My Current Thinking on Bill Ewasko*

by Adam Marsland
Posted October 2, 2014

*NOTE: A newer blog on the Ewasko case is posted here.

Overview:

Bill Ewasko set out on a day hike from Juniper Flats Trailhead in Joshua Tree National Park in the morning or afternoon of Thursday, June 24, 2010 and was never seen again. A massive initial search and rescue effort, and a later extensive grass roots scouring of the area spearheaded by Tom Mahood, has failed to locate him. The only, most puzzling, clue is a brief 10 second ping from Mr. Ewasko's cell phone just after dawn on Sunday morning, which was later found to have transmitted from somewhere at or near a 10.6 mile radial line from Verizon's Serin Tower in Yucca Valley. The primary mystery is how Mr. Ewasko could have been alive and moving far enough out of the primary search area to have been the source of that ping, and still failed to reach a cell tower earlier.

Inspired by Tom Mahood's efforts to find Bill Ewasko, I have made multiple trips to Joshua Tree to aid in the search, which are detailed along with Mr. Mahood's and others' searches on his website at otherhand.org. I've absorbed all the available information (which is also assembled in great detail on Tom's website), made some tests of my own, and earlier this year I posted a new theory about what might have happened to Bill. Since then, I've done several more searches in the area, Tom Mahood has also taken a look, and I've been able to confirm some aspects of my theory and rule other parts out. I wanted to give an update on where my thinking is at.

New Thoughts on Bill's Frame Of Mind On The Hike

I've heard second-hand through a few sources, and this is echoed on Bill's memorial website, that Bill had a "vision quest-y" attitude about this hike. That, along with the great distance he traveled to come to Joshua Tree and the numerous maps found at his condo, makes me think that Bill was not planning just a quick day hike. Coupled with everything we know about Bill - bulldog tenacious, recon in Vietnam, etc. - I believe that Bill was planning a challenging, possibly slightly dangerous, day's hike, one that would have him leaving established trails and bushwhacking for at least part of the day, and taking a much longer route than previously thought.

Bill told his fiancée that he was planning to be out of the park by 5 or so, to get dinner at Pappy & Harriet's that night. However, this was before he had actually entered the park, and while we don't know what he did after that phone call, we do know he arrived at Juniper Flats Trailhead later than would be expected from the timing of that phone call. And Pappy & Harriet's is open late. So provided Bill called his fiancée before the night was too advanced, everything could proceed on track. It seems likely that the 5 p.m. estimate was based on the assumption of an earlier arrival at a trailhead.

My belief then is that Bill planned to do a challenging hike that took him off established trails for part of the journey, most likely the earliest part, with established trails forming the return route and providing a safety buffer in case he got into trouble. This provides more support for Tom Mahood's Smith Water scenario, since it answers the question of why Bill would strike out for water in such uncertain terrain -- it makes more sense if that was his plan from the get-go. Moreoever, both Smith Water and Covington Flat (which were on wish list and would be nearby his return trip) would be within reach on this route, making it tempting.

Another, shorter, bushwhack would also be a possibility, which would also for the first time provide Bill with a plausible scenario for reaching Upper Covington. Bill may have intended to strike out west from the Stubbe Springs area to the deep canyon that leads north to Lower Covington, picking up the California Riding & Hiking Trail to take him back to his car. This is roughly the same route posited in my earlier theory, except that in this case, Bill was making an intentional bushwhack. This would be a shorter round trip (between 13-15 miles), and would also again put him within striking distance of both Covington Flat and Smith Water.

Ewasko loops

Very rough diagram of two possible loops that Bill Ewasko might have taken if he was planning a long, partially bushwhacked, desert experience. The red takes Bill past Stubbe Spring toward a large canyon northward to meet with California Riding and Hiking Trail; the green takes bill up toward Quail Mountain and then northwest to Smith Water Canyon, proceeding back again on the California Riding and Hiking Trail, which passes by its western entrance. Another plausible loop route would take Ewasko east from Quail towards Johnny Lang Mine and back to his car, but the terrain and cell coverage in that area make this scenario unlikely.

