Bill Ewasko - Final (For Now) Thoughts

by Adam Marsland
Posted February 13, 2015

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 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 in 2014 posted a new theory about what might have happened to Bill, and then posted an update on my thinking after testing out the theory in the field.

Since then, I've made a few more trips to Joshua Tree, and some new bits of information have come to light. Far from clearing things up, the new information has made the question of what happened to Bill more mystifying and has led me to a very different conclusion than I expected...for the time being I am going to step away from the search until I come up with some new ideas to investigate. I am going to write up my latest thinking on the mystery for the benefit of any other searchers, and to refresh my own mind if I decide to come back to the mystery at some point, or new facts come to light.

New Information

1. New possible ping site between Lower and Upper Covington Flat

My JT74 trip to Joshua Tree confirmed that there is a transitory cell reception area very close to the 10.6 mile line on the height of land just north and east of Upper Covington Trailhead. This area has been lightly searched owing to its proximity to several trails and the Upper Covington Road.

2. Bill probably visited Lost Horse Mine before starting on the hike towards Juniper Flats

There is a missing block of time between when Bill made his last tround of phone calls and the earliest possible time Bill could have arrived at Juniper Flats Trailhead (roughly 10:30 a.m. or so). After having gone over the maps and original documentation, and discussing it with other people interested in the case, a rough consensus suggests that Bill very likely went to Lost Horse Mine first that day. This means that before Bill set out for his final hike, he had already logged at least a few miles hiking.

3. The cell phone ping was more accurate than previously thought; probably not more than a quarter mile margin of error in either direction.

Per Tom Mahood, the latest information on the ping is that probably was very accurate, to within a quarter mile on either side, narrowing the range Bill could have been in Sunday morning.

This to me is a game changer, because it all but blows out Smith Water Canyon -- until now thought to be the most likely place for Bill to have wound up -- out of consideration as a source for the ping. In fact, it leaves us with some very baffling possibilities, which I will cover below.

What Can The Ping Tell Us?

The whole Bill Ewasko mystery rests (or seems to rest) on the 10-second brief ping that occurred just after sunrise Sunday morning, at or near a 10.6 mile radius from Serin Tower. Other than the location of Bill's car, it is the only supposedly solid information that we have in the case. In the last few months, assuming the ping is indeed eminating from Bill in a lost hiker situation, I've been thinking that we can deduce much more about Bill's whereabouts on Sunday from the call than just his distance from the Tower.

1. Bill was alive Sunday morning

Although Bill carried a less advanced cell phone that probably had a longer battery life than today's smart phones, if he had perished before Sunday morning, the phone almost certainly would have died by then as well.

2. Bill was conserving the batteries by powering the phone off.

This is sort of a no-brainer, but it leads us to several more deductions. It also makes it extremely unlikely that, despite reports that he may have been "moving" when the cell phone pinged, he would have left the phone on as he was walking.

3. Bill was at a height-of-land at the time of the Sunday morning ping.

Even if Bill is conserving his battery, it must have been running low by Sunday morning. It stands to reason that Bill would have been turning on the phone periodically for the prior few days, and less and less as time went on and he got no reception.

By Sunday morning, it seems unlikely that Bill would turn on his phone unless he thought there was a reasonable probability of a call getting out. He most likely would have waited until the topography changed and was on higher ground before making an attempt. I no longer believe the "zombie battery" scenario I outlined in my previous update, but if Bill was able to boot up the cell phone from a dead battery, it is almost certain to have been from a height of land, since he would not try to accomplish this in an area where he thought reception was unlikely. Either way, it is hard for me to see Bill turning on the phone Sunday morning if he didn't think there was a reasonable shot at getting a call out. Having said that, it would be an instinctive thing to do first thing in the morning -- but one would still assume Bill would climb, at least a short distance, before firing up a nearly dead phone.

Moreover, Bill's military training may well have led him to seek high ground.

4. Bill spent Saturday night near the Sunday morning ping spot; the ping site must be near a reasonably safe bivouac spot.

Given that the Sunday ping occurred just after sunrise, it seems likely Bill had just gotten up after spending the night. Significantly, it was a full moon throughout Bill's disappearance, so it would have been possible for Bill to travel at night and without having to use the phone as an ersatz flashlight; even so, however, it seems unlikely Bill would have attempted to scale steep or rocky terrain in the dark.

