June 2021


I would die for my country
The star-spangled t-shirt asserts
As the wearer curtly refuses
A simple jab in the arm
To protect their neighbor
You should die for my comfort

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I can feel the pressure changing
Before the thunderstorms arrive
I can tell if they’ll be bad or not
By the number of nostrils that work

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“I’m afraid that we have a diagnosis on your son’s condition,” the doctor said. “Attention deficit hypnoactive disorder.”

“It’s hyperactivity?” Timmy’s mother said, clutching her purse. “Oh, I just knew that’s what it was.”

“No, no,” the doctor said. “You misunderstand. Hypnoactivity. Your son can hypnotize others and cloud their minds into doing his bidding.”

Timmy’s mother looked out through the one-way glass into the play area, where a gaggle of other children, slack-jawed and drooling, were following Timmy around and obeying his every command.

“Now that you mention it, that diagnosis makes a lot of sense,” she said. “Is there a medication or something we can put him on?”

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The Sagebrush Mountain Incident has had an outsized footprint in popular culture in the years following 1997. It was helped by the early internet, which spread the information as a brutal and unsolvable mystery–a process that continues to this day, as it is a notable feature of YouTube videos and clickbait lists of American mysteries (or murders). Its reputation as the “American Dyatlov Pass Incident,” an appellation it could easily share with other mysteries like the Yuba County Five, has doubtless contributed to this over the years. But anyone who has done serious research or writing on the subject is invariably asked: “what do you think really happened?”

There is, of course, no way to know for sure. All the witnesses are dead, the investigators have retired, and John Smithson no longer grants interviews on the subject. He was 51 years old in 1997, and at 75 years old as of this writing surely his memories of the incident, other than what is documented on his tapes, is fading. However, one sequence of events does seem to be the most likely given the information available, and it is sadly nowhere near as melodramatic or sensationalistic as the furor around the deaths might suggest.

In this version of events, Patricia Mercer puts together a hiking team by calling on her current and former high school students as well as her only daughter. Her motivation seems to have initially been to be a more active hiker, as her boyfriend was, since Ms. Mercer’s hiking and climbing activities had fallen off in the previous few years. However, increasing delays, difficulties securing permission, and clashes with her daughter appear to have bred a case of the sunk cost fallacy–having put so much effort into preparing the hike, Ms. Mercer was unwilling to abandon it despite clear signs of trouble.

Although the group consisted of several experienced sportsman, a former Boy Scout, and were in good physical health, there were a number of frozen interpersonal conflicts among the various group members that would have made a harmonious hiking experience almost impossible–something Mercer might have suspected, even if she had not know for sure. Furthermore, the weather forecast had been looking progressively bleaker and it should have been clear on the morning that the hikers set out that it was going to be much more difficult than they had anticipated. But still, the trip went on.

The inclement weather, which would have quickly soaked the hikers, and the unfamiliarity of the terrain meant that they would have fallen further and further behind, with an ever-faster pace being required to meet milestones. This, along with the personality conflicts in the group, would have further weakened the group emotionally and physically. It is speculated, though unproven, that the hikers burned through their food at an accelerated rate and may have been put on half-rations midway through the trip.

All of these factors, plus the high altitude, were enough to cause William Reznik’s weak heart to begin to fail. The early signs of a fatal cardiac episode can look like fatigue or even laziness, which may have exacerbated the situation; when Reznik died, Mercer’s CPR having failed, that was the catalyst for the group to completely break with reality. Mass hysteria, fugue states, or something similar; the shock of Reznik’s death caused the other hikers to attack each other and themselves, particularly Mercer, who would have felt a strong sense of culpability, and Maria Cruz, Reznik’s girlfriend. Carrie Mercer and Cassidy Daniels were the only ones to react by fleeing; simply and instinctively choosing another part of the “fight or flight” response. The others, exhausted or wounded, would have succumbed to the elements or animal attacks some time later.