If Bill was planning a longer, partly bushwhacked hike, it explains two things: how he could have gotten lost (since he should have been found if he had been near a trail) and how he could have been at the 10.6 mile radial line from Serin cell tower three days later, since that places him far from his car. It is easier to understand how he got to that area if he was planning to get in the vicinity in the first place; moving in that direction once he is lost makes little sense.

The Status of the Upper Covington Theory

I previously detailed my earlier theory that Bill pinged a cell tower at location on the extreme western edge of Upper Covington Flat, quite some distance from his car. This was an area previously thought to not have cell reception. Since that time I have been "kicking the tires" of this theory and testing it for weaknesses. This is what I have discovered since then:

1. The pattern of cell reception in the general area of the "Upper Covington Ping Spot" (hereafter "UCPS") does suggest that it is from Serin Tower. It is worth mentioning Tom Mahood is skeptical of this, however, there is no reception anywhere in the immediate surroundings where Coachella Valley is visible, and UCPS lies in a direct line from a known spot of coverage further north, to Serin, in a depression mostly out of sight of the valley below.

2. It appears to be possible to get all the way from Bill's car to UCPS without ever pinging a cell tower. Though Verizon's coverage map suggests cell reception extends into Upper Covington, no coverage has been observed (the southernmost area still needs to be checked). The distance from Bill's car to UCPS is approximately 9 miles as the crow flies, closer to 11 on foot.

3. It appears to be possible that Bill could have missed Covington Crest Trail, the only path that Bill would have had to cross to get to UCPS. See this video.

4. There are only two likely ways Bill could have gotten into Upper Covington. On the east side, some ways south of the Riding and Hiking Trail, is a draw formed by a wash between Upper and Lower Covington that is somewhat rugged but not hard to navigate; this is less likely because it seems unlikely Bill would have gone west from Lower Covington Flat and he would have been very close to the California Riding and Hiking Trail at the point he would have had to leave Lower Covington. Also there is a likelihood he would have seen the road coming into Upper Covington from this route. Therefore the most likely entry point into Upper Covington would be coming up a canyon from the south. I have not yet checked to see how feasible this route is on foot.

5. It is possible that Bill could have then proceeded from UCPS into the wild canyons to the west however, owing to the ruggedness of the terrain, I do not think it likely. However, if he did get into these canyons, he would be very difficult to find.

6. Because of the presence of the canyons to the west and the Upper Covington Flat Road to the right, there are not many places for Bill to proceed from UCPS. Most of these have been searched. The southwestern section of Upper Covington Flat still needs to be examined.

7. If Bill took a loop route west of Stubbe Spring, then headed north up the big canyon to meet California Riding and Hiking Trail, there is a point where he could conceivably have lost his way and headed into Upper Covington instead:

canyon split

Google Earth image of split in big canyon which leads south from Lower Covington Flat. If someone was proceeding north up this canyon to intersect with the California Riding and Hiking Trail, they would need to take the right fork. The left fork goes into the hills and eventually leads to Upper Covington Flat. Both canyons ascend upward.

8. The biggest current flaw in the Upper Covington Flat theory is that the area around the UCPS has been searched, and Bill does not appear to be there. Moreover, it is hard to understand why Bill would head to that particular spot.

Upper Covington has a lot going for it: it explains the weird ping, it makes more sense to the timeline, and it's an area that the original search and rescue mostly missed. It also explains something that has vexed me, which is that no solid trace of Bill's passage (other than possibly a bandana found on Quail) has ever been found - the area in between Stubbe and UC has only been searched once. It also offers a wider conceivable area for Bill to wander off in than Smith Water. But it is hard to understand why he went there (though I think the above "wrong fork in the canyon" theory is plausible), harder still to know why he would have gone to the UCPS site, and hardest of all to fathom where he went once he got there.

