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Teen-Ager’s Death on Hike Investigated

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From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Arizona authorities are investigating the circumstances surrounding the death last week of a 15-year-old Northern California girl who collapsed during a desert hike overseen by a youth motivation group.

Michelle Sutton of Pleasanton had gone on the hike as a way to distance herself from alcohol and drug use, friends said. She died Wednesday after she grew dizzy and collapsed in a remote area north of the Grand Canyon while hiking with four other youths and two adult counselors.

A close friend of the Sutton family said Saturday he hoped that police would learn how the teen-ager died during an activity that was supposed to be well-monitored.

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“There’s no question that the thought is, ‘Why did this happen and was there a mistake made?’ ” said Merrill Fisher, a bishop with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Pleasanton, who notified the Sutton family of their daughter’s death. “I’m sure the details will be sought after and found.”

According to an unconfirmed report, an autopsy by the Mohave County medical examiner indicated that the girl’s heart stopped as a result of dehydration and heat exposure. But a spokesman for Summit Quest, a youth motivation group based in St. George, Utah, that sponsored the wilderness trek, said she had been fed food and water regularly since she joined the group two days earlier.

Mohave County Sheriff’s Sgt. Dale Lent said counselors told investigators that they became lost while camping near Mount Dellenbaugh, about 100 miles northeast of Kingman, Ariz.

The survivors said they were almost out of water while on a long hike and that the girl told them she did not feel well, Lent said. Two group members went ahead to the next campsite to get water. However, before they returned, the girl collapsed and her heart stopped, Lent said.

The counselors told authorities they tried to revive her. Summit Quest spokesman Bob Morey said both counselors were trained emergency medical technicians.

Because they had not brought communications equipment along, the hikers were forced to light distress fires to attract an aircraft flying overhead. By the time National Park Service rangers reached the group, they were almost out of water, Lent said.

Bishop Fisher said he had been told by the Sutton family that under Summit Quest’s arrangements, Michelle had traveled by plane to Arizona, where she linked up with the other hikers--also troubled youths who had flown in from other parts of the country.

“My understanding is that the hike is part of a commercial venture designed to help youngsters who have had troubles in one area or another to gain self-esteem and self-control,” Fisher said.

Fisher said that Michelle had hoped to use the wilderness hike as a way to “get a new start” away from a circle of friends with whom she joined in alcohol and drug abuse.

“It was a way of getting away from peer pressure,” Fisher said.

Fisher described the girl, a sophomore at Amador High School, as a “quiet but delightful young lady” who had been active in church affairs until her problems began. Fisher said that she had come to him shortly before leaving on the hike and told him that “she made some decisions and was feeling a lot better about her life.”


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