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Photo courtesy Greg Nuckolls, Western States Aerial Search

Utah drone searchers may have solved missing hiker’s disappearance at California national park

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - Dec. 27, 2019 at 7:01 p.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah-based nonprofit group that uses drones to seek missing people may have solved the mystery of what happened to a hiker who disappeared at Joshua Tree National Park more than a year ago.

Park officials announced on Saturday they had recovered human remains in the 49 Palms Oasis area of the park the previous day. That came after Western States Aerial Search, which is based in Salt Lake City, alerted them that images taken at the park indicated possible human remains.

Officials have yet to identify the remains, but the Hi-Desert Star and the Palm Springs Desert Sun each reported that it’s the same area where Paul Miller, 51, of Guelph, Ontario, was last seen before he disappeared in June 2018. CTV reports that Miller’s dental records were sent to California to assist in identification.

"We are keeping our fingers crossed, as strange as that may sound, we are hoping that it’s Paul because it’s been a long year and a half," Miller’s sister, Dawne Robinson, told the Canadian news outlet.

For Greg Nuckolls, founder of Western States Aerial Search, the possibility of giving the Miller family — or any family, for that matter — closure is something that words can't describe.

"It means more than I can possibly tell you," he told KSL.com on Friday. "All of us pilots have stood next to family members of missing people. There's just a level of pain there that I don't think that anyone could explain. ... There's no way you'd know how to react if someone was missing."

Miller's disappearance remained a mystery when Nuckolls learned about it from Wings of Mercy, which is a similar nonprofit drone search and rescue group based in Canada. Western States Aerial Search members got ahold of the Miller family and asked them about the possible places he might have gone in 2018.

They studied the terrain and mapped a flight path grid that covered about 1.5 square miles where the drone flew over last month after they received clearance to drone from park rangers, Nuckolls explained. The drones flew with a camera pointed directly at the ground, collecting about 7,000 photos in the process. Those photos were sent to various volunteer sleuths at Wings of Mercy, who helped search for clues.


There's just a level of pain there that I don't think that anyone could explain. ... There's no way you'd know how to react if someone was missing.

–Greg Nuckolls, founder of Western States Aerial Search


Reviewing the images was another tedious task. Some reviewers spent three to four hours a day sifting through the many images for anything that might indicate where Miller had gone, Nuckolls said. Finally, after sifting through about one-fifth of the photos, the volunteers spotted what they thought could be human remains and gave park rangers GPS coordinates to the location on Dec. 19.

Park rangers were dispatched to the area the following day, where they found human remains. While the remains haven't been identified, Nuckolls said some of Miller's personal items were also recovered after being spotted in the various photos.

It’s the first discovery Western States Aerial Search has made since it was created. The organization began after some members in a group of drone pilots gathered to search for clues related to the disappearance of Jerika Binks last year, Nuckolls said. Binks was a Utah woman reported missing in February 2018 after she was last seen in American Fork Canyon. Her body was later discovered by a hiker climbing in a remote section of the canyon in April of this year.

Western States Aerial Search officially formed in May and received nonprofit status during the summer, Nuckolls said. He added the group plans to continue to make searches in the future.

"Unfortunately, there is a need for it. There are other missing people out there," he said. "There are a couple in Utah, a couple in Nevada, there a couple more in that same area of California that we know of where we feel like we might be able to help out in those cases. We're going to keep doing it and keep getting better at the process.

"We will hopefully get more and more efficient and be able to help more families because there's definitely a need there."

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