The Status of the Smith Water Canyon Theory

Smith Water Canyon (specifically, the southern ridges and highlands above) has received the brunt of the recent searching, and it makes a lot of intuitive sense. From what little we know about Bill's plans it seems Quail Mountain was his likely destination, and to get on the 10.6 mile line Smith Water is basically where he has to wind up. As Tom has pointed out, he may have planned to refill his water bottles in a seep that exists in the canyon (though I've never found it myself). There is a large cell dark zone behind Quail Mountain (though in absolute terms, it's not very big) and the terrain looks deceptively easy. And most of all, the descent into Smith Water from the high areas where a cell phone might ping is extremely treacherous, doubly so for anyone without a walking stick. It is very easy to imagine an injury in this scenario. In a low light situation I would consider it almost guaranteed. Also, there are numerous rocky outcroppings in the area that might offer shelter and shield a body.

The main problem with Smith Water is obvious: it's been looked at extensively. I can vouch for this having looked myself and seeing evidence (footprints, etc.) of the people that have come before me. Mahood and his friends have swarmed the area, and it also got some examination in the initial search and rescue. But what bothers me more than this is that other than a bandana found on the ascent towards Quail (possibly, but not confirmed to be, Bill's), the initial search and rescue and the searchers who came after found no trace of Bill's passage. Human activity in this area is infrequent enough that footprints, trash, etc., really stand out. Likewise you should be able to see where Bill bivouaced for the night - the disturbance of the dirt should still be evident. Bill was out for three nights but no one has ever found anything.

Secondly, once you arrive at the area (southern slope of Smith Water) where your cell phone might go off, your exit route is obvious. You go down and to the east. Yucca Valley is visible in the distance and Park Road might also be discerned if you knew where to look. The way down is ugly and dangerous no matter where you go - the only easy route I have found is to backtrack about two miles to the south. But the actual distance involved is not that great. Likewise, the actual cell dead zone behind Smith Water is also not very extensive, just a few square miles. So it's hard to understand how Bill is in the small no reception area for nearly three days, and yet then manages to ping a tower on Sunday and immediately leaves the area and nobody from search and rescue, who will be in the area within hours, finds him. Moreover, for the Smith Water theory to work, it requires Bill to come to grief on the Smith Water slopes AFTER pinging the tower on Sunday. If Bill had initially injured himself trying to descend from Smith Water, he would need to go back up to generate the cell ping. Assuming it took him more than two days to do this, it's then inconceivable that he could then move far from the ping location -- and the possible cell ping areas have been pretty thoroughly looked at (there are plenty of places to be obscured around there, and they've gotten a lot of attention). Any way you slice it, it's hard to understand why Bill's mobility is so limited for the two and a half days prior to the ping and yet he has not been found in or near any of the places a cell ping could have originated from.

I do think there's still a possibility Bill might be found somewhere above Quail Spring. Some of the terrain is extremely steep and it is easy to imagine being most of the way down and having the terrain cliff out with no way up. It is not terribly far from areas above Smith Water with cell reception, and it's a logical (and extremely dangerous, but that's not immediately obvious) way out. But again, this area has been looked at pretty extensively. There are some holes, but they are small.

WHAT WE KNOW, OR CAN GUESS:

Bill - The First Night

If Bill had an overly ambitious plan in mind for his hike, chances are night began to fall before he was in position to return to his car on an established trail. It is easier to understand how Bill came to ping a cell tower from 10.6 miles out three days later if he was in the general area to begin with, since it is hard to understand why he would proceed away from his car once he is lost.

I know from a recent hiking experience that if Bill was out of position as night fell, he would be faced with the dual problems of having to make extra speed and low light making scouting the terrain difficult. Moreover, if he was surprised in some way by the terrain, it would increase the likelihood both that he would face an injury and that he would lose his way...possibly arriving at a spot in the dark that nobody would ever go during the daytime.

Ewasko 8 p.m. location possibilities

Map courtesy Google and Tom Mahood. The brown areas are Verizon's official coverage. Though Verizon's map indicates coverage in the Upper Covington Flats area (marked with a "4"), and the mountains to the east, from the cell towers in Coachella Valley, field tests have indicated there is no coverage here except for one or two isolated areas. Lines in blue are trails. Lines in brown are roads.

