A Ventura hiker left to find help for his heat-stricken girlfriend. He was found dead four days later

Green and gold hills seen from a mountaintop stretch toward a hazy horizon
A view of the Gaviota Pass with Hollister Ranch in the distance from Gaviota Peak in the Santa Ynez Mountains.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Authorities don’t yet have the full picture of Tim Sgrignoli’s final hours in the mountains north of Santa Barbara, but one thing is clear: He was on a mission to help his girlfriend.

The 29-year-old and his partner, both residents of Ventura, set out to hike Gaviota Peak on Sunday morning, said Cmdr. Erik Raney of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office. She was stricken by the heat and would have to be rescued by helicopter later that day, but Sgrignoli — who had ventured off alone in search of help — was missing until Thursday, when his body was found in thick brush about 20 feet away from the 101 Freeway.

Though the couple had packed water, the popular trail winding through the rugged Santa Ynez Mountains is known to be steep and challenging even during mild weather — let alone the punishing temperatures that broiled the state over the weekend.


The couple reached the summit Sunday and were making their way back down the Trespass Trail when Sgrignoli’s girlfriend, whom authorities didn’t publicly identify, grew ill from the high temperature, Raney said.

The pair sought refuge in the shade of a rock outcropping and hatched a plan.

Sgrignoli would leave their remaining water and his cellphone with his girlfriend, Raney said. He marked their location along the trail using GPS and sent it to her phone, which they’d left in their car at the trailhead parking lot.

Then he left to find help.

The high-pressure system over most of California is expected to bring record-breaking temperatures, part of a “self-perpetuating” system that is becoming more extreme as climate change worsens.

Sgrignoli told his girlfriend that if he didn’t return or contact her by a certain time, she should call 911, Raney said. He planned to get to the car, call for help, gather supplies and make his way back to her.

Authorities aren’t sure how much time passed after he left his girlfriend, but at some point her condition deteriorated and she called 911, the sheriff’s spokesperson said.

Rescue crews reached her by helicopter and retrieved her with a hoist, Raney said. They flew to a nearby fire station for a planned transport to a hospital.

When she told authorities Sgrignoli was missing, crews launched a search, the spokesperson said.

For the next four days, authorities undertook a major search operation, Raney said. Supplementing Santa Barbara County search and rescue personnel were teams from around the region, including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Ventura and Orange counties, San Diego, San Luis Obispo and as far as the San Francisco Bay Area.

Amid punishingly hot conditions, crews scoured the area using helicopters, drones, dogs, electric bikes and other tools.

Search teams remarked that the temperature at the trailhead parking lot reached 114 degrees on Sunday, Raney said.

“We know that it’s hotter up on the hill,” he said. “It’s exposed with no shade or water.”

Search parties and dogs were unable to stay out for long periods of time because of the heat, Raney said, and sweltering conditions would only continue over the following days.

The cellphone analysis supports the finding of heat-related deaths for a couple and their young daughter last summer in the Sierra Nevada.

Rescuers persisted, eventually settling on an area of the Trespass Trail that features a view of the 101 Freeway. Authorities believed Sgrignoli may have seen the roadway and decided to leave the trail in hopes of shortening his route.

It’s there that his body was found Thursday.

Authorities spotted no obvious signs of a fall or other trauma, and while the county coroner’s bureau is still investigating, authorities believe Sgrignoli succumbed to a heat-related illness, Raney said.