Finding Norman

Norman wanted to be found.  He planned it that way.

I usually wake up right before sunrise, pour a cup of coffee, sit down at the desk in the home office in front of the computer and start to read the news.  After I read a couple of the national papers I will start browsing some of the small news outlets for the area I like to call my backyard.  And that area is the Eastern Sierra, Death Valley and the Mojave Desert.  Papers like the Mammoth Times, The Inyo Register, the Sierra Wave and on a really slow news day, the Pahrump Valley News.

The morning of Tuesday, August 10, 2010, was no different.  I made my way through the various papers and arrived on the front page of the Sierra Wave, a news company based in Bishop, Calif., a two and a half-hour drive south of my house in Gardnerville, Nev.

Toward the bottom of the page was a post from the afternoon of the previous day titled, “Multiple Search and Rescues, Including Report of Suicidal Man”.  Search and rescues in Inyo County are pretty much the norm.  But the mention of a suicidal man on top of all the rescues was interesting so I read on.  At the end of the article it mentioned that a man from Carson City had sent a letter to his estranged wife that he planned to kill himself in Death Valley.  So I then thought, why would a Carson City resident want to go all the way to Death Valley to cause problems and kill himself when he could have done that much closer to home?  I got ready for work and went in to the office to find out.

Shortly after arriving for work at the Carson City Sheriff’s Office, I went over to the Investigations Section to find out which one of our detectives had been assigned this case.  I found out that Dave was working the case and I asked him what he knew about it.  Dave gave me the preliminary information.  I learned that Norman was a long time resident of Carson City, was currently living apart from his wife, was getting on in years and just wasn’t feeling like going on any more.  So Norman took care of his affairs, prepared his van for the trip to Death Valley, mailed two letters to his family members advising of his plans to kill himself in Death Valley and set out to do just that.

Dave is a well-seasoned and experienced officer that came from Mississippi.  How he managed to go from Mississippi to Nevada is a question I never asked him.  But what I did know, was that he has never been to Death Valley or anywhere in the Mojave Desert.  So Dave had the huge burden of trying to manage a case in a very remote and extreme area outside of his jurisdiction which he knew nothing about.  And to top that off, the missing person case on Norman was just one in a very tall stack of cases that Dave was working at the time.

What further complicated this was that the Carson City, Nevada, Sheriff’s Office is the originating agency for the missing endangered person case, Inyo County, California, Sheriff’s Office, is the assisting agency that conducted the initial search, and the search took place inside of Death Valley National Park with the assistance of the national park law enforcement rangers.  And it also included search helicopters from the California Highway Patrol and the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake.

I asked Dave to keep me posted if anything developed with the case and when Norman was found.

Two weeks go by.  Dave has no new information from any of his sources.

Dave knows that I frequent Death Valley and the Mojave Desert often and he asks me about some of the places there of interest.  Dave also expresses a big desire to go with me and look for Norman on our own.  But knowing that the search area is in another state and Dave has a ton of other cases working, the Sheriff could never authorize Dave the time or expense to go to Death Valley.

To make Dave feel a little better, I gave him a copy of the United States Geological Survey 7.5 minute Badwater quad map and attach it to his office wall.  At least now he has an idea of the layout of the land where Norman’s van was found parked and where Norman was still out there, still missing.

Seven weeks go by.  Nothing.  No word, no leads, Norman is still missing.

Inyo County Sheriff’s Office told Dave a copy of their report on the search would be sent to him.  It had not yet arrived so on September 30, 2010, I went down to our Records Section and asked one of the staff to contact Inyo County Sheriff’s Records section and ask them to send us a copy of their report.  Inyo County sent the report later that day.

I have a trip to Saline Valley planned with Gordon, a fellow desert rat, for the week of Oct. 17 to 23, 2010.  We are going to enter Saline Valley through North Pass from Big Pine, stop at various locations along the way, visit the warm springs, and then leave Saline Valley by way of South Pass.  From there we will go to Furnace Creek and camp at Texas Spring for a few days, eventually continuing south through Death Valley and exiting by way of the Harry Wade Road to CA 127.  Gordon was going to continue on to Baker and then Barstow for business.  I will then return to Furnace Creek for a day or two and then return home to Gardnerville, Nev.

