Daily Press News Editor
NUCLA — Missing Washington hiker Robert Heichel was found dead in
a scrub-oak filled canyon area north of Nucla Wednesday afternoon,
bringing an end to a search begun Sunday by the Montrose County
Sheriff’s Posse and authorities.
Heichel, 40, apparently died of natural causes after being hit by
lightning, possibly on Sept. 7, the day he was thought to have gone
missing. He was found in the Burro Creek area, approximately 1 mile
north and east of his camp, Montrose County Lt. Shawn Cline reported
to Montrose County Undersheriff Dick Deines.
“We wish it would have turned out some other way, that he could
have been found prior to now and alive,” Deines said Wednesday
afternoon just after receiving the news from Cline.
“He was killed instantly,” said Montrose County Coroner Mark
Young, who is also a posse member and helicopter pilot. “He was
sitting under a big cedar tree. Lightning hit it and it caught on
fire. He never knew what hit him.”
A cadaver dog from Moab, Utah, made the grim discovery at 2:40
p.m. Wednesday. The dog and its handler, Nancy May, had been brought
in Wednesday morning, Young said.
Shortly after the discovery, a family member ran out of the woods
before collapsing against a tailgate with the words, “He’s gone!”
The death was a blow to family members and additional rescue
teams who had arrived from Washington State to search for Heichel.
“It was a pretty sad situation for the family, that’s for sure,”
said DeeAnna Burbridge, who was visited by Heichel upon his arrival
in the area Sept. 6. Heichel was camping above her property and had
first met her last year. He had called her a few weeks ago to let
her know he’d be returning.
“He thought about coming to this place every day. He was one of
those warrior hunters at heart. If every man was like him, there
would be no wars.”
She said she saw him again last week, when he stopped by her
“Sometimes that’s really typical of hunters when they come in by
themselves,” she said Wednesday morning, before Heichel was found.
“They want to make sure somebody knows where they are.”
When another hunter in the area stopped by Burbridge’s Saturday,
she asked him to go introduce himself to Heichel. The man returned
to tell her no one was about the camp, which hadn’t been disturbed,
despite heavy rainfall Sept. 7 and 8.
“There should have been tracks, but there weren’t,” Burbridge
said. “I called Bob’s wife to let her know he’d been out overnight
and asked if it was unusual. She said it wasn’t.”
Burbridge then sent a note to Heichel’s camp with the other
hunter, asking Heichel to stop by her home no matter how late it
“He didn’t show up early Sunday morning. I went to check and he
wasn’t there, so I came back and called his family.”
The posse began searching Sunday. Also involved were Cline, MCSO
Lt. George Jackson and Sgt. Joe Scott, an expert tracker. Sheriff
Warren Waterman was at the scene Wednesday, with 48 searchers from
Other search and rescue agencies from San Miguel County, Mesa
County, Delta County and Grand County, Utah assisted, as did several
members of Heichel’s family and rescuers from his hometown of
Stanwood, Wa. On Tuesday, a second pilot, Devon Felix of Olathe
Spray Service joined the hunt. A tracking dog and its handler had
been on scene since Tuesday, Young reported, but the heavy rains
hampered the canine’s efforts so May’s cadaver dog was brought in.
The last contact with Heichel had come in the form of a phone
call home Sept. 6. Because no cellular signal was available in his
camping area off of Road U, it was thought Heichel had driven
somewhere closer to Nucla where he could pick up a signal. There
were no confirmed sightings prior to the discovery of his body
Searchers found Heichel's camp intact, including his weapons and
most of his gear. They later found his all-terrain vehicle a
half-mile from the camp; by air, the distance was put at a quarter
mile, Young said.
The terrain had hampered the search and Heichel was wearing
camouflage, Deines said. Young said the tree under which Heichel was
lying was overgrown with brush. “It was pretty much impossible to
see him by air. Even after the dog pointed him out and we were 50
feet away with the helicopter, we still had a hard time seeing him.”
Young had not determined the date of death as of Thursday
morning, but said it was likely Sept. 7 or 8.
Burbridge conveyed thanks from Heichel’s father, Jerry. “He
wanted to thank everyone who stayed,” she said. “It means to much to
them to hear they wouldn’t leave until they heard he was found. They
(searchers) were phenomenal. They kept going and going like
Energizer bunnies. They just didn’t give up.”
She additionally praised the searchers from Stanwood, who’d
driven straight from Washington Tuesday night. “All of them were
just like brothers to Bob. There were other people that were on
their way here today.”
Heichel’s body was being transported to Montrose Wednesday
“He was an incredible person,” Burbridge said. “I don’t even
really remember his face, but I remember his voice and I remember