What Was I Thinking?! :( Thoughts on Inspiration and Intuition from the ill fated Search for Jerold Williams

Yesterday night the Coconino County Sheriff’s office released details concerning the location of Jerold Williams’ body. I have to say I’m still trying to wrap my head around this and decide what to make of it, and what lessons to take away from it.

It’s been a bit difficult. Mainly because the lost boy was found 15 feet off a forest road in a location far from the primary search area (8 miles down the road); and very, very near the one I felt I should go to before I ever left my home to join the search.


comparison image

Five year old Jerold Williams reminded me a lot of my own six year old—complete with matching “facial abrasions”.

My Intuition

On Friday Morning at about 10:00 AM when the press release was put out for missing Jerold, I jumped on Google Earth and scouted the area. From the vague details given in the press release I guessed pretty accurately where the boy’s family had been camping off Forest Road 241 south of Jacob’s Lake Arizona. From the topography, my intuition told me he would head downhill, (which leads away from the main highway). As I scouted the two most likely drainages and followed them to their convergence on the southwest edge of the plateau a canyon stuck out to me.  This drainage was a logical probability. But what was not logical was a strong thought I had as I looked at the map… that he would not be in that drainage but in a very small, un-named drainage directly south of the large drainage.  I tried to work through the logic of my thought /impression, and determined that perhaps once he dropped off the Plateau he would realize his error and seek to climb back up using the drainage my thoughts pointed to.

After this perusal of the subject, I tried to drop it and get back to work… but I couldn’t let it go for some reason.  Within an hour I called the Coconino Sheriff’s office to see if I could get some more information and volunteer.  I was told they were not seeking, or in need of, volunteers and transferred to Gerry Blair where I left a message with my contact information. As the hours wore on I grew more antsy. I called the Sheriff’s office again and left my information with a dispatcher. My thoughts wandered to the memory of a news story I saw in January of 2004. Katie Whitney’s car was stolen in front of her Sandy, Utah home with her six-week baby inside. It was after dark and well below freezing (~14° F). The car was miraculously located less than an hour later by a “good samaritan” from Draper, who “told police he was watching television… saw the news report about the auto theft and the missing baby and… felt like he needed to help…” He related that he “said a prayer and then drove to Jordan Commons where he located the vehicle”.

Through the day I continued to frequent the Coconino sheriff’s office Facebook page and watch for any change in their stance on volunteers. By the end of Friday and early Saturday morning I found myself getting increasingly angry at the Coconino Sheriff’s office. I left several Facebook posts on their page saying how big of a mistake I thought it was for them to discourage volunteers. By late Saturday I decided that if I felt this strongly about helping, I should just go. I saw a Facebook comment where someone said they were now accepting volunteers (which the sheriff’s office quickly dismissed as an incorrect rumor), but it was enough for me to disregard the Sheriff’s office repeated discouragements and go anyway. It was a two hour drive to Jacob’s Lake and I got there around 4:00pm.


search area details.

My initial thoughts of his likely paths in yellow. The drainages I ended up searching in purple. The largest thrust of the volunteer search occurred in the red area. Forest Road 241 and 240 in white.

Second Guessing

When I got to forest road 241 I was worried that if a Sheriff saw me they might send me home. (I later learned they weren’t really turning anyone away.)  I tried to avoid law enforcement as I drove through the base camp toward the spot my intuition had pointed me to. But as I headed the miles down forest road 241 it quickly became clear that this was a longer distance than it looked on Google Earth. I had measured the ~4 mile distance on Google Earth but driving it while attempting to put myself in a 5 year old’s shoes seemed like an eternity. At mile 4, after passing four diverging side roads I second guessed myself and decided my initial destination was illogical. I looked at the satellite imagery on my tablet for a while, turned around and headed back a half mile to take a side road which lead further up the drainage.  I hiked until past dark, a few miles into two drainages 3 miles below where he was last seen.  As the light gradually grew dimmer I walked and prayed and philosophized about how tell the difference between my own thoughts and a higher sourced impression (something I believe deeply in, and have had other experiences with).

