Podcast Episodes

A Rocky Mountain Tragedy

There are a million conspiracy theories about people missing or turning up dead in National Parks and other public lands. But really, when you break down the numbers, the number of disappearances, murders, and accidental deaths are on par with the rest of the country.

Still, a lot of those unfortunate events do happen. And many aren’t what they seem. On today’s episode of America’s National Parks the tragic death of a hiker at Rocky Mountain National Park that shocked the nation, and the investigator that unraveled a mystery in service to her country. 

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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.

The F.B.I. of the National Park Service – Outside Online

Harold Henthorn’s full 911 Call – Daily Mail

Rocky Mountain National Park – NPS Website


Transcript

There are a million conspiracy theories about people missing or turning up dead in National Parks and other public lands. But the National Park Service manages a LOT of land. 17 of them are bigger than Rhode Island. Three are bigger than New Jersey. If you combined them all, they’d make up the 14th largest state. So really, when you break down the numbers, the amount of disappearances, murders, and accidental deaths are on par with the rest of the country.

Still, a lot of those unfortunate events do happen. And many aren’t what they seem. On today’s episode of America’s National Parks the tragic death of a hiker at Rocky Mountain National Park that shocked the nation.

This episode may not be suitable for younger audiences.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.


5:55 p.m. September 29, 2012. Harold Henthorn places a 911 call.

(911 Call Audio part 1)

Harold’s wife Toni had fallen 30 feet and sustained a severe head injury. She was alive but unconscious. The Henthorns had been celebrating their 12th anniversary with a weekend trip to the park. Harold was an entrepreneur and Toni, an ophthalmologist. They met on a Christian dating site in their 30s when such websites were in their infancy. They married after a short courtship and had a daughter, who was now seven.

The couple was staying in the Stanley Hotel, an elegant establishment that was the inspiration behind Stephen King’s THE SHINING. They had planned to hike to Bear Lake, a popular half-mile loop, but Bear Lake was pretty crowded that day, so they decided to hike the significantly more challenging Deer Mountain instead — a 6-mile out-and-back with more than 1,000 feet of elevation gain. The couple had hiked about two and a half miles in when the incident occurred.

After the 911 call was transferred to National Park Service rangers, help was sent, and the 911 dispatcher coached Harold through CPR. He hung up the phone to keep his dwindling battery from dying out, but updated family with text messages.

“Urgent…Toni is injured…in estes park…Fall from rock. Critical…requested flight for life. Emt rangers on way.”

Then “Pulse 60, Resp 5.”

By 7:30 p.m. the dark had set in, and Harold had built a small fire. Then another text: “Can’t find pulse.”

Ranger Mark Faherty was struggling over boulders and through pines to reach the couple. When he arrived to see Harold desperately attempting chest compressions on his wife. Her pupils were fixed and dilated. It was over.

More rangers began to arrive at the body, which couldn’t safely be removed at night. Faherty persuaded Harold to hike out, and the rangers would stay with Toni overnight until she could be evacuated. The two men hiked for two hours back to the trailhead after the unimaginable experience.

Incidents like this, unfortunately, happen from time to time in wild places. And Toni’s case, for a moment, was just another unimaginable tragic accident.

Then the letters and phone calls came.

Toni was Harold’s second wife. His first, they said, also died in a tragic accident in a remote location. The couples car fell off the jack onto Harold’s first wife as the couple tried to change a flat tire. Her death was ruled an accident, but one nagging piece of evidence bothered investigators: a footprint on the fender well near the wheel that was jacked up. As if someone had kicked the car. Harold received a half a million dollars from her life insurance policy.

Faherty noticed some strange things about Toni’s death, too. For one, her lipstick wasn’t smudged from the CPR, and a camera that she was carrying had somehow survived the 30-foot fall with no damage.

And then, Rangers found a map of the Deer Mountain trail in Harold’s car, with an X marking the spot where Toni fell. This death was no longer going to be investigated as accidental.

Ranger Faherty called in the Investigative Services Branch of the National Park Service, or the “ISB.” The ISB is a group of 33 elite Rangers whose job is to investigate complex crimes in the parks – our as Outside Magazine called them “the FBI of the National Parks.”

ISB agents are scrappy. They don’t have the massive infrastructure of the FBI. Usually, they work cases alone, and are almost invisible to other law enforcement. But they’ve solved all kinds of cases from homicides to poaching rings.

