Lost Hiker Rescued Alive by Emergency Cell Phone Record Analysis

by Nicole Poser

Tuolumne County, CA – March 26, 2020 started out as a beautiful day in Tuolumne County California, filled with blue skies and an unusual tranquility due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.  Throughout the state residents struggled to find activities to occupy their time as California issued a “stay-at-home” order.  A day hike in the Red Hills Recreational Area at the foothills of the Stanislaus National Forest seemed to be a good idea for getting out while practicing social distancing, but the trip had unintended consequences for one female hiker.

After hiking for almost 6 hours, while trying to return to the trailhead, a woman suddenly found herself lost.  She followed several paths that looked familiar but she ended up going in circles, ultimately ending up even more lost.  As night was falling, and her cell phone battery was dying, she placed a call to a family member to report she was lost in the Red Hills area.  Soon after that, her phone went dead.

Family members called the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office (TCSO) who started “pinging” her cell phone.  They dispatched patrol deputies and a California Highway Patrol airship to the area.  TCSO Search & Rescue (SAR) was activated to assist in the search.  It was now dark and the pings were not providing much information, due to the fact that her cell phone was dead.   The phones last location reported showed she was about three miles outside of the Red Hills Recreational Area.

Due to weather conditions, the terrain, and the lack of daylight, the Incident Commander on scene made the decision to suspend operations and wait for first light to resume the ground and air search.  In the meantime, a high-tech investigator from TCSO was asked to assist with reviewing the Call Detail Records (CDRs) related to the woman’s cell phone.  Verizon Wireless provided the CDRs along with specialized location records.

That night and into the early morning hours of March 27th, the investigator examined the records.  At 1:50am PST, he reached out to the Hawk Analytics Emergency Response Team, a 24/7 exigent support team specializing in examining and mapping cell phone records.  Within minutes of reviewing the records, several areas of interest (GPS coordinates) were identified by the Hawk Analytics team as good areas in which to focus search efforts, assuming the hiker would stay put during the night and not change her location or try to hike out of the area.

Search Areas Identified By Hawk Analytics

Since Hawk Analytics inception in 2013, any law enforcement agency handling an emergency that involves cell phone data analysis or mapping is welcome to use CellHawk for free. CellHawk is a secure, web-based software that combines cellular engineering experience with a clear understanding of investigators’ needs that is used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the country.

At first light, the TCSO Incident Commander dispatched several TCSO SAR teams to those geo-locations and the first SAR team found the hiker alive.

 

“This [rescue] could not have happened without your assistance.  The … family and our office are truly grateful for Hawk Analytics, the wonderful team you guys have and all the assistance you provide!  THANK YOU!”

 -Detective Lee, Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office

 

This incident is a great example of how cell phone records can assist in finding missing persons and the help that Hawk Analytics can provide to first responders.  This was a remarkable outcome and one that the hiker will remember for some time.

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