Read how members of the Fowler-O’Sullivan Foundation found Paul Miller months after he disappeared inside Joshua Tree National Park.
More about Paul and his case by Dawne Robinson (his sister)
Paul was born on May 24, 1967, in Kingston, Ontario. He was the youngest of 3 children. As a boy, Paul was always actively involved in sports, especially hockey, baseball and lacrosse. Growing up, he would spend hours down by our local creek. He was happiest when splashing through water and climbing around rocks. In university, Paul was a key member of the varsity lacrosse team and was affectionately known as “Rat,” perhaps because of the intensity with which he played. Paul always played hard & didn’t necessarily let the rules get in the way. After university he continued his love of sports by playing and coaching in several lacrosse, baseball and hockey leagues in the Guelph area. An avid outdoors man, he enjoyed white water kayaking, camping, hiking and travelling. In terms of his church involvement, he loved working with young people and was regularly involved with children’s and youth ministries. Paul was not a man to sit still! Paul’s devotion to his family and friends was immeasurable.
He met the love of his life, Stephanie Korbich, at university. Their relationship began as friendship and evolved to the point where he romantically proposed to her in a canoe. In true Paul and Steph fashion, they celebrated their upcoming nuptials by parachute-jumping the day before their wedding. Fortunately they both survived and were married for 26 wonderful years. Paul was a fantastic father. He was always actively involved in his children’s lives, making sure that they also developed a love of sports and outdoor pursuits. He raised Dryden and Tiana to appreciate and feel comfortable in nature. He also encouraged them to choose their own path in life. Paul and Dryden spent much of their leisure time together hiking and camping and Dryden followed in his father’s academic footsteps by choosing a career in the environmental field. Paul was very proud of Tiana’s non-traditional choice of studying in the tool and die area. He always enjoyed helping her fix her cars despite the fact that he himself was by no means mechanically inclined. Dryden and Tiana were definitely his pride and joy. Paul was one of those guys who had a ton of friends. Paul and Stephanie’s home was always a gathering place for entertaining. If the party did not come to Paul then he brought the party.
Paul was incredibly loyal and generous and would do anything to help a friend out. Many of them are still having a hard time dealing with his loss. His zest for life was contagious and he was always willing to try new things. In an apparent mid-life crisis, Paul decided to get a tattoo for his 50th birthday. The tattoo was the result of a dare with his friend who was also turning 50. He deliberated for quite some time about what he wanted inked on his body and finally designed a stylized wolf, reminiscent of the art of indigenous people of northern British Columbia. He chose his tattoo wisely. The symbol of the wolf was fitting for someone who absolutely loved the thrill of the hunt, especially on the sports field, who cherished both the peace and wildness of nature and who valued family & friends above all else. He couldn’t have predicted that his wolf tattoo would become a rallying symbol in the search to bring him home. In terms of his professional career, Paul obtained a Bachelor of Science in Physical Geography and Urban and Environmental Studies from Brock University in 1990.
For a time, he worked for the Royal Ontario Museum in Yoho National Park on the Burgess Shale where he was unearthing invertebrate fossils. This time of his life was documented in a ‘Nature of Things’ episode with David Suzuki. Later on, he worked as a Materials Manager at various places in Guelph, Ontario, the last being with Viqua, a company that develops UV water disinfection systems. Prior to his disappearance, he had begun to travel to various countries to promote their systems. He loved this aspect of his job.
Paul and Stephanie went down to the American southwest in July of 2018 in part to celebrate a number of events. Paul had recently turned 51 years old, they had just had their 26th anniversary and Stephanie had been successful in getting a full-time permanent teaching contract beginning in September. It was also their first holiday without the kids as both Dryden and Tiana were busy with co-op placements related to their programs at school.
Paul had always wanted to visit the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Zion National Park and Joshua Tree National Park so they flew to Las Vegas with their camping gear and set out from there. He was so excited about going to places he had dreamed of seeing. Joshua Tree was the last park they visited and ironically the one that Paul was most thrilled about visiting. Paul and Stephanie spent several days hiking trails in Joshua Tree.
