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Chance meeting on a trail yields crucial tip in Amber Alert case

BOISE, Idaho — Hardly anything seemed ordinary about the two hikers that horseback riders encountered in the Idaho backcountry last week.

The man was middle-aged, and the girl was a teenager. On a wilderness trail, she wore what looked like pajama bottoms. He had brand-new camping gear — and a cat. "Like a square peg going into a round hole," said Mark John, one of the horsemen.

What John and his companions didn't realize at the time was that their chance meeting on the trail would provide the crucial tip that led law enforcement to the campsite of missing 16-year-old Hannah Anderson of California and her suspected abductor, James DiMaggio, 40.

DiMaggio, who police say kidnapped Hannah after killing her mother and 8-year-old brother at his home outside of San Diego, was shot and killed by an FBI agent Saturday during a dramatic rescue operation in the central Idaho wilderness. The girl was expected to be reunited with her father Sunday following a weeklong manhunt. Authorities across several Western states had asked for the public's help by sending missing-children Amber Alert text messages.

Search teams tracked DiMaggio and the teenager to a campsite near Morehead Lake, about 75 miles north of Boise, after getting a tip late last week from Mark and Christa John of Sweet, Idaho, who came across the pair while on a fishing and camping trip with another couple.

The Johns' friends, Mike and Mary Young, first saw the pair during a Wednesday morning horseback ride when they came up behind DiMaggio and Hannah while they were hiking on a trail.

Hannah said little and "kind of had a scared look on her face when I first came up the trail," Mike Young recalled at a news conference Sunday in Boise. At the time, he attributed it to her being taken off-guard by the horses.

Several hours later, around 5 p.m., the Youngs and Johns again encountered DiMaggio and Hannah, at Morehead Lake, below where they had set up their tent high on a ridge. DiMaggio was off to the side, petting a gray cat. Mark John jokingly asked Hannah why she was soaking her feet in a lake filled with fish, but she didn't respond. As John and his companions started to ride away, he heard Hannah say, "Looks like we're all in trouble now."

"I had no idea what she meant," John said. "It was loud enough to hear, but it was mostly to herself."

But it was clear something was amiss.

"They just didn't fit," said John, a retired sheriff. "He might have been an outdoorsman in California, but he was not an outdoorsman in Idaho.... Red flags kind of went up."

John's wife was concerned enough about the girl that she wanted to talk to Hannah. Her husband advised her to leave the two alone.

The Johns pieced things together the next day, when they returned home and saw a news alert about the missing girl on television.

"That is that girl we seen on the mountain," Mark John told his wife. He then talked to the Youngs to confirm his suspicions before calling a friend in the Idaho State Police.

The multi-state manhunt began Aug. 4 when firefighters found the bodies of Hannah's mother, Christina Anderson, 44, and her brother Ethan in DiMaggio's burning home, east of San Diego.

The case drew national news coverage as officials widened their search to several Western states and sought the public's help in locating DiMaggio's blue Nissan Versa, using for the first time in California an Amber Alert system sent through cellphone text messages. Possible sightings of the vehicle were reported in Northern California, Washington and Oregon.

On Friday, after receiving the tip from the Johns, Idaho authorities found DiMaggio's car in a forested area near a trail head, covered up with fallen logs and brush with its license plates removed. They confirmed it was the right car by checking its vehicle identification number.

By Saturday afternoon, more than 150 local and federal law enforcement officers were combing the steep and remote terrain northeast of Cascade, Idaho, by aircraft and horseback.

Law enforcement agents in a surveillance plane spotted DiMaggio and the teen Saturday afternoon at the campsite more than six miles from DiMaggio's car.

Smoke from nearby wildfires made it difficult to see from the air, and the plane had to avoid flying low enough to be spotted by DiMaggio, so authorities decided to drop off two FBI hostage rescue teams at the safest possible landing site nearest the camp. The teams hiked more than two hours through steep terrain to the lake and surrounded the camp but held back to avoid alerting DiMaggio.

Authorities observed DiMaggio moving wood and other materials around the campsite, possibly to fortify his position or make the hide-out harder to see from the air, law enforcement sources told The Times.

The teams waited until DiMaggio and Hannah separated, then moved in. After the confrontation, Hannah was taken by helicopter to a local hospital to be evaluated.

Sarah Britt, Hannah's grandmother, told CNN on Sunday that she was relieved the ordeal was over and that the family would not have to endure a trial.

"No one wants to go through years of jury trials and put Hannah through that," she said. "We're excited to have our granddaughter home."

Andrew Spanswick, a friend of the DiMaggio family, said he spoke with FBI agents as they were searching for DiMaggio and told them he might be on a suicide mission.

When Spanswick heard the search had moved to the Idaho wilderness, "I had concerns about Hannah and him just making it in the woods," he said. He also feared DiMaggio could be plotting his own death to coincide with his father's, who Spanswick said died 15 years ago on Aug. 10, the date his son was killed.

"It was bone-chilling when I heard the dates," said Spanswick, who described himself as a good friend of DiMaggio's brother-in-law. He said he had known DiMaggio for about seven years and had gone camping with him in Yosemite National Park.

DiMaggio's sister and her family are processing their grief and guilt as they try to understand how DiMaggio "could have done something so horrible," Spanswick said. "They were also extremely relieved that Hannah came back alive."

Sheriff's officials credited the horseback riders' tip with focusing what started as a 300-square-mile search area to a narrow stretch of backcountry.

"Their information, that's what led people here," said Ada County sheriff's spokeswoman Andrea Dearden. "We had no way to know where to look until we were able to speak to them."

The horseback riders were also pleased their discovery brought Hannah to safety.

"We were all on pins and needles," Mark John said.

"For us to be there at the precise time to interact with them is one chance in a trillion," said his wife, Christa. "That was just one of those once in a lifetime events."

Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this story.

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