Dangerous Search Yields Only Mystery, Frustration

Gila County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Dennis Newman and a deputy from Maricopa County check below a waterfall on Ash Creek.

Gila County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Dennis Newman and a deputy from Maricopa County check below a waterfall on Ash Creek.

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Gila County Sheriff’s Lt. Tim Scott made a somber report on the mysterious disappearance of Paul Tomasso, 56, who left his car for a four-day hike on Feb. 13 and disappeared into the rugged wilderness.

Scott reported that the weeklong search which peaked with a team of about 45 volunteers found no trace of Tomasso, a veteran hiker who often went on extended treks. He had an emergency locator and a satellite phone, but the search from the air, on the ground on horseback and with dogs found not a single trace of the missing man.

Tomasso had set off an electronic notice when he sent out through his satellite-based gear and left a note on the seat of his vehicle saying he would be gone for three or four days. But no one ever heard another word from him.

“The family flew out from Connecticut,” reported Lt. Scott at the annual gathering of firefighters and police preparing for this year’s early fire season. “We took them up in the territory north of Board Tree Saddle – it’s very steep, very rugged. They were pretty discouraged. They said they couldn’t believe we could even look for someone in terrain like that.”

Dozens of volunteers showed up when the call first went out and spent hundreds of man hours combing through the jagged countryside, with sheer cliffs, deep canyons and thick brush. Shortly after the search began, one of the few snowstorms of winter moved in and dumped several inches of snow on the search area.

“We still have no idea where this gentleman is. Normally, he checks in every five days. But he missed a family event (in Connecticut) so they called us. But we’ve got nothing. No tracks. No scent. Nothing.”

Tomasso had a house in Heber up for sale and spent the night before he disappeared in a hotel in Heber. He had dinner at the Red Onion Restaurant, then set off into the wilderness.

“We just have nothing to go on,” said Lt. Scott. He noted that the sheriff’s department has impounded the vehicle as part of the missing person investigation and that the man’s family has become upset that the department won’t release the vehicle so long as the case remains open.

Lt. Scott recalled that another seemingly well-prepared hiker disappeared in the same area about 10 or 12 years ago. A multi-agency team searched for 15 days, but never found a trace of him either.

On this search, the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, the Mounted Posse, the Navajo County Search and rescue, the Maricopa County Mountain Rescue, the Department of Public Services aircraft and dozens of volunteers scoured the area.

“The weather severely hampered everything,” said Scott, covering any tracks with four inches of snow. “Days after the storm, we still had horses sinking into the mud six or eight inches.”

The number of volunteers dwindled to about three by the time they finally called off the search last week.

“And we still just have no idea where he is,” concluded Scott.

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