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Search for Hiker Is Renewed After Wallet Is Found

September 28, 2000|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIVERSIDE — Prompted by the astonishing discovery of a wallet on a rocky ridge almost 9,000 feet above Palm Springs, rescue workers have restarted a search for a hiker missing since Sept. 9--though they say the chances of finding him alive are slim.

Joshua Best, a 36-year-old plumbing contractor and hotel maintenance worker, has been missing since he rode the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway alone 20 days ago for a hike on 10,000-foot Mt. San Jacinto.

A crew of rescuers, including volunteers and investigators from the Riverside County Sheriff's Department and other agencies, searched from Sept. 11 until Sept. 18, then suspended their effort after finding no trace of Best.

But Best's brother-in-law, 30-year-old Dean Howard, decided on a hunch to hike a different route into the area where Best was headed.

Stopping to camp on a ridge near an area known as Snow Creek, Howard, who was with two friends, discovered the wallet. It was resting between two boulders on a steep ridge--and contained Best's identification, business cards, $700 in cash and his tram ticket from Sept. 9, said Best's sister, 42-year-old Lisa Best of Agoura.

The find has given Josh Best's relatives new hope that can be found alive.

"There is always hope," Lisa Best said on Wednesday.

"The odds of finding my brother alive are far greater than the odds of finding that wallet. If one miracle can happen, then another one can happen. That's like finding a single grain of sand on a beach."

Rescuers restarted their search on Monday, and by Tuesday afternoon had fanned out along both sides of the ridge where the wallet was found, said Jim Fairchild, a volunteer and the operations leader of the search.

The rescue workers, aided by a helicopter, are searching "every crevice, rock and bush," Fairchild said, and had also found a faint set of footprints by Tuesday afternoon that might have been left by Best. The wallet was found about a mile and a quarter from the top of the tram, Fairchild said.

Rescuers still held out hope that Best is alive, but said time is running out. According to sheriff's Deputy Ray Verdugo, a person could live on the mountain for five days without water. But if Best managed to find a water source--and there are some creeks in the area--he could live as long as three weeks, Fairchild said.

Best, a Del Mar native and an avid skier, is the third of four siblings and the only son.

"He's a beautiful man," Lisa Best said. "He's our only boy, and we're devastated."

The rescuers had apparently not searched in the area where the wallet was found, Verdugo said. Best's relatives now believe he was trying to get to Snow Creek, an area known for breathtaking waterfalls and rock formations.

Typically, rescuers on Mt. San Jacinto find missing hikers, officials say. In the last four decades, only a handful haven't been found, and those were usually tied to foul play.

Foul play is not suspected in this case, Verdugo said.

A second hiker who disappeared this month in the area was found alive last week. Jeannine Landrenaux, 22, of Palm Desert, had walked away from her boyfriend after they argued during a hike on Mt. San Jacinto. She was discovered in Tahquitz Canyon, southeast of the tram, four days later.

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