Two weeks after he ran off after his dog at a campsite and disappeared, the body of an Arcadia firefighter was found Friday on a cliff in the Los Padres National Forest.
Michael Herdman's body was spotted about 10 a.m. by a helicopter search crew who noticed "something that didn't belong" in the very rugged terrain near Sespe Creek, according to Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean. The body was airlifted to a medical examiner's office, where the identity was confirmed using dental records.
No cause of death has been determined, but Dean said there was no indication of foul play. The sheriff said the body was about three-quarters of a mile from and 1,200 feet above the campsite, which was in the creek basin.
Herdman, 36, may have tried to climb the cliff in the dark and fell, according to the sheriff.
"Candidly, I'm not sure if we'll ever get an answer because he's the only one who can answer about why you go so far in the middle of the night like that," Dean said during a televised news conference.
The area had not been closely examined in the massive search effort over the last two weeks because authorities thought it was unlikely that Herdman would have climbed up there, officials said.
"When you're searching, you're looking at where people are going to go to survive" — flat areas with water and shade, said Ventura County sheriff's spokesman Don Aguilar.
More than 100 searchers from throughout Southern California scoured more than 50 square miles of rugged backcountry north of Fillmore. Several were treated for heat exhaustion and injuries from rock slides. One was bitten by a rattlesnake and needed 52 vials of antivenin to survive.
The search had been scaled back five days ago, but then one of the remaining search teams took a "shot in the dark" Friday morning to examine the cliff, said Ventura County Sheriff's Department pilot Ken Williams, who flew the helicopter.
While flying near the 200-foot sheer rock face, Williams spotted something that did not match the rest of the topography.
"It was something that was not meant to be there. It was a change in color," he said. At first, he thought the object was a black sleeping bag. As he got closer, he realized it was a body.
The body was attired in board shorts and a black T-shirt and was barefoot, officials said. That matched what his camping partner said Herdman was wearing when he vanished June 13. Herdman and fellow off-duty Arcadia paramedic Tyler Byars had been midway through a planned four-day backpacking trek in the forest when Herdman's dog, Duke, ran off in the night, Byars told authorities. Herdman, an experienced outdoorsman, gave chase, he said.
Officials said Byars tried to find Herdman through the night and the next day. He then tried to find his own way out and got lost. A pair of fishermen found Byars "dehydrated, disheveled and disoriented" and guided him back to the beginning of the trail at Tar Creek, where Byars and Herdman's trip began.
Duke was spotted several times throughout the search but wasn't caught until Sunday, when a hiker found him at a trail head. Authorities described the German shorthair mix as dehydrated and exhausted.
Herdman, who lived near Dana Point, was married and had a young daughter.
On the Arcadia Firefighters Assn.'s Facebook page, people posted their condolences Friday. "Our hearts, thoughts and prayers go out to the Herdman Family, and his Firefighter Family!" one user wrote.
"We're glad that he was found but at the same time we're sad that we lost a family member. So obviously we've got heavy hearts here," Arcadia Fire Chief Kurt Norwood told KABC-TV Channel 7.