5. Bill did not pass through or over a high area of cell reception between Thursday and Saturday.

This is important. If Bill is conserving his battery and firing up his cell phone on Sunday morning to try and get a call out, he must have been doing so all along. It would make no sense for him, at least after the first night, to not attempt a call sooner. Therefore, prior to the Sunday ping, he either passed no heights of land that he could physically climb (meaning they were more difficult to scale than wherever he wound up on Sunday), or did climb to get cell reception and failed.

Where Was The Ping?

On my last update I identified six known sites where Bill's phone could have pinged, given the information available at the time. Since then, a seventh has been confirmed and added. With the new information about cell phone accuracy and the deductions above, let's go through each of them -- listed in my declining order of probability as of last October.

Ping Sites

1. Smith Water Canyon at approximately 34° 2'5.20"N, 116°15'47.32"W.

October: "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."

Current Assessment: This is the only area of cell reception in Smith Water Canyon that is even close to falling within the new perimeters of the ping; the spot where I got reception is .31 miles from the 10.6 radius. So it might still be a candidate. It is also significant in that it is the only spot in SWC where you could arrive at a spot with reception from an otherwise dead zone. There are also areas nearby that would make for a decent bivouac spot. Although this is a relatively low area, Joshua Tree is visible in the distance, so that could have motivated Bill to try to get a call out from here. Coverage here is fairly solid, so for this to be the spot, it would either have to be a "zombie battery" situation or Tom's early theory that the rush of voice mails, etc., crashed the battery. Otherwise, Bill should have simply been able to phone home.

There are problems, though. Bill would have had to have been in a fairly constrained cell dead zone area for the prior two days. It is also very hard to understand where he would have gone from here. This spot has been thoroughly searched by Tom, myself, and others. The way out from here, given Joshua Tree's visibility, is fairly clear, and those pathways have also been well searched. Since his phone must have crashed if he was here at all, it is possible that he might have gone upward, but this area has been thoroughly searched. A helicopter was airborne near Quail Mountain a few hours after the ping, so it's conceivable that Bill might have backtracked south from here to try and attract its attention. But the bottom line is - why was Bill so immobile for the two or three days that he only arrived at this point on Sunday, then disappeared completely in a matter of hours?

2. Smith Water Canyon at approximately 34° 1'49.52"N, 116°16'5.49"W.

October: "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)."

Current Assessment: Blown out, along with all the other areas on the south side of SWC (with the possible exception of "1" above), by the new cell information. It's too far away. Moreover, it's impossible to get to without passing through areas of cell reception.

3. Upper Covington Flat at approximately 34° 0'36.45"N, 116°19'28.21"W.

October: "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."

Current Assessment: My trip to this area on JT72 was able to clarify some grey areas about this spot. Basically, it is plausible for Bill to have gotten to this location, and there is a compelling topographical reason (not obvious from maps) for Bill to have wandered to this spot, detailed in JT72. The problem is there is only one plausible entry point into Upper Covington for Bill, and that requires him to leave comparatively easy terrain south of Lower Covington - not to mention miss a trail that is very close to him - to get there. There may be a reason for Bill to have done this that is not immediately obvious -- a quest for water, for example. But at this moment, such a detour seems implausible. Moreover, Tom and I have basically swarmed this area and if there's one place Bill ain't, it's here.

However - this location does fill the bill in other ways. It's transitory. It's bang at 10.6 miles. More potential bivouac spots have been observed here than just about any other location. It is by far the easiest high spot to get to topographically, since there is little climbing required. The ping spot is slightly problematic in that it lies in a low area between two high vistas that look like they would have cell coverage but don't -- however, moving from one possible cell vantage point to another nearby one is a scenario where Bill might have conceivably left his phone on, which does fit the "seems to be moving" part of the cell ping lore.

And more depressingly, the lands to the west of here offer seemingly endless canyons and lousy terrain for Bill to get himself forever lost in. Moving into this area would seem to be the height of insanity for Bill; however, civilization would be in the distance, and Tom and I have separately found indications that people have gone into this forbidding area. It seems unlikely that Bill would enter Upper Covington and still more unlikely that he would leave it and plunge into suicidal terrain, but given the circumstances it can't be ruled out.

4. Quail Wash, around 34° 2'27.94"N, 116°15'20.31"W.

October: "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."

