Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Steve Fossett's ID papers reported found

Discovery Channel / LMNO Productions
These $100 bills and three tattered pieces of identification, including an FAA pilot's license and a membership card in a soaring society, were found by a hiker, according to an attorney who knows him.
A hiker came across the papers in the backcountry near Mammoth Mountain, according to the Madera County Sheriff's Department. The adventurer vanished in September 2007.
By Steve Chawkins and Amanda Covarrubias, Los Angeles Times Staff Writers 
October 2, 2008
A hiker in the Sierra Nevada backcountry today found identification documents believed to be those of missing adventurer Steve Fossett, officials said.

The ID cards were found by hiker Preston Morrow off a trail near the town of Mammoth Lakes earlier this week and were turned in to local police. The items reportedly carried the name of James Steven Fossett and the same date of birth as the adventurer, who vanished in September 2007 after taking off by plane from a remote Nevada ranch.

Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration in Los Angeles, said he had received a photograph of a pilot's license that was reportedly found by the hiker.

"The certificate number and date of issue on the document in the photo matches the information we have for Mr. Fossett in our database," he said.

Other information, including Fossett's date of birth and his address, also matched, he said.

Fossett's widow, Peggy Fossett, issued a statement today after news of the findings spread.

"I am aware of the search underway for my husband, Steve Fossett, in the Mammoth Lakes area of Madera and Mono counties, California, following the discovery by a hiker of personal items that appear to belong to my husband," she said in the statement. "I am hopeful that this search will locate the crash site and my husband's remains. I am grateful to all of those involved in this effort."

Erica Stuart, a spokeswoman for the Madera County Sheriff's Department, said officials were examining the materials that may be linked to Fossett. The department is the lead agency in a multi-agency search effort that was to be launched today.

Stuart said the rugged, heavily wooded terrain around Mammoth Mountain and an area called the Minarets would be searched both by crews in the air and on foot.

Morrow discovered 10 $100 bills and three tattered pieces of identification, including an FAA pilot's license and a membership card in a soaring society, according to David Baumwohl, an attorney who said he has known Morrow for some time.

Baumwohl declined to say whether he had represented Morrow in the past.

Morrow, who told Baumwohl that he didn't know who Fossett was, approached the attorney for advice on how to proceed. Baumwohl contacted the Fossett family's attorneys in Illinois, who, he said, did not immediately respond.

"We assume they thought we were scammers," he said.

Before turning the cash and cards into Mammoth police, Morrow and the attorney revisited the site with a GPS device and a video camera so that they could provide as much information as possible to authorities, Baumwohl said. On the return visit, they found a Nautica fleece pullover and left it at the scene, anchored by a rock.

Baumwohl theorized that Fossett's plane may have hit a nearby ridge or mountainside, ejecting the pilot. No body was found near the other materials because bears or mountain lions may have dragged it off, he said.

As of noon, a command post had been set up at Mammoth Lakes Airport, and planes were in the air. The items were found about seven miles west of Mammoth Mountain near a spot called Reds Meadow, said Madera County Undersheriff Frank Bernard.

"We do believe that the documents belonged to Mr. Fossett," he said.

Fossett was declared legally dead by an Illinois court Feb. 15. Search teams never found his body nor any plane wreckage.

Fossett was reported missing after taking off on what he had said would be a short morning flight from hotel magnate and aviation enthusiast William Barron Hilton's Flying M Ranch, some 60 miles southeast of Carson City toward Bishop, Calif.

Before taking off in a Bellanca Citabria Super Decathlon -- one of the aircraft kept at the ranch -- Fossett reportedly told friends that he wanted to search for a dry lake bed suitable for his next goal: breaking the land speed record in a vehicle powered by a turbojet engine that could reach 800 mph.

British billionaire-adventurer Richard Branson, who partnered with Fossett and Per Lindstrand in a failed 1998 attempt to make the first nonstop round-the-world flight in a three-man balloon, once described Fossett as "a sort of half-android, half-Forrest Gump."

In a first-person appreciation of his missing friend for Time magazine in October 2007, Branson described Fossett as "one of the most generous, good-natured and kind people I have ever met, but also one of the bravest and most determined adventurers and explorers of all time."

Fossett was game for any type of vehicle; he set 116 records in sailboats, powered aircraft, balloons, airships and gliders.

He also swam the English Channel, drove in the 24 Hours of Le Mans car race, competed in Hawaii's Ironman Triathlon, sailed solo across both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, climbed Argentina's 23,000-foot Aconcagua peak and competed in Alaska's 1,150-mile Iditarod Trail sled dog race, among many other accomplishments.

Times staff writer Dennis McClellan contributed to this report.

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