The fact that Mercer and Daniels fled not in any organized fashion, but instinctively and in an altered state of consciousness, explains their inability to find their way down the mountain, their hallucinations, and Carrie Mercer’s disappearance. It is likely the younger Ms. Mercer simply wandered away and died of exposure. Furthermore, the elevated levels of stress, lack of food, and harsh conditions–perhaps aggravated by eating some toxic plants–caused Daniels to experience the organ failure that later killed her after rescue.

Granted, this sequence of events does not and cannot explain many of the strange coincidences and contradictions inherent in the case. Then again, nothing can. Perhaps every case, every disppearence, indeed every moment of our lives is rife with such oddities–but it is only in sifting for truth after something tragic that they make themselves known.

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The Murder Theory

A final theory that is often mooted holds that the entire incident was an act of premeditated, cold-blooded murder. The suspects are almost always the same: Patricia Mercer, Carrie Mercer, or Cassidy Daniels, and the true target is almost always one of the three, with the others as innocent bystanders and collateral damage.

It was well-known in Findlay that Patricia Mercer, who was a single mother, and Carrie Mercer had been growing apart for some time. It was also well-known that Cassidy Daniels had been spending a considerable amount of time in the Mercer household, and that she was seen by Patricia as something of a surrogate daughter. The Mercers had quarreled loudly enough to be heard by neighbors at times, and Carrie Mercer had announced her intention to attend an out of state school not long before the trip began, something that their relatives attested had devastated Patricia, who had hoped her daughter would attend Idaho Community College and remain close.

For her part, Cassidy Daniels’ parents had just finished a trial separation by getting back together and had a well-known history of marital difficulties. These partly stemmed from the death of Cassidy’s only sibling, her younger brother Maxwell, at age 6. Maxwell had gotten into a quantity of toxic chemicals, including rat poison, and suffered from chemical burns and internal hemorrhaging. Some have noted Cassidy’s reputation as a manipulative and devious social climber as evidence that she, age 10 at the time, was behind her brother’s death. Could she have sought to remove Carrie Mercer from competition for a surrogate mother, and badly miscalculated?

Finally, Carrie Mercer’s fragmentary online diary entries were examined by police after her disappearance. While it confirmed that she had been having difficulties with her mother, the diaries also revealed that Carrie was a lesbian, and had written a number of flirtatious ‘letters’ to classmates she named as A, B, and D. Cassidy has been suggested as the subject of these letters, and the fact that the alphabetical pseudonyms skipped the letter “C” was much commented-upon at the time. After all, Cassidy has just begun dating a boy around her age–could Carrie have been possessive, or jealous, enough to kill?

All three had access to poisons; Cassidy’s parents sold pharmaceuticals, and her father would die of an opioid overdose in 2011, while Patricia and Carrie both participated in a multi-level marketing scheme selling mineral supplements that, in concentrated form, could be quite toxic. Speculation in particular swirled around the contents of three open canisters that bore signs of having been used for mixing chemicals that were found in the Mercer basement.

It need not have been any of them; investigations showed that William Reznik had been cheating on Maria Cruz for months, and that Cruz had also been unfaithful several times. Marcus Washington and Jose Ramirez Jr. were occasionally rumored to be a couple, as well. Any one of the tangle web of relationships in the small town of Findlay suggests a motive for murder, or perhaps even a suicide pact.

There is just one problem with all these theories: poisoning or murder on a hike is needlessly complex and fraught with uncertainty. The hikers had plenty of time, and opportunity, to murder one another before they were anywhere near Sagebrush Mountain. And while some of the post-mortem effects could be explained by overdoses of some drugs, no known substance can account for all of them.

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The Angry Mountain Theory

The Ide tribe originally lived in the area of Findlay until they were cleared off of their lands in the late 1880s during what were euphemistically termed the “Ide Wars” but which truthfully amounted to little more than forced marches, dumping the survivors in a reservation 500 miles away. Less than 100 Ide survived in 1909, when a group of researchers from California arrived to record their oral histories and language. The resulting report was published as no. 117 in the California Ethnological Survey series and remains an important document in the life of the handful of surviving people with Ide ancestry to this day.

