a stationary person or people with immediate means to remove him.
Unless we can show that that’s so unlikely that it’s virtually impossible – and we can’t – it really doesn’t matter how improbable any of those individual foul play/accidental death scenarios are, because the crux of it is the road itself and there being something private adjacent to it (e.g. people) for Bill to bump into and run afoul of.
Those conditions do not exist on any of the trails Bill would have gone on or in the adjacent territory. If we can determine that there was no one at the inholding at that time, and/or that the road was closed and inaccessible, then we’re back to where we started and foul play is out. But as long as we don’t know that, it has to be an open possibility. We can’t eliminate it. I have made some informal inquiries about these questions, but I have no further clarity.
As it happens, human remains, with some indications of homicide, were apparently found along the same road – on the other side of Park Road – last month. We do not know yet who it was, and if it was Bill or not (we have no indication, other than him being missing in the general area, that it was). It would be irresponsible to speculate that there is a connection since for now the body is unidentified. If it did turn out to be Bill, however, the location would be suggestive.
So we can’t blow out foul play and we can’t blow out self disappearance – but I do think if the car was never moved, it strengthens the likelihood that this is exactly what it seemed like in the first place – the case of a lost hiker with some admittedly baffling aspects. So let’s now go back to the lost hiker scenario, and see what we’re left with.
In the previous blog, I went over in some detail the issues with the timeline, the cell ping, the topography. No need to hash them out again. But as I’ve gone over what the other hikers on the San Jacinto board have reported about the route, and also thought the whole case over again for the billionth time, it hit me that the strangest thing about the whole case wasn’t any of those things. It was something a lot more mundane and fundamental.
The Dog In The Night-Time
If you don’t get the reference, it’s from Sherlock Holmes again. In investigating a case, Holmes once said “I direct your attention of the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
“The dog did nothing in the night-time,” Watson replied.
“That was the curious incident,” said Holmes.
I realized that in thinking about this case over the years, there was something of an unconscious black hole that had developed, what I’d call an unknown element to the case that nonetheless draws attention to itself by the pull of gravity…and also from the slightly puzzling behavior of a dog.
In my mind, that black hole is expressed by a place, and that is the route from Juniper Flats Trailhead to Quail Mountain.
Everything we know, or think we know, about the case suggests that Bill was just going on a short day hike. There’s minor factoids like the fact that Bill didn’t bother to park properly in the lot. There’s the element of how much water Bill brought with him – it’s been widely theorized he had more than we know but the evidence we have points to just a few bottles. There’s the fact that he had planned to be out of the park fairly early, and got to Juniper Flats relatively late. There’s his extensive itinerary, which had the look of a guy that had a bunch of places he wanted to check off his list in a short time.
The Most Baffling Thing
What jumped out at me as I reviewed the case again, particularly taking into account the reports of hikers who recently climbed Quail Mountain (which I have yet to do myself) retracing Bill’s supposed steps, is the most puzzling aspect of the case is why in the world Bill ever got north of Quail Mountain in the first place. It’s moving away from his car, which is much more easily accessible (though further away) at that point than any destination he might move to in another direction. The way back, by means of elevation and topography, should have been clearly visible.
To account for this, Tom Mahood long ago advanced the theory that Bill decided to go cross country to Smith Water Canyon to find water and cycle back around on the California Riding and Hiking Trail – a very long loop. That never made a lot of sense to me and recent hikers who posted on the San Jacinto Hiking Board retracing Bill’s steps have said likewise – they reported that though it was easy to envision Bill getting carried away by the relative coolness on the higher ridges and making a run for the top of Quail, they couldn’t fathom why he would strike out towards Smith Water. Not only was the terrain not so inviting, but it got leagues hotter the minute you got down off the ridge into lower ground.
This is not to slight Tom. If we assume Bill did get north of Quail Mountain, then this is as good a theory as any because such a move just makes no sense otherwise. But going for water that you may not be able to find, over unfamiliar territory, when you can just easily go back down to your car where there are 9 bottles waiting, just doesn’t seem like a logical thing to do, and would put Bill on a risky and long round trip that would very likely put him late for getting out of the park. By climbing Quail, if that’s indeed what he did, he was already on a much longer trip than one would expect he planned for. Why strike out in unknown territory that takes you even further out?
Maybe that’s exactly what he did, but nothing about the preparation for the trip or what we know Bill took with him suggests as much. (I want to acknowledge that at one time I thought otherwise. All I can say is over time I couldn’t find any real evidence to suggest Bill was any kind of “vision quest” or anything like that. As I’ve said and shown above, we all adjust – or should adjust – our thinking if certain lines of inquiry are not supported by evidence or we acquire new understanding.)
And there is one more nagging detail that is bugging me. The tracking dog. The bloodhound picked up Bill’s scent and traced it down the California Riding & Hiking Trail to the junction with Juniper Flats Road. The ranger’s report says that the handler returned at this point, so it’s to be assumed the dog could follow Bill’s trail no further. This, of course, may mean nothing. Tracking dogs are not always reliable and they did get a false hit on some water bottles that were discovered and later found to belong to someone else.
But it hits me that the dog follows Bill’s trail right up the point where it might give us some clue where he might have gone, a logical point where we might expect Bill to turn back to his car if he was on a short hike, and that’s where they lose it. Why? I can’t give any explanation unless someone somehow was illegally going up the closed road in a motor vehicle and decided to randomly kidnap Bill — which is not quite as improbable as a UFO abduction, but it’s close.
The most likely answer, I suppose, is the dog just got confused at that point or perhaps they were never following Bill at all. But the fact that that’s where they lost the scent…I don’t know. It’s just weird to me. Doesn’t fit anywhere, except into that black hole of what happened to change Bill’s probable plans to take a short out-and-back hike….if that’s indeed what they were.
Other Recent Developments
Hiker Perry from the San Jacinto Hiking Board did make a recent search based on the map I published in my blog. He didn’t find anything yet, but it’s a big area. This link will hopefully take you to his posts about it.
Meanwhile Tom Mahood, who started the whole Bill Ewasko crowdsourced investigation and is still far and away the most knowledgable and dedicated person on this case, has recently gotten back in the game with a new batch of collated search tracks and promises to soon have “an excellent Bayesian analysis done by a contact of mine for potential Ewasko search areas.”
This follow-up blog probably will conclude my involvement in the case until and unless I go back out to search myself when I return to the U.S. this fall. If you are interested in the case I recommend you monitor Bill’s thread on the San Jacinto Hiking Board, where the folks are doing some extremely good work in analyzing the facts of the case and also getting out and searching, and also keep an eye on Tom Mahood’s Other Hand site for his pending update. I’m excited by the effort all these people are putting in. It’s good stuff.
As for the unsolved mysteries part of the blog, I hope to soon have another long-form article about the mysterious disappearance of Brandon Swanson, and propose a solution to what might have happened to him. Stay tuned.
U-haul image from Carrie’s Busy Nothings blog.