SPRINGDALE, Utah (ABC4 News) — The Washington County Sheriff’s Office is conducting a criminal investigation into allegations surrounding the disappearance of Holly Courtier, the 38-year-old California woman found alive after she had been missing in Zion National Park for 12 days.
Following national media coverage, the Courtier family stated Holly likely suffered a mental breakdown and had planned to go on a spiritual journey while eating no food or water for a couple of days inside the national park. Jaime Strong, Courtier’s sister, told ABC News the hiker suffered a concussion while setting up her hammock along the Virgin River and became so disoriented she couldn’t call for help or take more than a few steps without collapsing.
“She was very disoriented and very dizzy,” Strong said. “I think she bit off more than she could chew. She definitely thought she could fast longer than she could.”
In an interview with ABC4 News on Oct. 20, liaison of the sheriff’s search and rescue Sgt. Darrell Cashin commented on the circumstances of Courtier’s recovery that were inconsistent with his 25 years of training and experience. The liaison said his crews provided some K-9 assets and several of their highly trained investigators reviewed the park’s entire search and rescue efforts, including maps, credible tips, and surveillance footage from nearby businesses.
“The statements that the family is giving and the statements that the park is giving don’t add up,” Cashin said. “Those are the types of questions I think everybody has. I think the place where that question can be answered is with her.”
Cashin brought attention to a toxic algal bloom detected in the north fork of the Virgin River, where Courtier was found, stating it’s a “high possibility” she would have died if she was drinking river water contaminated with dangerous levels of cyanobacteria for 12 days.
“If she had been drinking that water, unless she had some really high immune system, she would’ve been very, very ill and probably unable to come out on her own,” Cashin said. “She either took a lot of water with her or had another clean water source that was nearby, but the Virgin River is not that source.”
As an advanced EMT, he further speculated that she seemed to be in a physical condition that did not warrant an ambulance transport, following a statement from park officials that Courtier was able to walk out of the park on her own with minimal assistance.
“If we had found somebody in that condition with that kind of severe head injury, we would have at minimum called for a transport agency to check her out,” Cashin said. “The fact that that didn’t happen tells me that they did not find any significant injury to her that would’ve prompted them to do that.”
In response to Cashin’s statements, the Courtier family clarified Holly did not drink the river water due to the toxicity levels. The family did not specify how Courtier was able to survive for 12 days without water. Strong said the family took Courtier to the emergency room and a doctor allegedly diagnosed her with a concussion, although the family said Holly had decided to forgo a MRI or CAT scan. The family said Courtier had lost approximately 18 pounds while out in the wilderness.
“In response to numerous media inquires, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office stands behind the observations and statements made by Sergeant Cashin,” a press release states. “However, we feel it is important to clarify that we stand by our initial release that we were only involved in a consultation role. We fully support the findings of the National Park Service investigation and believe their investigation into the incident was thorough and well-executed.”
Sgt. Cashin’s comments led to many additional questions and theories regarding the incident, according to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. Numerous tips have been received indicating the incident was possibly conceived and carried out as a part of a plan to fraudulently generate money to a GoFundMe account for Courtier’s recovery, officials said.
“Despite the thorough investigation conducted by the National Park Service, Utah State Code does not grant them the authority to investigate violations of Utah law. Based on our local authority and jurisdiction, the Sheriff’s Office had an obligation to the public to investigate the criminal allegations which were being presented,” the press release states.
GoFundMe regional spokesperson Jenny Perillo confirmed that the company’s Trust and Safety team is working with Strong, the campaign organizer.
“It is important to note that our platform is backed by the GoFundMe Guarantee, which means that in the rare case that GoFundMe, law enforcement or a user finds funds are misused, donors are fully protected and eligible for a refund in full,” Perillo wrote in an email to ABC4 News.
Strong stated on the GoFundMe that the funds will be used to reimburse the family and friend’s costs in searching for Holly, including hotel rooms, car rentals, and food for search parties, while a remainder of the donations will be used to cover Holly’s medical care.
“Whomever has concerns about our use of their donation is welcome to request a refund without any objection from the family,” Strong wrote. “We appreciate everyone’s continued support. This fundraiser is, and always was, 100 percent legitimate.”
At this point in the investigation, sheriff’s officials say there has been no evidence to support the theory that the incident was committed intentionally as an effort to achieve financial gain. Any credible information based on tangible leads should be submitted to the sheriff’s office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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