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Missing in Action: How a Backcountry Ranger With 28 Years Experience Disappeared

Did High Sierra ranger Randy Morgenson succumb to depression or disaster?

In the ensuing days, an ever-building sense of unease gnawed at rangers chasing the ghost of Randy Morgenson. Dogs followed scents that seemed to evaporate on lonely mountain passes, leaving the animals sitting on their haunches, stopped dead in their tracks. Intriguing, random pieces of gear were found in several different locations, but none could be positively linked to Randy. Tracks were inconclusive at best; rain showers certainly weren’t helping. Meanwhile, an NPS criminal investigation team found Randy’s car where he’d parked it. Bank records showed no withdrawals. Credit cards hadn’t been used.

Then a letter arrived at Randy Morgenson’s home in Sedona, Arizona. His wife, Judi, who had sent him into the backcountry with divorce papers to sign, opened the letter, read a few lines–and had to sit down. It was clearly from Randy himself. By this time, she had become certain that something tragic had occurred, but this letter made her think differently. It had been postmarked 2 days after his supposed disappearance. Since there is no postal service in the backcountry, she couldn’t understand how Randy could have mailed this letter if, indeed, he was still in the mountains.

Days passed, and the search grew increasingly hopeless. Psychics were even being considered as viable options. Most of the rangers felt the mystery behind Randy Morgenson’s disappearance would never be solved. Others pledged to never quit searching–not until the truth was known.

Then, at a time when the effort to find Randy, or at least some answers. seemed futile, a clue was found.

An unlikely group of wilderness sleuths was making its way up a slippery, rugged gorge very near the outermost borders of the search area. Something caught their attention–a weathered backpack cast to the side of a rushing torrent, below the pools of a waterfall. They discovered other items, too. A boot was the most telling piece of evidence–halfway submerged in water, halfway out, with something white protruding. Upon closer examination, searchers made a horrible realization: It was a legbone. The boot and pack seemed to match the description of gear that Randy reportedly had been using–all but guaranteeing that this gorge was the ranger’s final resting place.

Investigation and recovery teams were flown in. The gorge took on the appearance of a wilderness crime scene–yellow tape marking gear and human remains. Nothing could be discounted. Many of Randy’s friends volunteered to help with the morbid recovery process. Soon thereafter, someone found a park-issue radio–but curiously, it was resting atop the falls, not at the bottom like the other evidence. This discovery confused matters even more. Although these remains seemed to confirm Randy had been in the mountains the whole time, ranger Bob Kenan wasn’t so certain this spot was where Randy had met his end.
Kenan, in particular, had remembered searching this very gorge, and crossing at the exact spot where the radio was found. It was the same creek crossing he always used while in this area of the park. He was certain he would have seen it, which made at least one other ranger muse, “Had Randy left the park, and then come back?” Foul play was still a possibility, as was suicide, which if proven would cancel the payment of the public safety officer’s benefit of $100,000 to his next of kin–in this case, Judi Morgenson.

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