I thought that this trip would provide an excellent opportunity to take a couple days and hike around the Badwater area looking for Norman.  I get a fresh copy of the reports and combed them again for details.

From the reports and in talking with a member of Norman’s family I knew that one of the letters mailed by Norman detailing his plans to kill himself in Death Valley was received by Norman’s wife  August 6, 2010.

On August 7, 2010 at 3:45 p.m. the family notified Inyo County Sheriff’s Office and gave them the information about what Norman intended to do as outlined in his letters. Inyo County dispatched a unit to check the area. At 5 p.m. the officer found Norman’s van parked in the parking lot at Badwater in Death Valley.

Badwater in August 2011. 120 degrees.

A detailed ground and air search was conducted over the next few days with no signs of Norman. But in the letters sent by Norman, he detailed how he purchased a cremation plan through the Neptune Society and ordered a cremation urn that was found delivered to his front door step. Norman’s finances were also in order. There had been no recent large withdrawals made from his account and the only credit card he had was included in the letter he sent to his wife.

Norman was able to prepare and plan for what he wanted to do. He took care of his final matters, he apparently was able to drive his van to the Badwater parking lot, he intended to kill himself but also intended to be found, cremated and his ashes placed in the urn that had just been delivered.

What went wrong.

11 weeks after Norman disappeared Gordon and I set out for our trip to Saline Valley. We spent a few days exploring the hot springs and various historic mining locations in the valley. The weather was typical for the time of year and ranged from nice days to strong rainstorms complete with thunder, lightning and even one moderate flash flood through the long wide Waucoba Wash in the north end of Saline Valley.

Gordon and I eventually ended up at the Texas Springs campground just east of Furnace Creek. We setup our tents and planned to use Texas Springs as a base for the next few days while we went on various day trips to different locations. Some of those days were going to be spent hiking in the area where Norman’s van was found.

Before starting out on the hike to look for Norman, I took a close look at the map of Death Valley. Could there be some clues that Norman might have thought someone would easily see to help them find him.

On the map I see the Funeral Mountains. But that mountain range is over 25 miles north of where Norman’s van was found at Badwater. And then there is the Devil’s Golf Course. But that area is over 7 miles north of Badwater and on flat open ground. Had Norman gone there he would have been easily seen by the air search crews.

And then there is Badwater. The location where Norman parked his van. The lowest point in North America at 282 feet below sea level. And also one of the hottest places in the world. This was the most obvious place if a person wanted to perish under extreme heat conditions. But Norman wasn’t found out in the open valley floor of Badwater.

Directly east of Badwater are the Black Mountains. It was possible that Norman made the connection with the word death and the word black and might of thought that his place for his demise would be in the Black Mountains. And features of the Black Mountains, and within close distance to Badwater, are those of Coffin Canyon and Coffin Peak.

Could the clue be that simple. I was going to find out.

Gordon and I set out on the first day of the search and slowly drove along the Badwater Road north and south of the Badwater parking lot. Storms had come and gone between the time Norman went missing and now so we were checking to see if anything had been washed down by the water or dragged down or up by animals. Finding nothing we stopped in the Badwater parking lot.

We formed a theory that possibly Norman came out during the extreme heat of August, started out across the valley floor but found it just too far to go under unbearable conditions. And should he had collapsed there was a chance someone would see that or the air search crews would have seen him. So our thought was that Norman may have retreated east in to the Black Mountains, maybe even Coffin Canyon, found a ledge with a nice view and just waited for the extreme heat to take its course.

For the next few days Gordon and I hiked in and around the Badwater parking area and up in to the many narrow and tall slot canyons on the west side of the Black Mountains. Slowly extending our search area farther north and south each day. Hiking the alluvial fans was difficult. There was no easy path to follow and the surface and elevation was always changing. Some of the washes running down the alluvial fans were deep and narrow. It was possible to be walking up and miss something in one of these features less than 30 feet away on either side.