On July 12, they grabbed a room at the Motel 6 in Twenty-nine Palms to get cleaned up and packed before heading to Vegas for their flight home the next day. After breakfast on the morning of July 13, Paul decided there was time for one last hike on the Forty-nine Palms Oasis trail as it is quite close to the motel. He reasoned that it was a fairly short trail that would only take a couple of hours. The Forty-nine Palms Oasis Trail is a 3 mile round trip hike with 350 feet of elevation gain. It passes through a variety of desert scenery and panoramic views and leads to a collection of palm trees wrapped around a spring. It is rated as somewhat strenuous but usually only requires an approximate time of 1 ½ hours to complete. Since Stephanie wanted to pack up, Paul set out for the trail alone. He was probably hoping to see some wildlife at the oasis so left in a hurry forgetting both his cell phone and wallet in the motel room. This was not unusual for Paul.
He took a backpack with 3 litres of water, some protein bars and his camera. He was wearing both hiking boots and a hat. Paul was in excellent physical condition with no medical issues so the hike should have been well within his abilities. Paul set off by 8:30 with strict instructions to be back before the 11:00 check-out time. Having hiked with Paul many times, I know that he is a fast hiker so it should not have been a problem. It was the last time, however, that Stephanie would see him alive. Knowing that Paul loved photography and could get easily distracted taking pictures, she did not panic immediately when he was not back within 2 hours. Just before 11 a.m., however, she experienced an awful feeling of dread and decided to contact the park office.
They took her concerns seriously, particularly since they knew Paul and Steph had a plane to catch. By roughly 1:00, rangers went out on the trail looking for him and when they saw no sign of him, they called in JOSAR volunteers to begin a more detailed search. Over the next few days, search and rescue volunteers were also called in from other counties to help. There were over 90 volunteers as well as a dog team and helicopter. The dog handler felt that her dog tracked Paul to the oasis and then lost interest. A homeless man had perished in the area near the oasis and some felt that the dog actually smelt his scent, not Paul’s. It’s hard to say.
The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Dept. was initially involved in searching the area bordering the park as well, primarily using ATVs. Some people who have become lost on that trail cut cross-country into those areas or follow the wash out of the oasis towards town. The town can be seen quite clearly from high spots on the trail. When word of Paul’s disappearance hit the news, a witness came forward to say he might have seen Paul on the trail. At that point, the Sheriff’s Dept. was no longer involved because it was deemed that Paul was in the park somewhere. The witness had already hiked into the oasis and was on his way back when he saw someone fitting Paul’s description at about 9 a.m. At the time, he was resting beside a large rock next to the trail that provided some shade. It is the only place on the trail where there is shade other than at the oasis itself. The location is about halfway in. He saw Paul as he came around a corner and down the trail towards him. Paul was hiking quickly and seemed to be ‘a man on a mission.’ This fits with the fact that Paul was in a hurry. He also said that Paul looked hot but in good shape. They spoke only briefly before Paul continued on.
The temperature at that time was probably about 25 degrees Celsius and it rose quickly after that. After 5 days of extreme heat, the search was called off due to safety concerns. The temperature had spiked and volunteers were beginning to suffer health issues despite only being allowed to stay out for 2 hours at a time. They would go out in the early morning before the sun came up and conclude the search each day by 11 a.m. The conditions were horrible and several were hospitalized with heat exhaustion.
What followed after that was akin to a waking nightmare. For a time, we felt that Paul had been abandoned, that we were on our own. I cannot begin to explain the horrible feeling of dread that one experiences when a loved one goes missing. It is on your mind when you wake up in the morning and it’s there when you try to go to sleep. My husband Dave and I were in the Arctic at the time Paul went missing and only found out about it when our canoe trip came to an end. Two weeks had passed at that point. Dave and I have been to the southwest before and being familiar with the conditions, we knew Paul was probably gone. I knew that the despair that I was feeling was amplified even more for Stephanie and the kids. Although there was no shortage of friends and family to support us, it was still a very lonely journey.