It seems certain that by 8 p.m. Bill would have attempted to reach his fiancée, either to call for help or to reassure her. Given the areas of cell reception known, that places him at that time in one of four places:

1. Behind Quail Mountain (prevailing Smith Water theory)

2. In or around Smith Water itself

3. West of Stubbe Springs

4. In Upper Covington Flat (or anywhere between 3 and 4).

There is no cell reception on the California Riding and Hiking Trail or in the Juniper Flats/Stubbe Springs area, but since all offer direct routes back to Bill's car, these can be ruled out.

From any of these locations, it is very possible that an attempt to expedite the return to the car in a low light situation could lead to both injury and becoming confused as to position. For example, if Bill wound up in Upper Covington Flat, he might have thought he was in Lower Covington Flat and attempted to find the Riding and Hiking Trail, to no avail.

Bill Was Injured The First Night, And Was Still Alive On Sunday

If Bill was able-bodied Friday morning, no matter where he was, he should have been able to find his way back by careful bushwhacking and sun orientation. However, if he was slowed by injury and uncertain of his position, he may have been in the uneniviable situation of having to take his best guess while being able to move very slowly. Given the imperatives of making a cell call, staying out of the sun, and finding water, it is very difficult to predict what he might have done in that situation (particularly without knowing where he was). But he'd have to move slowly with no margin for error.

Despite the UCPS filling the bill in all respects to explain the 10-second ping on Sunday, I believe the most likely answer for the short, isolated ping is that the cell phone's batteries died at some point Friday or Saturday (there's a good chance he would have used it for light Friday night), but one final attempt on Sunday caused the phone to boot up briefly, then quickly die. This does open up the possibility that Bill could have died prior to Sunday, however, I do not believe this to be the case because:

1. Someone or something would have had to turn the phone on. Even assuming an animal or something of that nature, a flip phone (assuming that's what Bill had) would have to be opened up first.

2. There are very few places Bill could have pinged the tower, and we believe they have all been searched. If Bill had expired at that spot, he should have been found.

Possible Ping Sites

Known possible ping sites at or near the 10.6 mile radial line.

List of Possible Ping Sites

These are the known places where a cell phone could ping Serin Tower at or around 10.6 miles, listed in my declining order of probability:

1. Smith Water Canyon at approximately 34° 2'5.20"N, 116°15'47.32"W. This to me is the most likely candidate in Smith Water as it lies closest to the 10.6 mile line and also is over a low ridge that leads into a cell dead zone behind it. The way down from here is extremely treacherous and there are many rock formations nearby where someone could hide. But: This area has been thoroughly searched, however, by Tom Mahood, myself, and others.

2. Smith Water Canyon at approximately 34° 1'49.52"N, 116°16'5.49"W. There is spotty reception here and rugged terrain. I myself observed in that area a pit that, if anyone had fallen into it, they would be unlikely to be found. Bill wasn't in it, but other such areas may lie nearby. Rocky, steep terrain leading up from the canyon resolves to a fairly level and open area where someone might await rescue. But: This area has been even more thoroughly searched. And a large area of cell coverage lies to the south of it, which Bill presumably would have pinged on the way here (but which would not apply in the "zombie battery" scenario above - but it's harder to understand why he didn't get a call out the first night if this is where he wound up).

3. Upper Covington Flat at approximately 34° 0'36.45"N, 116°19'28.21"W. The "UCPS". Almost exactly on the 10.6 mile line, 10 miles from Bill's car, with no cell reception all the way there. But: The area nearby has been searched, and unless Bill went into the adjacent canyons (a seemingly suicidal move) there's no logical place for him to have gone on from here. Also, Tom Mahood disputes that this spot originates from Serin Tower. There is a known Serin coverage site about a half mile north of here, however, for which the same pros and cons apply.

4. Quail Wash, around 34° 2'27.94"N, 116°15'20.31"W. There is reliable cell reception in this area, and this spot is a logical exit point from Smith Water. But: Quail Wash is regularly traveled by hikers (not to mention having been traversed on repeated searches). It is hard to believe Bill would not have been found here.

