HELENA - An investigation of the site where Noah Pippin died, 18 miles from the eastern edge of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, makes Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton believe the Iraq war veteran succumbed to exposure.
Dutton said he thinks Pippin, a former Marine described as a large, polite man with a shaved head, was seeking shelter from inclement weather and ducked behind some large boulders in a scree field near the Chinese Wall after being seen near there on Sept. 15, 2010. An icy rainstorm on Sept. 16, 2010, turned into a blizzard during the ensuing days.
“He wasn’t as ill-prepared as we had thought,” Dutton said on Saturday, after using a helicopter to get to the remote site where Pippin died. “We found his sleeping bag, a water jug, his poncho, his hand gun and a small device that plays music (like an iPod). He still had food left, and he did have a map."
“There was no sign of foul play,” Dutton added. “There was an extremely bad storm, and it was readily apparent he had sought shelter under a big rock. He was exposed when animals pulled his remains out from there and scattered them.”
The gun, a 38-caliber revolver, was too rusty for Dutton to determine whether it had been fired. He said it will be sent to the Montana State Crime Laboratory for further investigation.
Dutton said the remains were found about one mile from where the search team was stopped last year by inclement weather, near the head of Burnt Creek and south of Moose Creek. They tagged the remains and put them in bags, which were then turned over to Lewis and Clark County Coroner Mickey Nelson. In turn, he will take them to the crime lab for positive identification, where they’ll also try to determine the cause of death.
Pippin, 30, had served three tours of duty in Iraq, and then joined the Los Angeles Police Department. He quit that job, spent a month in Michigan with his family, and then told them he was going back to California to join the National Guard.
For an unknown reason, Pippin instead drove a rental car to Montana and disappeared into the Bob, walking more than 100 miles in from the western edge near Hungry Horse.
Searchers tried at least three times to find him. An air search was done after he initially was reported missing and the Vern Kersey family said they had seen him near the Chinese Wall, but that didn’t turn up any signs of Pippin.
In September 2011, searchers went into the wilderness after some Boy Scouts found pieces of clothing they thought might be Pippin’s, but instead of finding him they ended up helping a diabetic who was stranded in the wilderness, and an early season snowstorm ended the effort.
On Wednesday, a search party — made up of Kersey; eight U.S. Border Patrol agents; a Lewis and Clark County deputy; four search and rescue volunteers; two chaplains; and Pat Walsh, a detective who had worked the case from the start — hiked with pack horses into the Bob, planning to look for Pippin for seven days.
One of the border patrol agents was Pippin’s brother, Caleb, who went in with the searchers on horseback despite having a broken foot. Dutton said the other agents volunteered to be part of the search team to help their co-worker.
They found the remains Friday, after conducting a grid search, only a mile away from where the previous search was halted last year. Since the Bob is so large — 30 miles by 80 miles — it was like looking for a particular single strand in a head of hair. Dutton said they prepared by using “Lost Person Science” and interviewing people who know Pippin and those who had seen him last to put them in his mindset.
“We wanted to know what he said, how he was thinking and how he acted,” Dutton said. “Vern Kersey was in the grid that first located Noah.”
With permission from the U.S. Forest Service to land a helicopter in the wilderness area, Dutton, three deputies and one search-and-rescue volunteer flew to the site Saturday and removed the remains. The initial search party is working its way back out.
Dutton said he is grateful for the effort made by all of the search party members, as well as to Deputy Uriah Woods, who coordinated the undertaking.
“My sympathy goes out to Noah’s family for his death, but the journey is over to find out where he is,” Dutton said. “The question of why will probably never be answered, but we found him and now the healing can begin.”