Paul was very well known in the community so there was a constant barrage of reporters calling for updates that we were unable to give. We became extremely frustrated by the lack of clues as to Paul’s whereabouts. As for official park directives to search at this point, they only went out when someone reported seeing something of interest, for example, a bone or a piece of fabric. This happened on average about once a month.
One of the team leaders has the same birthday as Paul, and because of this, had developed a passionate drive to find him. She was also the dog handler and had spent innumerable hours searching the area with her dog. Montana was the same dog who first caught a scent of Paul on the trail back in July and burned her paws so badly on the hot ground that she was out of commission for three months. Many of these volunteers came out with us again when we returned in May. We consider them to be very good friends.
If Paul fell somewhere, he could also have hit his head and slipped between rocks out of sight. Alternatively, if he hit his head or was affected by the heat, he might have wandered further afield beyond the search area before collapsing. There was, of course, also the theory of foul play. Although Dave and I did not think this likely, it was difficult for those back home to understand why Paul had not been found yet. He was such an experienced hiker that it was inconceivable for many of them to think otherwise. You have to actually see the topography to truly understand how difficult it is to search in that area.
It was so helpful to have Paul’s friends with us the second time. They looked at the area with fresh eyes and asked questions that we had not thought of. They delivered more posters, talked with pawn shops, and visited outdoor stores where hikers might shop. They looked into getting Crime Stoppers involved in case of the foul play scenario. They were also there to support us. It’s a lonely and depressing task to finish each day no closer to finding out the truth. It’s so much easier when you have friends to help you through it.
The media attention this time was awesome thanks to one of Paul’s friends who put a lot of time into getting the story back out there. The media campaign also brought out more searchers, some from quite far away and some with experience in search and rescue. Many had been searching on their own already. Also around that time, the Sheriff’s Department contacted me for a DNA sample to keep on file in case remains are found. The DNA that was collected went to the Nameus missing person’s site. Later on, Tiana would also send a sample there.
The park allowed someone from British Columbia to come down to try out an experimental software program that uses high resolution photographs taken from a helicopter to analyze anomalies in the landscape. It was not very effective unfortunately. As it turned out, the program was designed for a forested landscape, not a boulder field. The camera was also inside the helicopter and therefore created distorted images that had to be analyzed manually in a very time intensive way. The poor resolution yielded no clues.
In the meantime, I contacted a journalist about doing a podcast about Paul’s case. The podcast is called ‘The Vanished’ and has quite a following. Paul’s Facebook site lit up with support once the podcast went live. Shortly after that, Eric told me that the Sierra Madre SAR team reached out to him about coming to Joshua Tree to use the search for Paul as a training exercise. We felt that the more trained searchers out in the field, the better. We continued to receive requests for interviews from the media. It seemed that interest in Paul’s case was still growing a year later. Throughout all of this, I had been pushing for the park to allow a drone search of the area, especially to reach places that were not very accessible. When I think now of the dangerously steep canyons and cliffs that we searched, I am amazed we were not injured.
Unfortunately, the fight to bring in drones was an uphill battle. As it turns out, it is against national park policy to allow drones in the parks. We were adamant that drones could be a vital tool in search situations. We finally made some headway once Eric came on the scene. Although he had just recently moved from the Grand Canyon National Park to JT, he had worked in Rocky Mountain National Park where his best friend went missing. His friend was eventually found amongst rocks with a fatal head injury. As a result, Eric was very invested in Paul’s case. I had found a team of experienced search and rescue drone operators from Western States Aerial Search (based out of Utah), who were willing to take on the task if approval was granted. Greg Nuckolls of the Western States Aerial Search organization applied for a Special Use Permit which Eric helped to expedite. The plan was to fly in search of Paul for 3 days with 3-4 fully autonomous UAVs which could cover a vast area with great detail. To this day, I can’t believe how fortunate we were to have found this team! In November of 2019, after finally receiving a special users’ permit, the Western States Aerial Search team went into the Forty-nine Palms Oasis Trail of Joshua Tree National Park with their drones.