Current Assessment: The Quail Wash cell coverage area is probably close enough to 10.6 miles to still be in the running, but besides the fact that it is fairly well traveled and has been criss-crossed by many searches, it's also a low lying area surrounded by higher land. It seems unlikely that Bill would have tried to get a call out from here. Also, coverage in this spot is good enough that he should have been able to get a solid (not transitory) connection.

5. North side of Smith Water Canyon at approximately 34° 1'42.09"N, 116°17'28.29"W.

October: 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.

Current Assessment: Problematic. Verizon's cell map suggests a wisp of coverage that might be close enough, but when I visited this area with Teresa Cowles on JT50, we went right through that area and did not get any coverage until we were .5 miles from the 10.6 mile line -- too far. We did spend a bit of time in the area that lies right at 10.6 miles, and unlike the surrounding area, it's reasonably level and not that forbidding - a possible bivouac site. But it just does not seem to line up. We observed no coverage in this area, the climb up from Smith Water Canyon is brutal, and given that it's in the shadows of higher land it seems an illogical place to have fired up a phone. It also means that Bill would have not climbed any of the other mountains on the south side of Smith Water prior to Sunday, when he was stronger and more motivated. It further also means Bill would have eschewed the possibility of rescue at Upper and Lower Covington, both of which are nearby. It doesn't seem to make sense.

The only caveat is that the north side of Smith Water Canyon has only been lightly searched, and there is a lot of it. It seems a bizarre place for Bill to have wound up in, but if you are looking for a big area that might have swallowed Bill up, it's one of the few possibiities. It is just very hard to see how he could have pinged the tower at this one spot at 10.6 miles (where there is no known reception), and somehow missed rescue and/or better cell reception that is literally on almost every side of that spot.

6. Twin mountains near Samuelson's Rock, approximately 34° 2'56.38"N, 116°15'13.12"W.

October: 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.

Current Assessment: This area is something of a dark horse, falling under Sherlock Holmes' rubric "when you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." I have only been on the bottom of the slopes of these hills. Tom has checked out this area three times, once on his most recent trip, JT75, and previously in JT35 and JT11. Although he doesn't come out and say so, Tom implies strongly that he did not get cell coverage in the area. Geographically, it would be a bizarre place for Bill to go, as these hills straddle two obvious exit points. It is conceivable to me that Bill could have emerged from the large canyon that runs through the area north of Quail Mountain into Quail Wash and ascended these two low hills to orient and to get cell reception - but it would require a lot of improbable ifs -- if Bill didn't scale any hills in the Quail Mountain area (where there's plenty of reception), if searchers didn't see Bill's tracks in the wash when they came through shortly thereafter, if Bill failed to note that escape was only a few miles away at Park Road. It all seems pretty unlikely. The only caveat is the same as with the northern side of SWC; there are some unexplored areas to the north of here where Bill could conceivably have lost himself.

Note: This is the only spot on the map above I haven't personally verified. It is unknown if there actually is cell reception at this point.

7. Height of land between Upper and Lower Covington, approximately 34° 1'2.19"N, 116°18'24.00"W

Transitory reception was confirmed at very near 10.6 miles on my visit written up as JT74; given that any error is more likely to be closer to the tower rather than further, the location and duration are spot on, and it's a plausible place to flip one's phone on. This area was lightly searched because of its proximity to both Upper and Lower Covington, however, I laid out a reasonable scenario for Bill to get here in JT74 - that Bill may have come towards Upper Covington searching for water, and upon arriving at Upper Covington, failed to find help and scaled the nearby height of land to get cooler, try to make a cell call, and to monitor the area for help. It is close to a bivouac area, and it is less problematic to place Bill here than on the western edge of Upper Covington ("3").

There are some problems though. A ranger was here very shortly after the ping - perhaps as little as an hour. I had theorized Bill might have fallen to his death trying to get down to meet her, and while that is very plausible in that terrain, I checked this out on my most recent visit (JT76) and saw no evidence of it. Furthermore, there was reportedly a ranger at Upper Covington trailhead on Saturday, making it less likely that Bill could have failed to find help if he was there around that time. And while I believe that Bill would not necessarily have hung around Upper Covington trailhead waiting for help (it's not very inviting in the summer), I'm now more dubious he would have gone up that height of land. It is not far and it is not that steep, but it is somewhat far and it is somewhat steep, particularly at the top. And while the road could be monitored from up there, it would take a while to get back down. If I were Bill, and I were stuck at Upper Covington and not in very good shape, I might well try to head to the west end of the flat to see if I could get a vantage point and a call from there - which puts us back to "3" above.

