Hiker finds Steve Fossett ID

Times Staff Writers

. -- Trying to solve the year-old mystery revolving around vanished adventurer Steve Fossett, searchers scoured the rugged backcountry here until dark Wednesday after authorities announced that a hiker had discovered the billionaire’s IDs.

Late Wednesday, authorities said aerial searchers spotted “what could be wreckage of a plane” in the area. A crew hopes to reach the site this morning.

The search is being conducted as a storm draws near. About a dozen searchers were to remain in the field overnight, planning to resume the effort before winds pick up and an expected afternoon snowstorm blankets the area.


“Whatever we do, we’ve got to do it tomorrow,” Madera County Sheriff John Anderson said.

Late Wednesday, authorities confirmed that two documents -- including a pilot’s license -- that had been partially covered by pine needles belonged to Fossett. The other confirmed document was a membership card in the Soaring Society of America. A third document, a membership card in an aeronautics association, was too damaged for a positive identification.

Fossett, 63, disappeared more than a year ago while on a solo pleasure flight from a remote ranch in Nevada. The subsequent search for him spanned about 24,000 square miles, including the high country of the Eastern Sierra Nevada. It was unclear whether this particular area was scrutinized, officials said.

Fossett’s body has not been located, nor have there been any confirmed sightings of his borrowed, single-engine Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon. “It’s a needle in a haystack -- and you have to find the haystack first,” Nevada emergency services official Jeff Page said.

Preston Morrow, 43, a hiker who works at a sporting goods store in Mammoth Lakes, came across the three identification cards -- and 10 $100 bills -- on Monday while roaming with his dog in Red’s Meadow, a rugged spot at an elevation of about 9,700 feet. As evening approached, Morrow had veered off a trail two miles west of Devils Postpile National Monument.

Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Los Angeles, said he had received a photograph of a pilot’s license that was found by the hiker.

“The certificate number and date of issue on the document in the photo matches the information we have for Mr. Fossett in our database,” he said.


Other information, including Fossett’s date of birth and his address, also matched, he said.

Fossett, who grew up in Garden Grove, made millions in the securities market but is best known for the 116 records he set in gliders, powered aircraft, balloons and sailboats. In 2005, he became the first person to fly a fixed-wing aircraft alone around the world without stopping or refueling.

Searchers led by the Civil Air Patrol maintained their efforts for one month but without success.

An Illinois court declared Fossett dead Feb. 15.

On Wednesday, his widow, Peggy Fossett, issued a statement alluding to “the discovery by a hiker of personal items that appear to belong to my husband.”

“I am hopeful that this search will locate the crash site and my husband’s remains,” she said. “I am grateful to all of those involved in this effort.”

Although the disappearance of the supremely experienced aviator on a September day with perfect flying weather has been a mystery, some key people in the previous search for him said Wednesday that a crash in the Sierra is a plausible possibility.


“We had information from Day 1 that he may have been headed for a pleasure flight up the 395 corridor,” said Lyon County, Nev., Undersheriff Joe Sanford.

Fossett was reported missing after taking off on what he had said would be a short morning flight from hotel magnate and aviation enthusiast William Barron Hilton’s Flying-M Ranch, about 60 miles southeast of Carson City toward Bishop, Calif.

The plane carries 40 gallons of fuel -- more than enough for a hop over the Sierra and back, Sanford said. Fossett left his cellphone and a GPS unit, and was vague about where he was going.

After Morrow found the items Monday, he approached attorney David Baumwohl for advice on how to proceed. In an interview, Baumwohl declined to say whether he had represented Morrow in the past.

Baumwohl, who said Morrow did not know who Fossett was, contacted the Fossett family’s attorneys in Illinois. They did not immediately respond.

“We assume they thought we were scammers,” the attorney said.

Before turning the cash and cards into local police late Tuesday, Morrow and Baumwohl revisited the site with a GPS device and a video crew that had been working on TV productions in the area for several months. The plan, Baumwohl said, was to offer authorities as much information as possible.


“We had been researching Steve Fossett’s disappearance since he was declared dead,” said producer Eric Schotz of Encino-based LMNO Productions, which provides shows for the Discovery Channel, among others. His crew’s presence and the discovery of the apparent Fossett items was coincidental, he said: “It’s one weird, ironic trip.”

Schotz, who was on hand for the strenuous hike Tuesday, said his group did not plan to pay Morrow for his participation.

However, Baumwohl held open the possibility that Morrow might receive compensation for a production “that goes a little bit beyond regular news.”

Whether reward money is available for information leading to Fossett’s discovery was unclear Wednesday.

On the return visit, the group found a faded, extra-large, Nautica fleece pullover and left it at the scene, anchored by a rock.

That detail puzzled Sanford, the Nevada undersheriff.

“To my knowledge, Fossett left in sweat pants, a T-shirt, and tennis shoes,” he said. “We’re unaware of any other clothing.”


Authorities from many agencies are participating in the search. A command post was set up Wednesday at the Mammoth Lakes airport.

British billionaire-adventurer Richard Branson once described Fossett as “a sort of half-android, half-Forrest Gump.”


Times staff writers Amanda Covarrubias and Dennis McClellan contributed to this report.