5. North side of Smith Water Canyon at approximately 34° 1'42.09"N, 116°17'28.29"W. This area has been lightly searched, and the route from here to Yucca Valley offers moderate terrain and a large area that has not been looked at. But: Why on earth would Bill come here? There is an obvious, good dirt road nearby and it's a hell of a steep climb from any direction, to no purpose.

6. Twin mountains near Samuelson's Rock, approximately 34° 2'56.38"N, 116°15'13.12"W. Only searched once, and besides the UCPS and Quail, the only place that lies directly on the 10.6 line. But: Even less likely that the north side of Smith Water - these two mountains lie astride two obvious (and easily navigated) exit routes. There's no conceivable reason to climb them.

The Mystery

Of the 6 possible ping sites, only the first 4 merit serious consideration. The problem with each of them is that they have been searched extensively and Bill is not there. Moreover, from each point, there are limited places Bill could have gone on. In the case of 1, 2 and 4, those exit routes are obvious and have been searched (though as I said above I think there are still areas above Quail Spring that might merit a closer look). In the case of 3, topography and a nearby road limit the possibilities, and those areas have been searched as well. I do want to look further south in Upper Covington, but it would be more or less a backtrack for Bill, so again, it's hard to understand why he would go this way.

Dark Horse Possibilities

1. Foul play, or deliberate disappearance. This is suggested by the odd eyewitness accounts of Bill's car supposedly having been moved or being altogether absent during some of the time he was missing. However, it is very hard to come up with a scenario that explains these peculiarities AND the cell ping seemingly happening on Sunday in a very remote area of the park. It is conceivable that Bill was done away with, and that his phone was dropped near a main road 10.6 miles from Serin Tower and some passerby happened to pick it up and turn it on. But given the specifics of the timeline and the unlikelihood of encountering anybody in this part of the park (it doesn't seem a good use of a criminal's time to be hanging around the lightly visited Juniper Flats Trailhead waiting to mug people), it seems improbable. Moreover, if Bill disappeared deliberately, why is he hanging around with the phone still active on Sunday morning (and where does he hang out within the confines of the park - since the car didn't exit - without anyone finding him)?

2. The ping information is wrong. Verizon's estimate of the accuracy of the ping allows for a 10% margin of error, which could extend the possible area a half mile or so further out - doesn't really change things much. A more serious snafu with the mileage could change the whole picture. But there is no evidence of this.

3. Bill went completely off his rocker from heat exhaustion, and went into an area that makes absolutely no logical sense (e.g. into the canyons west of Upper Covington, or eschewing an obvious exit route like a road or a path).

4. Bill is in an area that has already been searched, but is obscured for some reason. (This includes the possibility that he did nearly make it out, but expired near a road or some other area no one would bother to search)

As I go through all the possibilities on this page, I'm unhappy to report that I think (3) and (4) above are the most likely answers to the question "Where is Bill?" Particularly unhappy in the sense that it means that you might as well throw a dart at the map, because he's just about as likely to be anywhere as anywhere else.

What I Think Happened:

1. Bill set out to do a hike that, given the time of year, terrain, and available daylight (not to mention provisions on hand), was overly ambitious.

2. At sundown, Bill was behind schedule and possibly in an area where he was slightly confused in the terrain.

3. During the first night, in an effort to extricate himself, Bill both became injured and uncertain of his position, and may have become disoriented.

4. During the next few days, Bill was in a remote area with impaired mobility and had to make difficult choices as to how to use his limited movement. His imperatives would have been calling for help, finding water, moving toward a place where he might encounter other people, and finding shade. In most of the areas that are under consideration he would have had limited success finding these if his range and margin for error were limited.

5. His battery was dead by Sunday, but he was able to briefly ping the tower with a "zombie battery" scenario. OR Bill was at the Upper Covington ping spot.

6. Bill moved away from the ping area. While he may not have been moving quickly, we do not know how much longer he might have survived (it could have been several days), or how far he might have been able to travel even at an impaired level. However, unless he was in the Upper Covington area, if he was ambulatory Sunday, it is puzzling that the search and rescue teams did not locate him.

7. Bill eventually perished.

Where Is Bill?

I have no idea.