Sagebrush Mountain was called Iichideeza in Ide, which in 1909 was said to mean “abode of the dead” but which later scholars variously rendered as “place of the spirit” or “home of ghosts.” According to CES no. 117, the mountain was the site of a disagreement between Naakshah, keeper of the living, and Ahsiy, keeper of the dead. After arguing fiercely for some time, they agreed to share custody, and for this reason it was said that the living might suddenly die and the dead might suddenly return to life on the mountain’s slopes. For this reason, and others set forth in the oral histories and tales collected in the CES, Iichideeza was considered to be both sacred and taboo to the Ide, and they rigorously avoided the area. In fact, as of this writing, a sign has recently been erected at the trailhead by self-identified Ide, still seeking federal recognition, beseeching hikers to stay off the trail to respect the cultural and religious history of the tribe.

All this is to say that there are some who consider the deaths of the Mercer group, along with the disappearance of one of their number, to be a supernatural event arising from the Ide beliefs about the region.

Ahsiy, the keeper of the dead in Ide oral tradition, will not suffer herself to be seen, nor will she suffer the utterance of a single word in her presence. Latter-day descendants of the Ide incorporate this into a ceremony of reverential silence, but CES no. 117 reports a more grim version: Ahsiy, when angered, would rip out the eyes of those who saw her and the tongues of those who spoke to her. And, of course, of the bodies that were recovered, all were missing their eyes and tongue.

Another oral history set down in CES no. 117 notes that Ahsiy rarely involves herself personally in mortal affairs, especially as daylight is taxing to her. As a result, the spirits of those she has claimed are given the opportunity to experience a taste of the quick and return to a sort of brief half-life in exchange for doing her bidding. There are seventeen different mentions of these spectral beings in the report; they are described as appearing like formless shadows who tirelessly hunt their quarry before bearing them away to Ahsiy’s realm. Again, the parallels with what Cassidy Daniels reported surrounding the disappearance of Carrie Mercer are quite obvious.

This theory holds that, by ascending Sagebrush late in the season and in foul weather, the hikers inadvertently angered Ahsiy, who in Idea tradition was give dominion over the waning of the year in addition to sharing the mountain with Naakshah. Thus angered by the intrusion, Ahsiy slew the weakest hikers before reanimating their bodies to attack the others, and tore out their eyes and tongues for their insolence. Cassidy and Carrie were spared as they had neither seen Ahsiy nor uttered a sound; they were later tracked and Carrie was taken after they failed to vacate the mountain, with Cassidy left as a sole, if brief, survivor for the sole purpose of carrying the tale to any other would-be infidels.

Of course, this interpretation relies almost entirely on a reading of CES no. 117, rather than speaking to any actual Ide. While no full-blooded Ide are alive today, the last having died in 1997, a number of people with significant Ide ancestry are still alive and have been making intense efforts since the 1970s to preserve what it left of their heritage. Crucially, the Ide Tribal Association (ITA) strongly disputes the characterization of Ahsiy, keeper of the dead, in the CES and in wild conspiracy theories. Ahsiy, they say, was one half of a balanced pair with Naakshah, and in most Ide stories it was Naakshah who, jealous of Ahsiy’s affections, lashed out at those who were insufficiently reverent of her. On a cold wet day in the fall and on a mountain that they both shared, Naakshah the keeper of the living would have been powerless to act.

Furthermore, the ITA points out that many other hiking groups have operated in the area–despite their request not to–and none have suffered the same fate, even in similar conditions. They find the whole notion to be based on a version of their history that was poorly recorded, biased, and sensationalized. The trope of evil, angry, ancestral Native American spirits is damaging to the rich culture they seek so hard to maintain, and its use as mere set dressing for a tragedy that involved no native peoples of the area at all is still more so.

