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Inland Empire

A Father-and-Son Desert Trip Ends in Death

An 18-year-old Irvine man dies after his car gets stuck during an outing near Landers.

July 15, 2003|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

Hot, thirsty and lost, Jim Spellmire said he was hopeful when he spotted his son's footprints on the dirt road in the San Bernardino County desert.

Maybe his son had found a way out, he thought.

But after 15 more minutes of hiking, he found the body of his 18-year-old son, Al.

"I started going down a road and I saw his footprints, so I knew I was on the right road," said Spellmire, of Irvine. "But when I saw his body in the middle of the road and there was no pulse, I knew he had left me."

The two were hiking Saturday, looking for help after their car got stuck in the sand in the Johnson Valley off-road recreational area near Landers.

Rescuers found the body about 11 p.m. Saturday after Jim Spellmire stumbled across dirt bikers, who led him to safety. The coroner's office on Monday had not determined the cause of death.

The pair had planned the weekend trip since Christmas. Jim Spellmire, 48, wanted to show his son a family keepsake: a 12-gauge shotgun that had been handed down by his great-grandfather.

Al wanted to introduce his father to his new hobby: off-roading.

Packed with three days of food, 35 water bottles, a shovel, a cell phone, camcorder, directions and camping gear, they set out in Al's 1986 Nissan 200SX with oversized tires.

"They were well-prepared," said Al's mother, Arlene Spellmire, an instructional aide at Irvine High School.

They arrived Friday night, camped out and dozed off on top of their sleeping bags to feel the cool breeze. They fired off more than 25 rounds.

On Saturday, their car twice got stuck on rocks and sand; each time, passersby helped them.

But when Al made a wrong turn and the car got stuck a third time, no one came by to help. By now, they were nearly out of water. The temperature hovered around 100.

The pair waited for more than three hours before deciding at 5 p.m. to start walking.

"I could tell he was getting upset about the situation," Spellmire said. "He asked me, 'Are we going to make it out of here, Dad?' "

Spellmire tried to keep up his son's spirits.

"You have to think of it this way: We had a great time," he told him. "Our soldiers in Iraq were in full gear in 100-degree heat, so this should be a breeze for us."

Al, a faster hiker, decided to go ahead while his father rested. About 20 minutes later, Spellmire followed.

By dusk, Spellmire arrived at a road near a lake bed and followed his son's footprints, which led to the body.

He cried, prayed and attached a note to identify his son. Then he started walking again.

"The only thing that kept me going was that I couldn't let my wife and my two boys have a double funeral," Spellmire said.

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