ST. GEORGE, Utah (ABC4 News) — The Washington County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue is now revealing details of a complicated multi-day search between two states after recovering the remains of a St. George man in a remote area east of Bloomington Friday afternoon.
The rescue was set in motion last Wednesday afternoon when deputies with the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona received a call from a passerby on I-15 reporting a person down in the Virgin River.
Law enforcement says that by the time they arrived, the woman had climbed up the cliff and was standing on Bridge 7 in the Virgin River Gorge — naked, injured, and suffering from acute exposure.
She said she had been there for several days and was separated from her boyfriend, who she believed may still be out in the desert, according to police.
“She had many bruises and contusions and was covered in sand, suffering from severe sunburns and dehydration,” Washington County Sheriff’s Sgt. Darrell Cashin said. “She said it was very hot during the day and she couldn’t walk on the sand or the rocks. At night, she was so cold she buried herself in the sand just to stay warm.”
The woman originally claimed her friends had dropped off her and her boyfriend to spend time out on the water a few days before.
She first stated she had been swept away in the river while he remained on the shore; but, when authorities looked at the low river flows, they could quickly determine her assertions were highly unlikely.
“The second story she gave was that they had run from law enforcement in a car chase on Monday night,” Cashin said. “It was her and her boyfriend who fled, so we suspected there’s a high probability there was another person out in the desert.”
An officer with the Santa Clara-Ivins City Police Department attempted to make a traffic stop on Rachel Drive on suspicion of a DUI last Monday evening.
A black Acura sedan heading westbound on Highway 91 was swerving and crossing the lines of the shoulder several times within a few hundred feet, according to police.
“The vehicle accelerated at a high rate of speed, reaching nearly 100 miles per hour,” Sgt. Reed Briggs with the Santa Clara-Ivins City Police Department said. “We initiated a high-speed chase, and when the vehicle failed to stop, we terminated our pursuit just outside of the Ivins City border in the area of the Shivwits Indian Reservation.”
Sgt. Briggs said his department reviewed its body cam footage and video vehicle camera footage, but it was inconclusive. Their officers were unable to determine if there was a second party in the vehicle, only concluding that there was a female driver.
Sheriff’s deputies suspect that sometime between the car chase and when she was found, the couple’s vehicle had broken down in the desert and got stuck; so, they abandoned the vehicle on foot and ended up down at the Virgin River.
“It was nighttime and very dark,” Cashin said. “We suspect that the two of them got separated. She had gone downstream, and we had no idea what happened to him.”
On Wednesday, Mohave County search and rescue crews scanned underneath the bridge north and south of the river, along with a helicopter from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, but were unable to locate anything.
Once Arizona authorities learned the couple had fled from law enforcement in a vehicle pursuit, their search and rescue crews pulled back because they’re not allowed to search for fleeing fugitives, they said.
Sgt. Cashin along with a lieutenant from the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office searched southwest of the Bloomington area looking for the vehicle on Thursday. A plane spotted the black Acura passenger car stuck sideways in a wash.
The man had walked all over the hood of the car, leaving clear shoeprints. Authorities processed the scene, impounded the vehicle, and began their search.
“We searched roadways, pathways, anything we could find looking for his shoe prints or him,” Cashin said.
The rescued woman later described that when she and her boyfriend abandoned the vehicle, she heard water and yelled to him, ‘Hey, I think I found water.” She said she thought she heard him respond but never saw him again.
Based on her descriptions and the location of the vehicle, search and rescue teams believed they had been in the area of the Val Wash west of Bloomington.
On Friday, SAR teams flew the wash with drones, and a law enforcement officer hiked down to the wash and located the man’s footprints. Another SAR member reached the bottom of the plateau and located the man’s body lying on the ground in a flat area three miles from the vehicle.
Intermountain Life Flight assisted in retrieving the body, which Sgt. Cashin said helped tremendously as his search and rescue crews worked in nearly 110-degree heat.
“He apparently never left that area. He probably walked around a little bit and was possibly disoriented and finally succumbed to the elements,” Cashin said. “We suspect that he had been there for at least two days.”
The man has been identified as Steven Richens, 39. Authorities believe that by the time they found the woman, he had already died.
Sheriff’s detectives have not received autopsy results from the Utah Office of the Medical Examiner but at this point do not suspect foul play.
The investigation is ongoing.