OES Missing Hiker

July 16, 2021
Upper Big Tujunga Canyon Road

Written by Blake Douglas.

Los Angeles resident Jackson James Mohler, age 80, was last seen on July 5, 2021, and reported missing the following day by his employer after failing to come to work or answer his phone. A welfare check at Mohler’s residence showed no indication of foul play, but Mohler’s vehicle was not located. Mohler was described as a person of consistent habits, but several days of investigation failed to locate him or his vehicle at any of the places he would typically be found. After about a week, calls from concerned citizens led to the location of Mohler’s vehicle on Upper Big Tujunga Canyon Road in the Angeles National Forest, 30 road miles north of Mohler’s residence. Los Angeles County resources, led by Montrose Search and Rescue, searched the vehicle’s vicinity for several days before escalating to OES, at which time RMRU’s assistance was requested.

James Eckhardt and I arrived for the 730 briefing, which provided further details on Mohler’s unusual behavior. The vehicle had since been towed but was described as having been left in a carefully manicured state, and with several expensive pieces of hiking gear left visible. Mohler had apparently taken his cellphone with him, but no backpack or water. There was no known or suspected reason for Mohler to have been here, as he wasn’t near any major trailheads and most of the trails that did exist were unremarkable or overgrown. Montrose SAR was confident that Mohler was in the area, although after so much time we did not have high hopes for Mohler’s welfare.

We were paired with the three members responding from Riverside Desert SAR and designated the “Riverside team”. Our first search area was a drainage, half a mile east of the vehicle, where we spent approximately two hours before concluding that the route would not have been attractive or feasible to an 80-year-old hiker. We returned to the command post, debating the possible causes of Mohler’s disappearance and how they could affect a search area. We were given another drainage to search, continuing where we left off from the previous assignment, but after finding no human tracks in the first mile we determined that this was not a high-probability route and returned to base. It was now noon and starting to get very hot on these exposed and shadeless slopes.

The DSSAR members departed, having several hours of driving ahead of them, and James and I considered doing the same, but we were willing to do one more, short assignment. We both felt that the area around the vehicle needed more attention, and after reviewing the track logs that had come in, we identified a shallow ridgeline south of the vehicle that hadn’t been extensively searched. We requested and were given this area. Our intention was to grid it as thoroughly as possible. On arrival we gained the ridgeline easily, finding tracks from the posse, and confirmed that the multiple searches in the area hadn’t covered the slopes of this ridge, an area of about 500 feet by 1000 feet. Reaching the end of the ridge farthest from the vehicle, we decided that we would follow contour lines zigzagging back and forth until we reached the base of the ridge, and then ascend to start again in a new area. James headed west and I headed east.

The area the missing man was found.
Image by Blake.

About five minutes into my search, I noticed some top-sign, branches that had been broken in the direction of travel, and below it, a heel-strike footprint. Considering the number of people that had been in this area, I didn’t take this to mean much, but a few moments later, I caught the unmistakable scent of decomposition. I immediately marked the location and headed over the ridge to get James. We returned to my marked location and picked up the scent again. I sprinkled some dirt to get an idea of the wind direction, and we spread out and headed upwind, the scent growing continuously stronger. Within five minutes we located Mohler’s remains.

We express our condolences to Mohler’s friends and family.

RMRU Members Involved: (Blake Douglas and James Eckhardt)

Other Teams Responding: (DSSAR, LASD Posse, Montrose, Orange County, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, and Sierra Madre)