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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Wanted Man Survives a Month in Wilderness

Fugitive: After jumping bail in Ventura County, Sean Kelly staged a suicide. Weeks later, he was found living in the woods.

November 01, 2000|JOE MOZINGO and DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Sometime in late September, Sean Kelly drove his small car to an isolated campsite among the oaks three miles north of Castaic Lake.

Wanted for jumping bail in Ventura County, the depressed 25-year-old transient had called his mother in Oregon to say he had swallowed some pain medication in a suicide attempt. Then, at the Bear Campground, he set up camp and ran a corrugated hose from his car's exhaust pipe into his dome tent.

But then Kelly disappeared, apparently leaving behind his food, clothes and blankets.

On Monday, a month after he set off alone into the rugged canyons of the Angeles National Forest, he was found--weak, hungry and ready to return to civilization.

The tale he told rescuers sounded like some dark and dangerous version of the TV show "Survivor." The veteran outdoorsman said he ate berries and roots, was chased by bears and covered himself with branches and dirt to stay warm.

Kelly was airlifted to a hospital and now awaits extradition to Ventura County for his court warrants, which stem from a February felony arrest for carrying a concealed weapon while driving under the influence.

Still, his family, who thought he had walked into the forest to die, was elated to hear the news.

"I was scared to death for him," said his father, Martin, 62, who had frantically searched the Castaic area for his son. "What if I found him dead?"

The elder Kelly and other family members said Sean was prepared to survive his ordeal. He had spent much of his childhood on his father's 40-acre ranch in nearby Green Valley.

"He knew the Angeles National Forest, so he wouldn't have been frightened to be there," said his father, who now lives in Oxnard.

Growing up, Kelly read little else but outdoor magazines. When he turned 18, he enlisted in the Army and became a paratrooper. He learned survival skills while undergoing Army Ranger training in North Carolina and Panama, his father said.

But Kelly injured his back in a parachute jump and was discharged from the military without becoming a Ranger, his father added. The discharge affected him badly; he sank into depression. After living with his father for a while, he left the Oxnard home in May.

"He was living out of his little . . . car and finally it got the best of him," said the elder Kelly.

On Sept. 23, the young man called his mother in Oregon and said he was planning to take all his pain medication. The next day, he called again and said he had done it.

His father knew he had been living near Castaic and desperately drove to every campsite in the area.

He found no sign of his son.

A week later, a hunter in the Bear Campground found Kelly's car with the hose running into a tent, with no one at the campsite. The man called authorities.

The Santa Clarita Valley Mountain Rescue Team searched the canyons for the next two days. The team called off the rescue effort because it ran out of leads. Things didn't look good.

"The search party told us that it was a 1 in 10 chance of finding him alive," said Robert Kelly, Sean's uncle.

But about 3 p.m. Monday, Kelly was found by a hunter about three miles from his car, sheriff's officials said. He had descended from about 5,500 feet, along the side of a ridge, to a place called Knapp Ranch. Roads to the area are primitive and overgrown with brush.

By all appearances, Kelly had spent a month in the wild, said authorities.

"The area is not that easy to get to," said Sgt. Steven Jenkins, who is in charge of the mountain rescue team. "I wouldn't doubt him if he said he's been out there the whole time."

When he was found, Kelly was wearing pants, long underwear and a T-shirt. He was lucid and rational but so exhausted he could barely walk. "He was tired and weak and wanted to get out of there," said Jenkins.

Survival experts on Tuesday agreed that living off the land is possible, but a tough task in the dry Southern California chaparral. With some basic skills and knowledge of local plant life, one can get by, they say. And humans can usually live two weeks or more with no food at all.

Christopher Nyerges, who runs the School of Self-Reliance in Eagle Rock, said a person could eat small animals and insects, as well as wild onions, acorns, cattails and elderberries.

Kelly told authorities he ate berries and insects to stay alive. He said he buried himself to stay warm in the forest, where temperatures have dipped to freezing recently. He also said that, at one point, he was chased by bears and discarded his jacket to throw off his scent. Nyerges and other instructors said that didn't quite ring true.

"Bears don't particularly chase people," said Nyerges. "But people who don't eat much and are on the edge tend to hallucinate."

The sheriff's emergency services detail airlifted Kelly to Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Santa Clarita.

He was then taken to an inmate ward of County-USC Medical Center, where he was in stable condition on Tuesday.

Kelly will be extradited for arraignment in Ventura County within 10 days. After his arrest on Feb. 19 for drunk driving and carrying a weapon, Kelly failed to appear for a court date while out on bail, a spokesman said.

Martin Kelly said Tuesday that he has not spoken to his son yet but was planning to visit him later in the day. In any case, he said he will make sure his son gets the help he needs.

"I won't turn my back on him by any stretch of the imagination," he said.

*

Times correspondent Richard Fausset contributed to this story.

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