Drug charge fuels debate about who should pay for hikers’ rescue

A helicopter takes part in the search for two hikers missing in the Trabuco Canyon area of Orange County in April. After one was charged with drug possession, officials are considering billing them for the costs of a multi-day search and rescue.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The discovery of drugs inside the car of a pair of hikers rescued in a multiday search has prompted Orange County officials to consider charging them for the $160,000 operation and fanned a debate on when people should pay for their misadventures.

One of the hikers, Nicolas Cendoya, was charged Tuesday with a felony count of methamphetamine possession after authorities said they found a small amount of the drug in the car the pair parked before setting off on an Easter Sunday hike.

Cendoya, 19, and with Kyndall Jack, 18, had little water and quickly got into trouble, calling authorities that night on a cellphone that stopped functioning before officials could pinpoint their location. They later spoke of becoming lost, disoriented and having hallucinations.


Two days into the multi-agency search for the couple in Trabuco Canyon, deputies looked through Cendoya’s green BMW for clues and found 497 milligrams of meth, according to the Orange County district attorney’s office.

Cendoya was ultimately found wandering shoeless and disoriented about half a mile from the car, and Jack was rescued the next day in shoulder-high brush. Officials said both were weak and suffering from dehydration.

Jack later said she had experienced vivid hallucinations that left her thinking she was being attacked by animals and that twigs were straws from which she could suck water. Cendoya said he thought he might be “in the afterlife” and grew so convinced he was being stalked by predators that he grabbed a sharp stick for defense

Both were briefly hospitalized.

The Sheriff’s Department said Tuesday that the hikers would not be billed for the effort, but by Thursday it had reversed course and said it was evaluating the emergency response to determine whether the hikers should be billed.

Gail Krause, a spokeswoman with the Sheriff’s Department, said in an e-mail that there is legal authority for seeking reimbursement from counties if one of their residents has to be rescued in another county. But Cendoya and Jack are Orange County residents.

“The recent drug charge on Cendoya may change things,” she said.

Todd Spitzer, a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, said he called for an independent investigation of the case before the drug charges were announced.


“They didn’t go out there to hike, they went out there to get high. And they got disoriented,” Spitzer alleged.

The supervisor said he’s evaluating all remedies, including civil and criminal action. He hopes to have a recommendation to the board in the coming weeks.

“The financial implications of this are way more than $160,000,” he said, adding that it will cost the county six figures in workers’ compensation to care for the reserve deputy who seriously injured his vertebrae during the rescue. The Sheriff’s Department said its figure did not include the man’s care.

Shawn Nelson, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said charging the hikers for the cost of their rescue could be tricky because public safety agencies shouldn’t make such decisions based on costs. He said that although the hikers’ actions were “stupid” and possibly “illegal,” the debate required more than a knee-jerk reaction.

“I guess the struggle is, when do people make stupid mistakes and when do people put others in harm?” he said.

Nelson said there is a conversation worth having, but it shouldn’t be under the purview of county supervisors.


“If we know in advance that an individual can’t pay, does that mean we don’t bother looking for him?” he asked.

John Moorlach, a supervisor and avid hiker, asked why taxpayers should be penalized for what he saw as the reckless actions of the teenagers.

Moorlach said he had a hunch about the teenagers during the search.

“We certainly want to save them but, by golly, you were saved and you owe your society a debt of gratitude,” he said, “and you need to pay the bill.”