Officials say they misidentified dead woman at Craters monument

kterhune@idahostatesman.comSeptember 27, 2013 

Amy Linkert is the woman whose body was found Wednesday. Jo Elliott-Blakeslee remains missing after a hike last week at the monument's Tree Molds trail.

Officials said the news about the identification is not changing the plans for their search for the woman who remains missing.

A spokeswoman for Craters of the Moon National Monument said Friday that dental records showed that the body recovered on Wednesday was Linkert, not Elliott-Blakeslee as officials announced Thursday morning.

The Butte County Coroner found clues Thursday that required further help in making a positive identification and asked for the assistance of the state medical examiner late Thursday, spokeswoman Traci Weaver said.

Linkert, who would have been 70 Thursday, is a retired special education teacher with the Meridian School District. Elliott-Blakeslee, 63, is a physician who works at the prison in Ontario, Ore.

Ground crews shifted their focus Friday to the hundreds of caves that dot the Craters of the Moon National Monument.

The search will continue Saturday with more than 50 searchers, including eight dog teams and a crew of 21 firefighters.

The women have been missing since Sept. 19 when they went for a day hike on the park’s Tree Molds trail.

Linkert’s body was found Wednesday in a lava field about a mile from the trail. So far, there has been no sign of Elliott-Blakeslee.

But spokeswoman Traci Weaver said that the woman may have gone into one of the monument’s caverns for shelter.

“That’s the most likely place for (the remaining hiker) to be if she’s sheltered up, is in a cave somewhere,” she said.

As temperatures dropped she may have drawn deeper and deeper into the cavern, seeking warmth, Weaver said.

About forty-five people combed the park Friday looking for the missing woman. Two experienced cavers have joined the search, along with seven search and rescue dogs. Although rescue teams have looked through some of the caves already, having people with experience join the hunt for the missing hiker is helpful, Weaver said.

“It’s a lot of ground to cover, so it’s great to have those experienced resources,” she said. “We’re able to go a little more in-depth and search more caves now that we’ve got people focused solely on that.”

But it won’t be easy. There are about 300 known caves in the park, and Weaver estimated that there may actually be as many as 3,000.

The rescue crews are looking first in the caverns the woman would have been most likely to seek shelter in. Once those caves are cleared, the teams move on to the next one, Weaver said.

Park officials say they still may spot the missing woman out in the open. Thursday, overcast skies and fog grounded the search’s three helicopters. But the weather cleared up Friday, and the helicopters were again patrolling a grid, scanning for any sign of the hiker.

It was an Army National Guard helicopter that first sighted the dead woman's body, and Weaver was confident that if the missing woman was visible from the air, they would find her too.

“It’s gorgeous today,” she said. “It’s cold, but it’s clear and there’s no wind. It’s a good day for searching.”

DOGS AT WORK

The park is also bringing in fresh search and rescue dogs to locate Elliott-Blakeslee as the original animals tire. Several arrived midmorning Friday from Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue.

The dogs are being flown into the locations they will be searching, and dropped into the field to spare their paws.

The jagged lava rocks that make up most of the Craters of the Moon monument slice the pads of the dogs feet. The rough terrain was tough on the human searchers as well, Weaver said, but they are better prepared with boots.

Officials are hoping the dogs will be able to pick up the missing woman's scent. Although the park has not been closed to visitors and teams of searchers will also be off the trails, Weaver said the dogs may still be able to distinguish the missing hiker.

The animals were being taken to areas that have not yet been heavily searched, she said, which will help the missing woman's scent stand out more clearly.

“Tree Mold Trail has been covered by a lot of people, and I think they’d have a hard time picking up the scent there, but we have them out south of that area,” she said.

Katie Terhune: 377-6219

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