Even from a purely credulous viewpoint, the story does not hold together. The Smithson tape has clear audio of Cassidy Daniels admitting that she saw and spoke to her fellow hikers as they died, which did not earn her a death sentence. Though hungry and suffering from exposure, both she and Carrie Mercer were making good-faith efforts to get off the mountain when Mercer vanished. And Occam’s Razor suggests that animal scavengers are a far likelier explanation for the victims’ missing eyes and tongues.

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The UFO Theory

“Newdog’s Law” states that “the longer any sufficiently interesting mystery remains unsolved, the probability that someone will suggest aliens as a culprit approaches 100%.” The same is true of the Sagebrush Mountain Incident, and UFO-related theories were in wide circulation as early as mid-1998.

Strange lights in the skies over the area had been reported in late July and early September, with the July incident being featured in a news segment for local broadcaster K6BM in August. Amateur video and trail camera footage collected for the broadcast is inconclusive, with some bright lights visible but no way to rule out thunderstorms or low-flying aircraft.

Sagebrush Mountain was mentioned in the final report for Project Blue Book as well; an incident in 1957 and another in 1967 were both investigated before the project was terminated in 1969. The first incident, dated September 11, 1957, was for “clusters of low-lying lights” over the mountain and the outskirts of Findlay, with four reports over two days from locals. The second, dated September 16 1967, reported “silent flashes” in the sky and “cold fire in the woods” and was noted from a single eyewitness, name and details redacted. Officially, the 1957 incident was classified as a sighting of the experimental U-2 from Dugway, while the 1967 sighting was dismissed as “unreliable.”

Three of the hikers were involved in the Findlay UFO Club, a group ostensibly devoted to researching supposed alien activity in the area: Jose Ramirez Jr., William Reznik, and Carrie Mercer. A fourth hiker, Reznik’s girlfriend Maria Cruz, had attended some meeting as well, though she supposedly called it “stupid” at family dinners afterward.

The working theory behind this approach also takes note of the fact that Reznik and Ramirez were the last two hikers to join, though both were well-known to Patricia Mercer as former students. Since the previous two UFO sightings had taken place in mid-September on Sagebrush Mountain with a ten-year gap, they may have joined in order to see any return for themselves. A variety of rumors continue to abound over 1977 and 1987 sightings, as well. And for the only surviving member of the UFO Club to be ‘abducted’ by shadowy figures only adds to the mystery.

Of course, it is now well-known that flights from Dugway often pass over the area, which may explain the lights in many if not all cases. And while much rumor suggests UFO sightings in 1977/1987, exhaustive archival searches have turned up no evidence. The lone observer from 1967 has never been identified, and 1957 observers had all died by 1997, making their stories impossible to corroborate. And there is no coherent explanation of why aliens might abduct a member of the UFO Club while murdering three others–to say nothing of the fact that surviving club members claimed that it was nothing more than a group that watched science fiction movies.

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“I’m sorry,” Maxine said, apologizing for the intrusion as she entered room 227c of the Magical Infirmities Ward.

The man looked up, his face red and careworn with tears streaming down his face. “Hi, Sorry,” he said. “My name’s Bertrand.”

Maxine looked at the ward attendant, confused.

“Oh, ah, yes,” the attendant said, consulting their paper. “Mr. Openham was given a rather nasty curse.”

“Curse? I don’t curse, I swear!” Bertrand Openham choked out, looking both miserable and as if he wanted to punch himself in the face.

“The only witness to the stabbing has been cursed so badly he can’t say anything about it,” Maxine muttered. “Brilliant.”

“A stabbing?” Bertrand said. “Let me help you get to the point.”

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The Nuclear Theory

According to the first responders on the scene of the hikers’ demise, several of the lighter-skinned bodies appeared to be “deeply tanned,” which seemed unlikely given the weather conditions and the last observations of the victims. A rescuer with a Geiger counter also supposedly noted radiation from several of the bodies, and Cassidy Daniels’ father, a shift supervisor at the Three Rivers Nuclear Power Plant, reportedly arrived to identify her body still wearing his dosimeter, which was logged as having been exposed to significant radiation when he returned.