I spent over five hours, following my thoughts/impressions only to find nothing but my own sorrow as I imagined what it would be like if this 5 year old boy was my own.  I pictured him scared, cold and wet, huddled up in one of the many rocky overhangs in a forest full of shadows and eerie silence. I saw no one and heard no one as I headed in the dark back toward base camp, where I would stop and talk to other searchers about where they were concentrating their efforts and what progress was being made.


Grand Canyon Highway AZ-67 in red, forest road 241 in blue, forest road 240 in light blue.


Giving Up

That night I slept in my car in a down mummy-bag and blanket, and still woke up several times because I was cold. It’s understood that I’m a wimp when it comes to the cold, but the next morning I thought that because of the hard rain the first night— after three cold nights there was no longer much chance that Jerold was conscious or even alive. I spent 7 hours searching two more drainages. The forest was much thicker and overgrown in these drainages and by the end I had concluded that his body was likely in the thicket within a mile of where he went lost and that the existing search parties which were combing that area would have a better chance of finding him than me.

Before I left for home I decided to make one last drive out toward where I had initially come to look. I drove 6.5 of the 8 miles out toward the end of the road which led to the canyon that had initially caught my eye back in my office.  As I neared forest road 240 (where he was later found), I thought about how selfish and silly I was being. I thought that perhaps the only reason I wanted to go out to this illogical place was because I imagined it would have an amazing view of the Vermillion Cliffs and Marble Canyon. I thought that he was certainly dead by now, so what was I trying to prove?  I frustratingly thought, how many times have I had a thought or impression of where to look during my search and they have all proved to be wrong!

As a new storm moved into the area and rain clouds began to build, I turned my car around and headed home.

The next day, boys in the back of a truck spotted Jerold’s body 15 feet off forest road 240, about 2 miles from where I turned around and a third a mile from where I would have parked to hike into the canyon I had initially planned to look in.


Take Away Points?

I write this now to clear my head and ask myself what am I to take away from this experience? It’s unknown how long it took Jerold to make it to where he was found. It’s unknown what path he took to get there. Its speculated that he walked on forest road 241, but then why didn’t searchers (who frequented that road from the first night) see him? And why did he turn off on the less well-worn forest road 240 instead of staying on 241? We’ll never know what he was thinking, how he got there or how many days he lived. (The storms and highly variable temperatures make time of death estimates difficult.) I’ll never know whether I would have run into him had I left Friday afternoon and headed straight to my intended location near where he was found. I’ll never know whether my thought was inspiration or coincidence. Whether I’m assigning meaning to happenstance. I’m sure every other searcher on that mountain was praying to find that boy… and yet only one did. I’m sure they were all praying to find him alive, and yet no one did. I continue to ask myself, what is the difference between our own thoughts and thoughts which originate from a higher place outside ourselves? I think the takeaway point is… does it matter? We should all just always follow our highest light… be that what it may—without second guessing and without fear of being wrong.



KMZ of google placemarks and trails.

Take Away Lessons from my Experience with the Jerold Williams Search

5 year old Jarold Williams.

5 year old Jerold Williams.

I’m a bit heartbroken as day five in the search for five year old Jerold Williams comes to a close, his body was recovered just hours ago.

I spent a good part of days three and four looking for him, and headed home as storms again moved into the area and made the already slim chances of finding the five year old alive, even slimmer. As I was out alone in the dense forest searching for this child, I gave a lot of thought to what could have been done better in his search (and what I would do if this were my child).  I think the number one take home point was mobilize as many volunteers as quickly as possible, and do not let anyone under 16 be alone anywhere in the deep woods–always use a buddy system. Nine year old David Gonzales who went missing in Big Bear California was a grisly reminder to how predators can silently steal away a child without any sound, less than 50 yards from watching parents. (His remains were finally discovered almost a year later, less than a mile from where he went missing in an assumed mountain lion predation). Twelve year old Garrett Bardsley who went missing the same summer in the Uinta Mountains, likewise teaches us that not even older boys are immune from getting lost and never being found in cold, wet weather.