ISB agent Beth Shott, a 20-year Park Service veteran, was assigned to the case. Schott didn’t get a degree in criminal justice. She was an art major, who wound up in advertising. Eventually, as is so common with park rangers, she ditched the corporate life for the wild. After working 6-month stints at several parks, she decided to go into law enforcement. She went through Federal Law Enforcement training and became one of the thousand or so officers in the National Park Service. She discovered she had a knack for investigating, and applied to join the ISB.

Immediately, Beth Schott began to see Harold Henthorn’s story leak like a sieve. First, there was the strange decision to ditch the half-mile nature walk for a 6-mile climb. Shott learned that Toni had bad knees, and wasn’t known to be much of a hiker.

The Coroner’s report raised more questions. The injuries Toni’s body sustained were clearly fatal. Her head wound was extensive, among other things, and her body had bled out. The coroner had a hard time getting a blood sample because there was little left in her system. He estimated that Toni had died 20 minutes to an hour after the fall.

Then there was the spot that Toni fell from. It was well of the trail. Harold had told Faherty that the couple had ventured off for “romantic time.” Schott went out to retrace the couple’s footsteps, and when she left the trail where the couple did, she had to scrape her way back over stumps and rocks and through trees. She realized that Toni was in her 50s, the couple had been married for 12 years, and it just didn’t seem an ideal location for such activity.

Then, Harold said the couple climbed up to a cliff edge and stopped for lunch when Toni spotted a flock of wild turkeys she wanted to photograph, so she trekked gingerly down a rocky slope to a flat stone ledge over a large drop-off with only enough room for one person. Harold said he followed her down, and she asked him to take a photo of her. As she stepped backward, she fell.

Schott noted that the drop was not the 30 feet that Harold noted in the 911 call. It was more like 150 feet. When Schott looked down, Toni’s blood was still visible on the ground below.

This is the point in any investigation where it’s clear to law enforcement that a crime has been committed, but the evidence is, almost entirely circumstantial. Far from producing a slam dunk conviction.

The first snow of the fall soon came, blanketing the scene of the incident for the next several months.

Schott teamed up with other investigators, including the FBI, and they began to interview the Henthorn’s friends and relatives. They were often told that Harold was a good, church-going man. He raised money for his church and for several charities. In fact, that was said to be his job.

But Shott soon discovered that Harold’s business had no website or known clients. He claimed no income on his tax returns. In fact, there was no evidence that he held a job or received much income at all over the course of the Henthorn’s marriage.

Yet, Harold went to work every day. His cell phone records led Schott and the FBI to a Panera restaurant, where employees recognized his photograph instantly. Harold treated Panara as his office, often staying until close, and the employees feared him. The manager always took his order as a bugger for her staff.

Those she interviewed also told Schott that Harold frequently traveled on business trips. To where?

And then there were the life insurance policies. Harold had received over half a million dollars when his first wife died. Now, he and Toni were insured for a million each, in their daughter’s name. But then more policies were found – two more covering Toni for another $3 million, with Harold as the beneficiary.

Harold was controlling. He didn’t allow Toni to talk to her parents on the phone without him listening in.

And there was Toni’s near-death experience just months before. Relatives told Schott of the cabin the couple had been working on together. Toni had walked out the front door, and bent over when Harold dropped a massive beam on her back. Toni had told her mother that it would have killed her had she not bent over.

When the snow thawed, Schott brought FBI agents to the scene of the crime, with llamas, overnight gear, and investigation equipment. Some had never camped before. They used a high-tech laser to build a computer model of the scene for an impending courtroom drama. Schott took video of the trail and the fall site during the trip and several subsequent hikes with and without the FBI. She brought out a drone pilot to film overhead. She had been searching and searching for evidence that Toni was pushed – but it proved elusive.

Scott and the FBI felt they had all the evidence they were going to find, and finally, in the fall of 2014, the arrest was made.

The trial came a year later, but was swift, and Harold Henthorn was convicted of first-degree murder, largely due to Ranger Beth Schott’s detailed investigation and courtroom testimony.


Beth Schot and other investigators were presented with the Distinguished Service Award by the US Attorney General. It was a landmark investigation for both the National Park Service and the FBI.

We share this episode in the middle of a government shutdown, which has taken a drastic toll on many of our National Parks, particularly in California, where it’s one of the most popular times of the year at places like Yosemite and Joshua Tree national park. Yosemite is one of those parks that is about the size of Rhode Island, and just 12 law enforcement rangers are the only barrier between near record level crowds and our national treasures.

No matter what your feelings are about the shutdown, the few rangers who aren’t furloughed are doing the work of dozens each, and deserve our undying gratitude.


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Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

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