Badwater Alluvial Fan

We put in full days, covered a lot of ground and found nothing. Nothing in the way of Norman that is. Many people drive up and down Badwater Road but only a few will park and walk up to the face of the Black Mountains and explore the many tall slot canyons. The views from the areas we searched and the features we saw where beautiful and amazing. And Norman gave me reason to go in to these places.

I felt like he was watching us and becoming more irritated that it was taking so long to find him.

It was time for Gordon and I to part ways. Gordon had business in Barstow and had to end his part of the trip. We packed up camp and headed south on Badwater Road together one last time slowing as we passed the Badwater area looking for any new clue or sign that may have appeared along the road. Nothing. We continued south through Death Valley and left the valley by way of the historic Harry Wade Road arriving at the pavement of California State Route 127, several miles south of Shoshone, Calif.

We aired up the tires of the Jeeps and Gordon headed south and I headed north. Upon reaching Shoshone, Calif., I decided to turn left and drive back in to Death Valley on California State Route 178. This road would take me to Badwater for one last look. Stopping briefly at the Badwater area I was able to survey the area under late afternoon light. I had no new theories. I knew I would be back.

I had plans to meet a friend in Panamint Valley for some exploring and photography work on November 10, 2010. I left early on November 6 and drove to Death Valley to spend a few more days looking for Norman in the Badwater area.

For three days I hiked the area east of Badwater along the cliff face of the Black Mountains. Coffin Canyon is 6 miles south of Badwater. I thought that was a little far for someone to walk to from Badwater and then hike the extra mile from the road back in to the canyon in the extreme heat of August. But because of the name and the proximity to Badwater I thought it was worth the check. I hiked in to the canyon as far as was reasonably possible and found no signs of Norman.

Less than one quarter mile northeast of the Badwater parking lot is a small canyon that heads southeast in to the Black Mountains. I hiked up to the mouth of the canyon and then climbed a ledge to get a view of the canyon area beyond  From that position I saw a large group of people, maybe 25 or so, spread along the canyon and they appeared to be doing some kind of field research. I hiked to a couple that were working close to me and I learned that they were geology students from England.

One student told me in a strong English accent that they had been in the Death Valley area for several days conducting field research on rocks. I told him the story about Norman and that Norman had not yet been found. The eyes of the two students widened and I could sense a lot of interest and excitement. It appeared that taking a break from looking at rocks to looking for Norman might be a little more interesting. The students relayed the word to the other students up the canyon. I knew that this area had been covered in detail so I hiked back to the parking lot.

I had hiked for several days on two separate trips looking for Norman and had found nothing. No signs and no new clues or ideas. Inyo County Sheriff’s and the Park Service spent several days searching in August with ground teams, a search dog and two helicopters and also came up empty-handed.

I was beginning to think Norman would never be found. I was keeping the family updated on my search efforts. Norman’s son Jeff and Jeff’s wife made a trip to Death Valley from their home in Oregon after they received the letter in the mail from Norman. When Jeff and his wife arrived at Badwater they started out on their own search. Directly across from the Badwater parking lot Jeff climbed up a steep embankment to a ledge and fell and broke both his wrists. That stopped Jeff from any further searching. Jeff received medical attention and then he and his wife returned to their home in Oregon.

The family, knowing that there probably would not be any future formal search efforts from any of the government agencies that were initially involved in the search, gave me permission to share information in the reports about Norman’s case with others that may be able to help find Norman. I left Death Valley and went to Panamint Valley for the rest of  my trip and pondered what my next course of action was going to be on the Norman case.

Back at home I started to search the Internet and a few forums that cater to  Death Valley and surrounding desert areas. I remembered reading a news article a while back about a few professional search and rescue individuals that took on the case of a family from Germany that disappeared in Death Valley in 1996. I was able to find out that the individuals were with the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit and they took on the research and search in an unofficial capacity in 2008. In November 2009 the individuals found partial remains of the missing German family and the case went on to being solved.