A few of the mistakes I consider in retrospect.

Because of legal and bureaucratic considerations, as well as worries that volunteer efforts would interfere with dog searches and air support, volunteers were not called for, and actually turned away in the early stages of this search. Because it rained the evening this boy went missing– this was a huge mistake. All scents were destroyed and air support was stifled by inclement weather. Thick forest cover also made air support & thermal imaging useless in many areas. Volunteer and search mobilization was very slow, and because of the rain, may have been the difference between life and death in this event.

Hundreds of volunteers came from the boys Colorado City community by late day two & three, but nearly all of them congregated at the base camp. It became muddy, overly congested and may have made things more difficult for search agencies. No perimeter camps were set up, and very few ventured more than a mile away from the congested base camp. Really, no-one camped away from base camp.

It was easy to be overly optimistic in the first day or two of the search. Because of an optimistic feeling that he would be found, I believe searching was not as thorough, and volunteers were not properly dispersed or valued.

I saw no visible central command tent. Because of this it was hard to tell who was in charge, or where to get the most up to date and reliable information. There was also no real central media outlet for updates, and no human connection to inspire volunteerism outside of the Colorado City community. Because of this only 200-400 searchers participated, when 2,000-3,000 would have been far more effective.


Suggestions for possible future searches.

-Seek help as soon as possible. But don’t let search agencies completely take over the search. They have legal considerations (especially with liability for searcher they call/control) and bureaucratic considerations which dictate their actions (especially in calling for volunteers and setting up dispersed camps). Go to the media and call for volunteers, and lead the effort which coordinates volunteer efforts with the efforts of the search agencies involved. Law enforcement understandingly often dissuades volunteerism because it distracts from their important efforts. A Father, brother or family friend MUST step up and direct/coordinate all volunteer efforts. He needs to set up a command booth and get volunteers directed & dispersed. There needs to be two heads who work side by side; one for law enforcement and search agencies and one for excess volunteers (those above and beyond what search agencies need or are legally willing to be responsible for). If law enforcement insists that volunteers stay out of the initial search perimeter, they should be directed to search just outside of it. Remember Brennan Hawkins of Bountiful who was found after 4 days by one of nearly 3,000 volunteers in the Uintas. (Garrett Bardsley’s disappearance the year before played a big part in inspiring the huge community outreach– mobilized largely by the Garrett Bardsley Foundation).  At the same time an uncoordinated free-for-all such as the famous Dennis Martin case, needs to be avoided.

-Search and Rescue will typically set up a 2-5 mile radius parameter. But the volunteer effort should focus on manning the outskirts of the perimeter with volunteer campers by the first night. Search parties tend to all congregate at the base camp (usually the place child was last seen).  This creates congestion and complicates the efforts of search agencies. If possible the perimeter should consist of forest roads, cliffs, rivers or fences.  Send 20-50 volunteers to set up camp all along this perimeter and remain as long as needed. Noisy generators and lights should be encouraged. Also (if it can be negotiated with S&R), send volunteers strategically into the search area (as soon as possible) to set up small dispersed backpacking camps (with fires at night if permitted by forest service regulations). Have them set up their tents and lay out sleeping bags before doing any searching. These not only will give the child a greater chance of finding searchers, but will also serve to scare off opportunistic predators such as bears and mountain lions. With any luck they might come back from a search to find the missing child in one of their sleeping bags. Be sure each site is manned by 2-4 people, encourage volunteers to always use the buddy system and always leave some people at the camp area while sending others back to base camp for periodic updates.

-I have yet to read an account of a ‘lost in the forest’ Utah child who was found dead or alive by dogs or thermal imaging equipment. These tools may be useful but they should not preclude the use and placement of volunteers within the search area. Do not allow search agencies to restrict volunteer efforts on account of these tools. Family must press law enforcement to allow them to do this (if not the first night then the second or third after dogs have been through the area). If dogs or trackers can’t find him in the first day, don’t place much faith in them.  I’d love to be proven wrong on this, but I’ve yet to see any solid research showing that search dogs are more than 10% effective, and that thus it’s a fruitful practice to keep volunteers out of the search area for fear they might interfere with the search dogs job.