Final Assessment of the Ping Location:

The whole thing is baffling. Based on the new information, south side of Smith Water Canyon, with one possible exception, seems to be out. North side also seems to be out. The Samuelson's hills would require so many improbabilities that they would seem to be out too. Quail Wash also seems highly unlikely.

Only three locations seem to withstand the sniff test: 1, 3 and 7 above. 1 is technically out of range (though barely), and the area's been pretty thoroughly searched, though I suppose the "backtracked towards Quail Mountain" scenario I put forward a while back might still be clinging to life. The newest location, 7, still has some areas where Bill could be hiding but bottom line is if there's a ranger at Upper Covington on Saturday and again on Sunday, I don't see how they miss each other.

Which leaves us with 3, back at the west end of Upper Covington. I gotta say that as I read this over, my gut is telling me this is the place, despite having gone over that area with a fine toothed comb myself and given some pretty compelling reasons in JT73 for Bill NOT to have gone there. I'm not sure but I think the relative ease of getting to this spot, coupled with the great distance from Bill's car with basically no reception - it just fits to me in a ghostly way that the other two places don't. But nobody's gone to more lengths to look for him in this area than me - it is the only place I have been so many times that I can visualize the terrain - and he is NOT there. And if he went into those canyons to the west, he was completely off his rocker.

Or, is the answer none of the above? Is there an as yet undiscovered spot? Well, perhaps, but follow that 10.6 radial line with your finger, and you'll find a lot of rough terrain that nobody in their right mind would be clinging to in the middle of the night, and places where it's hard to fathom a cell phone would ever ping -- much of the line goes right down the path of Smith Water Canyon itself. And a lot of places where someone's already looked, more than once, or so many people traverse there's no need to bother. There really isn't any other place, except for wild cards such as Ric Capucho's suggestion Bill might have wandered to the other side of Park Road. Or is the answer that somebody dumped Bill's cell phone 10.6 miles from Serin Tower along Highway 62, after Bill met with foul play? But how, where and why? It's not like Juniper Flats is a hotbed of criminal activity. That beggars the imagination.

Frankly, none of the above scenarios makes any sense to me.

Final Assessment of the Mystery:

Setting aside the seeming impossibility of the ping, the bottom line is it's impossible to understand how Bill got lost in the first place. Not that there isn't plenty of forbidding territory or places to come to grief - but if Bill had already hiked once that day, during the height of summer, he simply shouldn't have wandered far enough from his car for him to have ever wound up 10.6 miles from Serin. I no longer believe he had a big adventure in mind, but he must have gone further than was wise. But quite frankly, if he's within 5 or 6 miles of his car, he should have simply been able to return to his car (this is one point of evidence in favor of the Quail Mountain theory, since that would form a topographical blockade to his return - but his other possible routes should have allowed him to make his way back). There's no reason to go that far north for help unless he already was that far north, or had gotten lost in a way where that was the most logical route to rescue. And that means he must have gone quite a long distance on a hot day when he'd already hiked -- I would say five miles at the very least, which would have meant a ten mile proposed round trip, minimum. It just seems like a very strange thing to do in the middle of summer with one hike under your belt and a margarita on your mind (and I think a margarita was indeed very much on his mind). But then, the whole trip -- undertaken from across country at the height of summer, for just part of one day* in JT-- seems strange.

Anyway, that's as much as I know for certain. However, as I look over all the facts and timeline of the case, coupled with the baffling and nonsensical cell phone information, puzzling non-itinerary and thoroughly searched topography, I have come to believe that the answer might lie in a total bottom-up rethink of the assumptions about Bill's disappearance. That line of inquiry and a re-sifting of all the known information - not just the ping, but the circumstances surrounding how, where and when the search unfolded - might lead one to scenarios (or one very specific scenario) probably better left unposted. If all the clues about Bill's last hike do not seem to add up to anything -- in fact, seem to point everywhere and nowhere at the same time -- well, there might be a good reason for that. And that's about all I have to say. Best to let others form their own opinions; the information is all there.

"Once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth" - Sherlock Holmes.

I have had a blast investigating Bill's disappearance. Thank you Tom Mahood for the opportunity.

*According to Bill's fiancé, Bill was scheduled to spend the week in Joshua Tree, returning to Georgia on July 1. He was not traveling to Joshua Tree for just this one day.

p.s. Hey Sam!