A Carson City man's family had waited seven months to learn the fate of their missing patriarch. Last weekend the kindness of strangers delivered to them an answer.
In early August, a few days after they last saw him, Norman Cox's wife and children received letters from him in which he explained he went to Death Valley to die. He told his wife how to split his estate and that he wanted no funeral service.
"You have to deal with it," Norman wrote as his last words.
The family reported his disappearance to the Carson City Sheriff's Office, and they also contacted the Inyo County Sheriff's Department, which governs Death Valley.
Inyo County officers found Norman's vehicle abandoned in a parking lot in the Badwater section of the desolate desert park.
A search and rescue mission by Inyo County later in August proved fruitless.
Nothing was found and, said Norman's son Jeff Cox of Bend, Ore., the family didn't hear another word from Inyo County.
Then Carson City Sheriff's Deputy Jack Freer learned about Norman's disappearance. An avid Death Valley visitor, Freer has spent years camping in the sparseness of the unforgiving landscape. His photographs capture a beauty few passersby ever see.
Freer loves Death Valley, much like Norman did.
"We knew he was somewhere in the valley and was probably a victim of the elements. I ended up calling the family. I told them a small group of friends and I spend a lot of time out in this part of the country, and asked if they would mind if we just kind of hiked around to see if we could find the remains to help bring closure to the family," said Freer.
The family agreed. Freer collected the reports from Inyo County and Death Valley National Park and obtained copies of maps that showed where search and rescue crews had already searched.
When he had business in the area in October and November, he made short unsuccessful jaunts into Death Valley in the hunt for Norman.
Then, he began discussing the case with online friends, including two men whom had experience with search and rescue in Southern California.
They all agreed that from where Norman's car was found, he probably walked seven miles straight across the flats in the 118-degree August heat.
"It was extremely hot, so for someone to walk six to seven miles, if they didn't have any water under those conditions, someone could fall pretty quickly," Freer surmised.
The group began to discuss routes Norman may have taken, and ultimately they agreed to go out
On March 19, Freer and a friend from Carson, met up in the Badwater parking lot where Norman's car was found with three people he had known only through online desert forums .
After everyone introduced themselves, the pack of strangers began looking.
"Prior to arriving at Badwater, the thought was Cox might have just used Telescope Peak on the west side of the valley as a destination," wrote Tom Mahood, of Irvine, Calif., who had met up with Freer and later chronicled the search in an email to others. "But looking at the vista, it just didn't feel right. Because of the shaping of the mountain range on the west side of the valley, a route that went more northwesterly seemed more likely and more open."
The group relocated 20 miles by car to the opposite side of the valley floor and began a line search on the west edge of the valley.
"It was very open, but cobblely, (sic) and walking was difficult. After traveling south for just over a mile ... we concluded that a 72-year-old man ... would be unlikely to have been able to cross the ankle-busting terrain we just moved through," Mahood wrote.
So the group headed east. Within a short trek on this new route and just four hours since they began, Mahood, who in 2009 had discovered the remains in Death Valley of German tourists missing for 13 years, spotted a bone. Upon further inspection, more bones were found, including some with medical hardware, as was noted in the police report, that had been implanted during the repair of a broken leg.
Freer said he used his satellite phone to call Norman's family. He asked about the key fob.
There was only one key on it, he was told.
Freer described the material.
Yes, he learned, Norman wore plaid.
When Freer inquired about surgical hardware found on a suspected vertebrae, but not mentioned in the police report, he learned that Norman had in fact had back surgery at some point and pins were installed.
Absent DNA confirmation, the family knew from what Freer and his friends had found, that Norman had completed his mission.
The Cox family is grateful to find out the end of Norman's story.
"Jack is our hero. He actually took the time to listen to what we were saying and what we thought had happened," said Jeff Cox. "He sat and really pondered everything we had said and came up with a new plan. This group came out of the blue via Jack, and Jack came out of the blue."
Cox said, if his dad set out to do something he was going to accomplish it, but not knowing the final outcome was tough on everyone.
"Now, to just know that he had gone and done what he wanted, as hurtful as it is as his son for me to say this, he went and fulfilled his last wish," said Jeff Cox. "You don't want to lose your dad, but if he was really that miserable in life, God bless him. He wanted to die where he loved the most. Death Valley was his place.
"What Jack and that group did really did provide a lot of closure for us. That was phenomenal for them to do that for us."