Third body found in Superstitions

Apache Junction / Gold Canyon News
By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski January 24, 2011

Superstition Search and Rescue has found the body of a third man in the Superstition Mountains Saturday, Jan. 15, believed to be Utah treasure hunter Curtis Merworth.

Robert Cooper, director of SSAR’s urban search and rescue, said the discovery of the two other bodies two weeks ago helped in the recovery process.

“He (Merworth) was on top of Black Mesa, tucked under a tree,” Cooper said. “He found a nice shade tree and found some dirt. When you lie down, your body shuts down. I imagine he was on his way out for help.”

Local author and 26-year treasure hunter Rick Gwynne found two skeletal remains Jan. 5 near Yellow Peak and Second Water Trail. They are believed to be Ardean Charles and Malcom Meeks.

“It took a treasure hunter to find treasure hunters,” Cooper said. “That gave us a point last known. Our last point of last known was the vehicle but the whole wildnerness was the search area. When Rick found the body, the search area became between the bodies and the car.”

“We are persistent,” Cooper said. “We just never quit.”

According to Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Public Information Officer Jeff Sprong, the remains are in the process of being identified. However, Gwynne is convinced that they are two of the Utah treasure hunters missing since July 6.

“I got to looking at them,” Gwynne said. “I said, ‘They must be those guys from Utah.’ There’s two of them. I got to looking around I saw the wallet of the one fellow. I went over and picked it up. It was belonged to Malcom Meeks.”

Gwynne said there were obvious signs of hypothermia.

He said he’s “pretty sure” he found Charles as well.

“(Charles’) lantern was lying right beside him on low light,” Gwynne said. “His glasses were in his pocket. They were on these rocks, I’m guessing at night time.”

Gwynne, who is due to soon have hip and knee replacement surgery, said he stayed the night in the mountains to make the hike down easier on him. Upon exiting the mountains, he called a Pinal County Sheriff’s Office deputy that he knew and Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office representatives followed.

“We flew out and I showed them where the bodies were,” Gwynne said. “At that point, they took over and brought the bodies out, both of them.”

Gwynne said that he believes the story that the trio was treasure hunting. People he has spoken to, however, are surprised that the men were not found earlier.

“They were out in the open,” he said. “When I flew over in that chopper, even though I knew where they were, they were extremely hard to see. The skulls looked like white rocks.”

Sprong said he is waiting to hear back from the medical examiner’s office about the identification of the bodies as well as the causes of death.

“We’re looking into the fact that this is possibly going to be two of the men,” Sprong said. “Unfortunately, we can’t confirm it until we get information back from the medical examiner.”

Sgt. Jesse Spurgin, of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office said, the department spoke to the detective working the case on Thursday, Jan. 20, and the medical examiner still has not made a definitive identification on the bodies.

“Once final ID has been made, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office will provide a news release,” Spurgin said.

Local search and rescue team believes remains in Superstitions may be missing Utah man
January 17, 2011

APACHE JUNCTION, AZ – A local search and rescue team believes skeletal remains found in the Superstition Mountains over the weekend may be those of a missing Utah man.

Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jeff Sprong said the office was contacted around 12:45 p.m. Saturday by a subject who reported finding possible human skeletal remains.

Sprong said the person told them it is one person and possibly the third hiker from the group that went missing last July.

The volunteer group Superstition Search and Rescue said they made the discovery.

Members of their team tell ABC15 since July they’ve been searching for the men two to four times a week.

Their biggest challenge was that they had little information.

Sixty-six-year-old Ardean Charles, 51-year-old Malcom Meeks and 49-year-old Kurtis Merworth apparently told family members they were coming to Arizona to find the Lost Dutchman’s gold, believed to be hidden in the mountains. Two of the three men were said to have medical conditions.

The men didn’t have cell phones, family members didn’t know what they were wearing and members of Superstition Search and Rescue say treasure hunters usually venture off trail.

Roger Barrientos, the group’s Wilderness Director, said the third man was found under a desert shrub, perhaps to shield himself from the sun. The week the men went missing it was above 100 degrees.

Barrientos moved to Queen Creek as a child in the 1950s to pick cotton by hand. He doesn’t want to brag, but says he was a good cotton picker. Now he owns his own alfalfa farm.

Barrientos also works hard on his free time, trekking through the rough desert terrain to find missing people with Superstition Search and Rescue.

“My second job doesn’t pay, what it does pay is in the success of helping families find their loved ones, in some cases find closure.”

His reward, he says, is helping people.

The team is trained by the state and include experts in different kinds of rescue to include swift water rescue.

In the case of the missing treasure hunters, Barrientos said they searched the area one grid at a time.

As they expanded their search, the mission was even more difficult because they would have to hike about four hours in just to get to the last point where they had stopped looking.

Sprong said the remains found Saturday will most likely be turned over to the medical examiner’s office for identification.

Authorities said identification of two sets of remains found last weekend may come as early as next week.

If you would like to donate to the nonprofit Superstition Search and Rescue or need their services, visit . Their emergency number is 480-784-8536.

2010 Review

In 2010, as in years past, Superstition Search and Rescue (SSAR) has continued to provide their life-saving services to the community while working in concert with local law enforcement. While 2010 has brought many changes, SSAR’s dedication to the safety and welfare of the individuals who live and recreate in the Superstition Wilderness Area and beyond has remained a constant.

2010 was a year of achievements and expansion of services for SSAR. While SSAR has helped law enforcement in urban situations in the past; this year they established a dedicated Urban Search and Rescue Team that has assisted the Apache Junction Police Department (AJPD) on numerous occasions. The establishment of an emergency phone number (480-620-0299) to better serve the community has also proved to be a great success. In addition, SSAR has hosted a radio segment several times a month during which they discuss and provide outdoor sporting safety.

While SSAR continually trains its members in wilderness search and rescue techniques, this past year they additionally trained 16 members in urban search and rescue through the Department of Homeland Security CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) program; eight members through the Apache Junction Fire District wilderness fire program and 10 members were trained in technical rescue. They also assisted the federal government in maintaining state parks by once again participating in the Annual Grand Canyon Clean-up. They are also presently assisting in the fund raising effort to keep the Lost Dutchman State Park open.

SSAR continues to grid search the Superstition Wilderness for four treasure hunters that went missing this past year. Conducting a grid search requires well-placed searchers that move slowly and methodically through designated grid sections in order to uncover clues as to the missing person’s movements. Grid searching an area helps to locate items that may have been passed over or missed during the course of broader search efforts such as torn clothing or items that may have been dropped by the missing individuals. Discoveries made during the course of a grid search can lead to a possible location or provide a point of direction for additional grid searches.

In addition to grid searching, SSAR is also GPS (Global Positioning System) mapping and taking photos of historical mines, campsites, dwellings, springs and caves (excluding current camps) to create a database of updated information in an effort to make the Superstition Wilderness safer for all future outdoor enthusiasts. Once this effort is complete, it will be available on the SSAR website along with up-to-date maps.

Going forward, SSAR’s goal for the New Year is to obtain a land donation that will enable them to erect on office/warehouse where they can store their gear and supplies so they are even better prepared to assist the community when needed.

SSAR thanks all the citizens of Pinal County for their ongoing support and friendship and extends their wishes for a happy, safe and blessed New Year to all.