-Ask for trail runner volunteers the first day. Find very fit teams who can jog the most likely routes from the center point (point of last contact) to the search perimeter. (Make sure they have whistles and bear mace)  These runners could also travel between the dispersed camps to carry news.

-The one who goes for help needs to help create Google Map marked with base camp and a designated search perimeter to be given to the media. They should immediately create a webpage or Facebook page with maps, and accurate up-to-date information. (Use a digital map with offline capability like ArcGis?) The mom or close friend should be encouraged to talk to the media quickly and often–as the more human connection you can make with people the more volunteers you will get. Someone also need to make a few hundred copies of the map with search parameters and bring it back to base camp to distribute to volunteers. Some volunteers can be urged by the media to ride ATV’s on trails outside of the search perimeter, in the unlikely event that the child hiked farther away from base camp than anyone suspects. Supply line volunteers can also be asked for to provide food and water to search personnel. An update should be passed two or three times daily from the field search leads to the home media and website contacts. The more information you can get people, the more volunteers you can get—and the more effective they will be.  Have someone post links to the search website/facebook page on media article and law enforcement pages.

-Helpful details to get from the family and provide to possible volunteers via the webpage media. What direction did they most likely head (where they playing north, south, east or west of camp previous to going missing). Has the child been taught what to do when getting lost and what is their disposition (are they more likely to stay put or try and find their way out)?  How fit is the child (is it common for them to hike several miles or are they more likely to slowly saunter in circles)?

-if no helicopters are available, use drones if possible?

-A printout should be provided for volunteers from the webpage or Facebook page and base camp with some guidelines. It should include 1) Coordinates to base camp and where to go for instruction. 2) A list of oft-overlooked things to bring such as bear spray/mace, whistle or blow horn, flashlight, first-aid kit, compass.

-Once volunteers are mobilized the trick is getting them organized. Search agencies will want two to four large search lines (with 20-30 people each) who will sweep out from the point of last contact and thoroughly comb the designated areas within a mile or two of base camp.  But someone needs to organize smaller search groups (3-6 people) who hike the backcountry and do quick sweeps of the more remote regions sweeping in from the parameter camps.

-Speed is of the essence!  By day two cold conditions and hypothermia can bring loss of consciousness or make lost people do irrational things. Resist the urge to be optimistic to the point where things that could have been done, aren’t done.

-By day three or four volunteers need to be told to look in trees with large branches and under pine bows and other cover where predators are likely to stash or bury their prey.

-It is important for well thought-out checklists of things to do to be created, before an emergency like this.  As illustrated in Atul Gawande’s book “The Checklist Manifesto”, professionals such as airplane pilots and surgeons have been found inevitably to make mistakes in high stress situations unless a checklist exists which can help them remember and practice what they already know. Gawande’s research team has taken this idea, and developed a safe surgery checklist, and applied it around the world, with staggering success.

-I need to create a mockup web page, map and hand-out with step by step instructions that could be used as a template for a search situation. This boy may had lived had he been found earlier. With the skyrocketing increase in tourism of Southwestern Utah’s forests this situations may become more prevalent. Perhaps it would be helpful to create a few brochures, training curriculum or even some training videos to pitch to the dept of public safety or the FCAOG (Five County Association of Governments for Southwest Utah), who work to coordinate resources for local sheriff’s offices.

-When possible, equip even young children with survival items in a back-pack, when hiking in the woods. Including a laser pointer or small LED light, a whistle, a thin poncho or garbage bag with a hole cut in it. Teach them the two essentials, stay warm and stay put. Teach them they should only move if it is needed to stay warm. If they must move to find shelter in order to stay warm (ie. from rain), they need to build arrows to show where they went.


example of a map showing base camp, search perimeter,  perimeter camps, and high priority search areas.

example of a map showing base camp, search perimeter, perimeter camps, and high priority search areas.



See also What Was I Thinking?! 🙁 Thoughts on Inspiration and Intuition from the ill fated Search for Jerold Williams