BOISE, Idaho -- It was the crucial tip, authorities said, that helped them narrow their search for missing San Diego County teen Hannah Anderson in the vast wilderness 75 miles northeast of here.
Christa John said it was “one chance in a trillion” that she and three other horseback riders came across Anderson and murder suspect James DiMaggio in the rugged back county.
“Idaho wasn’t even on the radar for her,” she said. “Nobody suspected her to be there.”
“If they would have been over the side hill a little bit, or inside their camp, we wouldn’t have bothered,” John, 68, continued. “We would have never known. We would have never seen anything. So that was just one of those once-in-a-lifetime events.”
She said the group saw the pair twice Wednesday -- once as they rode toward Morehead Lake, and again when they came back. They didn’t realize the girl was the subject of a massive, multi-state search, however, until they came home Thursday and turned on the television, she said.
“We went into the house and the news flashed on, and the Amber Alert was on the television,” her husband, Mark John, said. “I told my wife, ‘That is the girl we seen on the mountain.’”
Mark John, a retired sheriff, conferred with a couple who was also on the trip. After they agreed the girl on TV looked a lot like the girl on the trail, he called a friend at the Idaho State Police.
The next day, DiMaggio’s blue Nissan Versa was found covered in brush and logs at a trailhead in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness. Federal, state and local authorities swarmed the area, looking for any sign of the two.
The next day, crews in a plane spotted DiMaggio and Hannah at a campsite near Morehead Lake, not far from where the riders saw them two days before. Two FBI hostage teams were flown into the forest and hiked more than two hours to the site, which they then surrounded.
When DiMaggio and Hannah separated far enough so that they could safely rescue the girl, the team moved in. DiMaggio was shot and killed, authorities said. Hannah, who was not hurt in the rescue, was helicoptered to an area hospital, ending the six-day search.
Ada County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Andrea Dearden said the information from the horseback riders was crucial to Hannah’s rescue, saying it was “absolutely” the needle in the haystack investigators were hoping to find.
“Their information, that’s what led people here,” she said. “We had no way to know where to look until we were able to speak to them.”
“As these kidnapping cases go, you really don’t know where the next lead will be,” she continued. “You have to be ready for anything,” she said. “And we’re so fortunate that we got a lead, we followed it up and it led straight to Hannah."
Mark John said that after he called Idaho authorities, the FBI came to his ranch in Sweet on Friday morning to ask about the sighting. “They wanted to know every single solitary thing about it,” he said.
When DiMaggio’s car was found that morning, he said, the group was relieved, knowing their hunch had proved correct.
But they were nervous about how the search would end, he said.
“We were all on pins and needles, wondering what was going on and what was happening,” he said. “We were extremely happy when we found out it turned out the way it did.”
Christa John said she saw the news on TV first. Her husband was out doing chores, and when he rode back to their house on a four-wheeler, she said, she was jumping up and down, holding two thumbs up.
“We were relieved,” she said.