Missing woman found near Church Park
June 22, 2010
Following an intensive three-day manhunt, Grand County Search and Rescue teams found a Denver woman alive after she spent at least five days wandering through the forest without shoes, food or shelter.
Kelly Ann Guzman, 45, of Denver, was discovered Sunday, June 20, sitting by the Williams Fork River more than 4 miles from her car. Rescuers estimate she may have walked 6-8 miles without shoes. She was disoriented, weak, hungry and slightly hypothermic when the team found her. It took more than two hours to carry her a mile south across steep terrain to the Horseshoe Campground staging area where she was reunited with family members.
She then was taken to Summit Medical Center, where she was expected to be released Tuesday or Wednesday.
As the three-day search unfolded, a bizarre trail left investigators and rescuers with more questions than answers, said Grand County Sheriff Rod Johnson.
Guzman, a mother of two, was last seen by her family on June 9. They reported her missing on June 12 and hired a private investigator to help locate her, according to Greg Foley, public information officer for Grand County Search and Rescue. She told no one where she was going and did not have a cell phone.
On June 17, off-duty Granby Police Department Officer Jeff Bauckman discovered a black Nissan Pathfinder stuck in Little Muddy Creek while four-wheeling with some friends in the Arapaho National Forest around Church Park. There was nobody around the vehicle and it looked odd, with a silver emergency blanket and a red poncho hanging from the roof rack.
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Around 8 p.m., Bauckman called in the license plate number to the sheriff’s office and found that the vehicle had been red-flagged by the Denver Police Department along with a missing persons report.
Two sheriff’s deputies and an investigator arrived at the vehicle in the dark, around 10 p.m.
“It appeared that the vehicle had been stuck there for a few days,” said deputy Nate Macchione who was among the first to respond.
The driver of the sports utility vehicle had taken an offshoot from Forest Service Road 134. The road came to a dead-end at the creek. It seems that she then tried to drive across the creek, Sheriff Johnson said, adding, “Most people would not believe you could ford the creek there.” The embankments are steep and the bottom of the creek was boggy.
“Just guessing, if it was the middle of night, maybe she was seeing something different. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” Johnson said.
A brief search of the area revealed that somebody had attempted to start a few campfires on the stream bank near the vehicle. There was a jug of water, likely filled from the creek, and several empty glass alcohol bottles, according to incident reports. The sheriff’s team also found an arrangement of logs and sticks that appeared to form an arrow pointing west.
Sheriff’s Investigator Pam Peschiera followed a few foot tracks to the west but eventually lost them. Later, to the north of the vehicle, the team picked up a set of barefoot tracks traveling east along 134. But, these too were eventually lost among tire tracks.
The investigator called off the search just before midnight on Thursday after finding few leads within 200 yards of the vehicle.
A 15-member Grand County Search and Rescue team launched a hunt for the woman on Friday, centering on the vehicle. Tracks of a barefoot person, estimated to be about 4-5 days old, were found on the road near the vehicle but, after searching all day, the team came up empty-handed.
On Saturday the search was resumed with additional resources, including 17 Grand County Search and Rescue members, three dogs from Front Range Rescue Dogs and Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado as well as one dog and handler from Grand County.
Late in the day, searchers discovered more barefoot footprints on a logging road about a mile south of the vehicle. At the dead end of the logging road, about 6 miles further west towards the Williams Fork River, the team found more prints.
The search resumed Sunday with nine people. The last footprints on the logging road indicated that Guzman had headed downhill toward the Williams Fork River. Two teams searched down steep gullies towards the river while a dog team and a tracking team headed north from Horseshoe Campground to search along the river.
At about 2 p.m. the tracking team found Guzman sitting on the bank of the fast moving river about one mile north of Horseshoe Campground. She was dressed only in shorts and a fleece top and was barefoot. She was in remarkably good condition except for her badly blistered and swollen feet, Foley said. She was somewhat incoherent and suffering from mild hypothermia.
Guzman had no idea that anyone would be searching for her and said that she was happy to be alive, Foley said. She could not say how long she had been down near the river, or even what day it was or what day she had left her vehicle.
Search and Rescue leaders think she may have been lost for up to seven or eight days.
“Survival for that length of time in the Colorado backcountry is very rare,” Foley said, adding that finding Guzman was like finding “needle in a haystack of needles.”
Search and Rescue team members provided Guzman with water, food and medical care including bandaging her injured feet. She was carried up from the river to where she could be loaded onto a litter. It was there that she was reunited with her husband and brother who had been at the search command base.
Sheriff Johnson said he plans to interview Guzman once she’s regained her strength. He’s hoping to answer at least some of the mysteries: What happened to the woman’s shoes? Why did she leave key survival tools, such as the emergency blanket, in her car? Why didn’t she tell anyone where she was going? And, how long had she been out there?
“It seems like you would walk along the road you were on. To leave that and go through backcountry without reference to a road, it doesn’t make sense,” Johnson said.
One possible clue, discovered during the initial search of the vehicle by the sheriff’s team, is a summons for a driving under the influence of drugs issued to Guzman by the Denver Police Department on June 9, according to a report filed by Deputy Macchione.
Another complicating factor, according the incident report, is that part of the area had only been opened to travel on June 15. Prior to that, gates shut some roads off to vehicular travel.
No charges have been filed in the case.
Johnson commended the search and rescue volunteers for their hard work in locating the woman.
“Grand County Search and Rescue did an extraordinary job in finding and rescuing Ms. Guzman,” he said. “We are fortunate to have such a strong team with the kind of commitment these team members have.”
– Reid Armstrong can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610 or firstname.lastname@example.org.