Afterwards, they and other trained volunteers from an organization called the FOWLER-O’SULLIVAN FOUNDATION began to comb through over 10,000 high resolution photos. Just before Christmas, Morgan Clements of FOF found some anomalies and asked park staff to investigate the location in question. After an 18 month long search, Paul’s remains were finally found on December 20, 2019. His backpack was also located next to his remains. The camera inside his pack showed that Paul had indeed made it to the oasis and was on his way back when tragedy struck. There was still water in his dromedary. It was such a strange feeling to receive word that my brother had been found at last. The feeling alternated between elation and numbness. Most of us still feel that way at times. When you live in such a heightened state of despair for so long, it becomes part of you somehow. Christmas 2019 was so different from the one before. The family was still reeling from Paul’s loss but there was a sense of hope that we could begin the task of moving on with our lives again.
I don’t think we realized just how long we had been holding our breath for that phone call. Stephanie, along with Dryden and 4 other friends, went down to Joshua Tree in January to visit the spot where Paul was found and to bring him home. They had the chance to meet many of the people who had helped along the way. We had a Celebration of Life back home for Paul on February 1, and it was a wonderful evening of story-telling, memories and tears. Over 600 people attended in one of the worse snow storms of the season. Paul meant a lot to so many people. So what do we think happened to Paul on that terrible Friday the 13th in July 2018? How could something go so wrong for such an experienced outdoorsman? Paul’s camera showed that he had made it to the oasis and was on his way back when he went off the trail for some reason. When Dave and I went to search the first time, we had noticed several people leaving the oasis and accidentally following what is best described as an animal trail down the main wash. They always turned around once the trail petered out and returned to the hiking trail.
The trail is somewhat confusing at that point to be sure. Although one of Paul’s last photos showed that he was well past that section on the actual trail, maybe he went back to it. He was found hidden in the back of a crevice partway down the main wash leading from the oasis towards town. The coroner found no evidence that he had fallen from the cliff above. It appeared that he had sought shelter from the sun in the only shade available. There was still water in his pack so whatever happened did so quickly. Whatever the reason, we believe that he succumbed to either some sort of medical emergency like a cardiac event or more likely the heat within the first few hours. We’ll never know why Paul went off-trail after setting out on the return trip. Maybe he saw something of interest; maybe he was already experiencing confusion from hyperthermia. I myself have experienced that on several occasions and know how quickly it can affect your judgement. The desert can be an unforgiving place. The only reason the drone footage was able to locate him was because a scavenger had pulled some bones from the shaded crevice in which he sought shelter.
Dave and I, along with several search volunteers, had passed within 20m of that spot on numerous occasions. We were so close. Against my better judgement, I sometimes go down the dark road of ‘what if.’ What if Paul had taken his cell phone (there is cell coverage in many higher areas near the trail)? What if he had not hiked alone? What if he had taken a GPS or locator beacon? What if he had not gone to the park in the heat of July? What if there had been better trail signage at the oasis? What if he had simply stayed on the trail? I know this line of thought does not bring Paul back. I can only hope that the forensic analysis will help others to avoid his fate. Dave and I had planned to go back this past April to the place where Paul died, but the corona virus has meant a delay to those plans. Oddly enough, we both feel a special affinity to the place knowing that it meant so much to him. The desert of Joshua Tree is indeed spectacular in the rawness of its beauty. I felt Paul there.
There are simply too many people to thank but of special note we would like to mention: Greg Nuckolls of Western States Aerial Search and Wings of Mercy (through whose efforts Paul was located), Morgan Clements, Joshua Tree Search and Rescue, Joshua Tree Park staff, in particular David Smith and Eric Linaris, and all those other wonderful people who helped us in our quest to find Paul. I know that Paul would not want us to be sad but would wish for us the type of life that he lived, one full of love, friendship and of course, adventure. He would want us to go out there and taste new experiences but temper them with an awareness of potential dangers. I will always treasure the last time we were together. There was much laughter and anticipation about the journey ahead. It’s his laughter and teasing that I remember most. That, and his horrendously bad off-key singing. It never stopped him from trying though. Indeed, the world seems a much quieter and duller place without him.