Finding Norman in Death Valley

March 20, 2011

As detailed in my post about my involvement in the final chapter (really the final postscript) of finding the Death Valley Germans, I became somewhat involved with the ever-curious escapades of one Mr. Tom Mahood.  It’s been downhill ever since.

Jack Freer, a law enforcement officer from Carson City, Nevada, later contacted RMRU looking for Tom and I put the two in touch.  Jack had taken an interest in a Carson City resident, Norman Cox, who had abandoned his car at Badwater in Death Valley, left a suicide note, then vanished.  The subsequent search turned up no body.  This was in August, 2010.

Jack was intrigued by Tom’s success with the Death Valley Germans.  Being a long-time Death Valley explorer himself, Jack took a personal interest in Norman’s disappearance and wanted to know if Tom would help in Jacks unofficial search for Norman’s remains.  After initially feigning disinterest, Tom took the bait and somehow co-opted me into the mission.  Tom has a thorough write-up of the whole thing, complete with a lot of back-story, here.  Jack similarly has written his perspective here.  They each have a lot more background on the story than I have here.

Tom came up with his usual carefully researched, highly-detailed, plan, with maps, GPS route downloads, etc.   On March 19th, Tom, his wife Jeri, and I met Jack and his friend Gordon at Badwater in what turned out to be rapidly deteriorating weather.

We proceed by Plan A which had us searching the rocky hills on the west side of the salt flats just west of West Side Road.  We tired of this quickly.  We just couldn’t believe that a gimpy guy in his seventies could cross the salt flats in August and walk up this difficult terrain.  Plan B had us searching the shrubs closer to the salt flats.  Within about an hour Tom found a femur.  A human femur with a surgical pin in it.  Within close proximity I found two human cervical vertebrae with surgical fusion plate attached.  Both of these finds matched what we knew about Norman.

With the whole crew now searching the immediate area, more remains, a hiking stick, and pieces of clothing turned up.  We carefully flagged each find with surveyor’s tape and left the objects untouched.

Jack placed a sat phone call to the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office and soon we were being interviewed by an ICSO deputy.  For me this was a first find in Death Valley, but for Tom this was the second time in two years that he had found a cold case set of human remains in Death Valley and in Inyo County.  The deputy was polite, but seemed vaguely suspicious.  He ran our names through dispatch and interviewed each of us separately.  Within about an hour he seemed satisfied that we were legit and we were free to go.

Jack had promised us a steak dinner at the Wrangler Steakhouse at Furnace Creek if/when we found the body.  He made good that very night.  It was a mighty fine steak and it felt good to give the family closure by finding Norman’s remains.