Searchers comb Idaho wilderness for suspect and teen (Friday night story)

jsowell@idahostatesman.comAugust 9, 2013 

— Searchers from more than a half-dozen local, state and federal agencies combed more than 300 square miles of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area on Friday, searching for a man suspected of killing a California woman and her son and fleeing with the woman's 16-year-old daughter.

Authorities also set up a tip line for anyone with information in the case: 208-846-7676.

A blue 2013 Nissan Versa driven by James DiMaggio was found Friday morning at a trailhead west of Morehead Lake. Although the car's license plates had been removed, authorities confirmed it was DiMaggio's car by checking the vehicle identification number and comparing it with California Department of Motor Vehicle records.

No explosives were found in or near the car Friday. Officials had previously expressed concerns that DiMaggio would plant a bomb or otherwise attempt to booby-trap the vehicle.

A man from Gem County who was riding his horse in the wilderness area on Wednesday spotted a man and a teenage girl about six to eight miles east of where the car was later found. He talked with them briefly at about 5 p.m.

It wasn't until the man got home that he learned about an Amber Alert issued by authorities seeking information on DiMaggio and 16-year-old Hannah Anderson, and thought they were the pair he encountered, said Andrea Dearden, spokeswoman for the Ada County Sheriff's Office. Ada County is handling public information on the search.

The man called Idaho State Police and reported his encounter. ISP troopers found DiMaggio’s car at about 9 a.m. Friday.

"It was nothing so alarming that he feared for his safety," Dearden said. "They exchanged pleasantries and he left the area thinking they were hiking and camping in the area."

The man on horseback said the pair had hiking and camping gear that was appropriate for the area. Dearden said she did not know how long they could survive in the wilderness without having to restock food and other supplies. Earlier in the day, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said DiMaggio had bought camping gear a few weeks ago.

Dearden described the search area as remote.

"It's a backcountry area. It's a rugged area. It's a very large area," she said.

Because the search is being conducted in the wilderness area, radios and cell phones aren't able to call out or receive calls. Crews are equipped with satellite phones to report in.

While searchers want to find DiMaggio and have him answer for the murders, they're more concerned about the teenage girl.

"Our No. 1 priority is to find Hannah and bring her to safety," Dearden said.

More than 100 people were either searching or on their way to help Friday evening. The Valley County Sheriff's Office is heading the search, with assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Ada County Sheriff's Office sent a dozen members of its tactical team, and at least three other agencies are assisting.

Searchers on horseback, on foot and on ATVs in areas with access — the wilderness area restricts motorized vehicles — are looking for signs of DiMaggio and Hannah. Helicopters from the Idaho Air National Guard were also deployed.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection loaned a helicopter to fly searchers from Boise to Cascade.

Investigators from San Diego will handle the search of DiMaggio’s Nissan and are getting a search warrant before they begin, said Patrick Orr, an Ada County sheriff’s spokesman. The search will be carried out where the car sits. There were reports that DiMaggio’s car might be rigged with explosives, but a news release late Friday night said a Boise police bomb squad did not find any devices during its initial search.

Authorities initially said the River of No Return Wilderness Area would remain open, with checkpoints established to monitor people entering and leaving the area where DiMaggio and Hannah may be. But at least one road in from Cascade was closed later Friday.

Authorities did not alert the public to the possible presence of DiMaggio and Hannah until the car was found and confirmed to be DiMaggio’s. That came within three hours after the car was located, Dearden said.

The Versa remains at the remote trailhead, and a crew from San Diego is headed up to process it into evidence, according to the Ada County Sheriff's Office.

She said she did not know whether DiMaggio had hiked and camped in Idaho before. Likewise, she said she would not speculate on whether he had the skills and knowledge to remain in the wilderness for an extended period of time.

"I have heard him described as a survivalist. I don't know how you define that."

Carol and Bob Westphal, a Nampa couple who have spent considerable time in Cascade over the years and who are spending the summer at a local RV park, said they were confident DiMaggio and the girl will be found.

"If they're here, they'll find them," Bob Westphal said.


Brett Anderson, Hannah's father, told the Associated Press Friday he was "very happy" that Hannah may have been spotted alive. He said he couldn't explain why his daughter didn't ask the horseback rider for help.

"We don't know what kind of frame of mind she was in or what he told her," Anderson said. "Maybe if she acted differently, there would be more dead people."

Hannah's grandfather, Christopher Saincome, also was relieved and refused to try to explain the girl's reaction.

"He could have strapped something to her and told her it was a bomb. He could have had her tethered to him," he said. "I'm sure she's totally in shock."

Authorities throughout the West have been looking for the teen and DiMaggio since the bodies of the girl's mother, Christina Anderson, 44, and Hannah's 8-year-old brother, Ethan, were found Sunday at DiMaggio's burned home near the Mexican border about 65 miles east of San Diego.

Ethan's body was identified Friday night. The boy was originally included in the Amber Alert.

The San Diego Sheriff’s Department crime lab was able to identify the body as that of Ethan late Friday night. The severely burned condition made identification difficult, officials have said. They were able to get a DNA sample from the boy’s bone marrow.

Brett Anderson said his friend is an outdoorsman.

"He was very interested in hiking and camping," Anderson said. "Whenever he had the chance and had the funds he would go on a hiking trip."

DiMaggio was close to the family. Brett Anderson has described him as a best friend and said his children thought of him as an uncle.

Authorities have said DiMaggio had an "unusual infatuation" with the 16-year-old, although the father said he never saw any strange behavior. If he had, he said, "we would have quashed that relationship in an instant."

View an Associated Press interactive with background on the case here.

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