Mike Herdman, an off-duty Arcadia firefighter whose body was found in Los Padres National Forest after a nearly two-week search, died after falling from a cliff, the Ventura County medical examiner’s office said Tuesday.
Herdman’s official cause of death was listed as blunt-force injuries caused by an accident. The body of the 36-year-old husband and father was found Friday morning at the foot of a cliff less than a mile from the campsite where he had disappeared from June 13.
Though the listed date of death was when his body was discovered, it appeared Herdman had been dead for at least a few days and his injuries were consistent with a significant fall, said Chief Deputy Medical Examiner Armando Chavez.
Herdman's body was spotted 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.
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 two-week search effort 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 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.
On Monday, the Family Firefighter Assn. announced it had set up a fund to help Herdman’s wife and daughter.
To make a donation, go to the Fire Family Foundation website and enter Herdman’s name or make a check payable to Fire Family Foundation, 815 Colorado Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90041 with a notation: Herdman Tribute Fund.