JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK — Searchers who discovered the decomposing body of a young man at the bottom of a rocky crevice here Friday said there was a "high probability" it was the remains of Eric Sears, the 17-year-old Carlsbad resident who vanished in this rugged desert preserve more than a week ago.
A group of family friends and volunteers found the body before noon, in an area known as Twin Tanks, about 2 1/2 miles from the campground where Sears was last seen on July 15. Searcher and family friend Mark Berklite said the body was on its stomach and "tucked into some bushes, so he had some shade."
"I hate to say this, but I was relieved," he said. "It's a relief, closure. Whatever you call it."
Authorities have yet to identify the body, but say it fit Sears' general description: a white male who appeared to be in his late teens to early 30s. However, decomposition made positive identification at the scene impossible, said Sgt. Earl Quinata.
"The family does not know if this is Eric," he said.
Sears, who was camping with a high school friend when he disappeared, was an avid outdoorsman and skilled hiker, and his disappearance left many puzzled. Search and rescue teams had used bloodhounds and ropes to rappel into deep rocky crags. When they couldn't find him, authorities speculated that he may have been the victim of foul play. However, the position and attitude of the body suggested that he might have fallen while scaling one of the many steep rock outcroppings that stud Joshua Tree.
Homicide detectives and crime scene specialists were flown to the scene in helicopters. Authorities said that they planned to remove the body to a Riverside County Coroner's bureau Friday evening, but that the terrain might delay removal.
Sears, who recently graduated from Carlsbad High School and planned to attend San Diego State, was camping at Jumbo Rocks Campground when friend Ben Fogelstrom reported him missing. On Thursday, investigators executed a search warrant at the Carlsbad home where Fogelstrom lives with his parents. Sheriff's investigators said the friend was not a suspect in the youth's death, but was one of about 30 people they would talk to.
Quinata said investigators could not yet say whether the death was accidental.
Park officials said dead bodies are discovered at a rate of about two a year in the vast park. Many are people who fell from rock formations. Searches like the one that occupied hundreds of volunteers and authorities this past week are not uncommon, they said.
"It's never fun finding a body," said National Park Ranger Jimmy Prichett. "It's probably the worst part of the job. Rock rescue is fun, but finding a body is never fun."
Since Sears disappeared, friends and relatives had gathered each morning at the site where he and Fogelstrom had pitched their tent. On Friday, between 30 and 40 searchers met there before fanning across the Twin Tanks area, named after two holes dug by cattle farmers at the turn of the century to collect rain water.
They were about to end their search in the area when they saw the body.
Many of those who participated in the search in triple-digit temperatures were neighbors on the cul de sac where Sears lived with his sister and parents, Tom and Wendy.
Searcher and neighbor Pat Kelley said Friday he was experiencing a "soup of emotions."
"I think this will help the family," he said. "It will close some doors and open up some new doors. To be bringing Eric home, that was the whole goal."
Times staff writers Monte Morin and Richard Marosi contributed to this report.