The ostensible culprit in this case was the same as that forwarded by other theories, namely the Utah Test and Training Range and the Dugway Proving Ground 500 miles to the south. it is now known that Dugway engineers tested a variety of radiation weapons, from dirty bombs to simulated nuclear ‘fizzles,’ before tests were officially halted in the mid-1980s. The same suspicion falls on the US Army assistance to the search, implicating them in a cleanup or coverup.

In 2007, ten years after the deaths of the hikers, a routine audit found that 1.1 kg of enriched uranium was missing from the Dugway stockpile, having been earmarked for weapons testing but apparently never expended. FOIA requests have revealed that a Dugway-registered transport plane flew over the area two weeks before the Mercer party ascended, and base records show a number of excursions to the general area.

Rigorous research has established that the transport plane was carrying specialists to Alaska, however, rather than any sort of weapon or weapon parts. The base records of excursions are also entirely for hiking and other alpine sports by US Army teams. But the biggest problem with the radiation theory is its inception.

While widely reported, no one member of the search team has ever admitted taking the radiation readings. No Geiger counter was ever located, and one was not part of the standard search and rescue kit at the time (or even today). Furthermore, several members of the group were naturally dark-skinned, meaning that rescuers with preconceived notions might well has described the bodies as ‘unnaturally tan.’

For some time, conspiracy theorists supporting this version of events have sought to have radiological tests run on the remains of the hikers, but almost all of the bodies were cremated, and the remaining two families have refused tests.

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The Nerve Gas Theory

Sagebrush Mountain is rather remote, even by the standards of the western United States. As a result, during the initial search operations, helicopters and personnel from the Utah Test and Training Range and the Dugway Proving Ground to the south assisted the Idaho State Police and local law enforcement. This, naturally, has led some to suspect that this assistance was a smokescreen to cover up US Army involvement in the incident.

Utah Test and Training Range and the Dugway Proving Ground are unique among weapons testing facilities in the USA in that they test nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, ostensibly for defensive purposes. Weapons of mass destruction have escaped the bounds of the range and proving grounds before, as in 1968 when over 6,000 sheep in Skull Valley, Utah, were inadvertently exposed to nerve gas. Nerve gasses and other toxic organophosphates could also have been responsible for the thick “sticky” fog reported by the hikers.

In this version of events, Army engineers from Dugway were either conducting a test elsewhere that inadvertently exposed the Mercer party to nerve agents, or were testing on Sagebrush Mountain itself in violation of DOD policy. The leading candidate in this case is the same agent that killed the sheep at Skull Valley, VX nerve gas. VX is an oily, relatively non-volatile, liquid in its pure state, and it persists in environments once dispersed.

Crucially, the symptoms experienced by both the deceased hikers and Cassidy Daniels are textbook cases of nerve gas exposure, and illicit tests either before or during the hike might have explained the antenna structure Daniels described. In this version of events, Carrie Mercer was taken by government agents, who also hurriedly disassembled the site under the cover of participating in the search and rescue operation. FOIA requests have also shown that Dugway was conducting a series of tests up to the week of the hikers’ demise, though the exact nature of those tests remains classified.

However, Dugway and the UTTR are located in Utah on the opposite side of the Great Salt Lake from Salt Lake City. This is hours away even by plane from Sagebrush Mountain, and the prevailing winds on the week in question were from the north. Furthermore, several amateur expeditions to the area have conducted tests for VX or other organophosphates and have found nothing. While this would not rule out an illicit test of a new nerve agent that decayed rapidly in the environment, no such agent is known to exist, and no test of any kind was known to have been conducted within 500 miles of the site.

There is also no reason why the government would have taken Carrie Mercer and not Cassidy Daniels as part of a cover-up. And if Daniels really had walked through a cloud of VX gas and survived–unlikely in and of itself–she would have exposed Smithson and his rafting party as well. Items from the Smithson expedition have been repeatedly tested for organophosphates and no such substances have ever been recorded.

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