I thought, these guys are good. No these guys are great. They really know what they are doing and I could certainly use their expertise and help. I wasn’t able to find any direct contact information for the search and rescue individuals involved with the missing German family case. I took a chance and sent an email to the general contact address of the Riverside Mountain Rescue Unit (RMRU).

A short time later the email was answered by Patrick with RMRU. Patrick related that he had been involved in the search for the missing German family and Patrick directed me to Tom, also with RMRU.

I started to correspond with Tom and Patrick and provided them with the details of the case. They were both extremely interested but they were also very busy at the time. Tom was serving as a member of the Orange County grand jury. Tom and Patrick were also involved in the case of another missing person in Joshua Tree National Park. At the time it sounded like they would be able to help with advice but getting them to Death Valley for searching didn’t seem like it was going to workout.

For the next few weeks I sent Tom and Patrick everything I had on the Norman case. Agency reports, news articles, information from the family, copies of the letters Norman wrote to his family, photographs of Norman and anything else they requested, I sent. They were both very interested but I wasn’t getting the feeling that they would be able to spare the time and meet me in Death Valley. But on February 2, 2011 I was relieved and excited to find the following email from Tom in my inbox.

Hi Jack:

Yesterday I was out in Joshua Tree with a few other folks still looking for our lost hiker from June. There was a lot of discussion about Norman Cox, and interest in doing a bit of searching for him. I guess the feeling was if we weren’t going to find someone, how about us not finding someone someplace with different scenery? We could use a break from Joshua Tree.

To that end, some questions for you….

First off, do you mind if we have a look around out there? It feels a little like poaching, but the end goal is to bring closure for the family. And I suspect other than yourself, no one is looking for this guy.

Second, do you have any GPS tracks or some other records of the area you’ve already searched east of Badwater?

Third, will you be acquiring a copy of the DVNP incident report, and if so, could we get a copy? I’ve seen a couple of them, and the info as to what areas have been searched is pretty valuable.

I think the general idea for the trip would be maybe 4 or 5 people, and head up there early on a Saturday, direct to Badwater. Have a quick look around there, mainly to see what Norman would have seen, and get the feel of the place. I don’t think the intent is to do any searching to the east, as you probably have that covered.

Then after Badwater Saturday, head over to Westside Road and start exploring parts of the alluvial fan, westerly from Westside. Late in the day we’d move up Hanapauh Canyon Road just out of the “no camping” zone in the valley and car camp for the night. Sunday morning do a few hours of searching then head home before all the Vegas to Los Angeles traffic hits the I-5 at Baker.

We’d be doing this strictly unofficially, as private citizens with a SAR background just out for some hiking. I wouldn’t bother to notify DVNP of our presence unless we found something, as these sort of agencies don’t really know how to deal with what we’d be doing, as private citizens. I’d provide you with whatever GPS tracks we generate, and if you wish to forward them to DVNP (or anyone else) that would be OK with us.

I think the sentiment is to do this sooner rather than later, maybe the next month or so.

Any comments or suggestions?


For the next several weeks information flowed back and forth constantly. Ideas and theories were exchanged and discussed at length. I also obtained the help from David, another expert on all things related to the desert and Death Valley. Dave is extremely analytical and detailed. I sent Dave all the reports and information. Dave took all the information from the various sources and blended it together to form a report of what actually happened during the initial search and investigations. It also helped point out what Norman was actually capable of achieving and enduring physically once he got to Badwater.

March 19, 2011 was set as the day we would meet in the Badwater parking lot. Tom, Patrick and Tom’s wife Jeri would be driving in from the south and Gordon and I would come in from the north. At 11 a.m. we met and began our search.

Tom has already wrote a large amount of information on how the searched played out and the results. So I see no need to try to duplicate his excellent efforts. So Tom, if you don’t mind, please continue the story from here…

“Searching for Norman Cox” by Tom

And supplemental search information and report by Patrick here…

“Finding Norman in Death Valley” by Patrick 

Search Photographs