Somerset County man remains missing after New Year's hike


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OHIOPYLE, Pa. -- Cold and green in winter, the water drops through Pennsylvania's deepest river gorge, over majestic falls and through an internationally famous white-water nature area. A prominent Western Pennsylvania feature since colonial days, the Youghiogheny River features prominently in a mystery unfolding about 50 miles southeast of Pittsburgh in Fayette County, where hundreds of rescue workers have searched for a man missing since New Year's Day.

On Dec. 31, Jeremy Walker, 29, of Somerset told family members he planned to hike at Ohiopyle State Park on the Youghiogheny River Trail, part of the Great Allegheny Passage and C&O Canal Towpath, which links Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. He was seen the next day wearing boots and winter outerwear at the High Bridge, a former railroad bridge that carries the trail 110 feet above the river near the borough of Ohiopyle.

On Jan. 2, Mr. Walker was reported missing and his vehicle was quickly located in a parking lot at Train Station, a trail rest stop less than a half-mile from High Bridge. The winter clothing Mr. Walker was seen wearing was found inside his vehicle -- one of a few clues in a search operation that has included federal, state and local authorities; air and water surveillance; trained volunteers from as far away as Virginia; rescue dogs; land searches by as many as 100 of the missing man's friends and family members; and additional support.

PG graphic: Ohiopyle search area
(Click image for larger version)

"It's something completely new to us at the park," said lead search coordinator Stacie Hall, Ohiopyle State Park assistant manager. "In all of the searches we've been involved with in the past, we knew the activity the person was doing, we knew definitely if they were in the river, and, besides the land searches, we were able to locate them in a few hours. This is the first that's been in the wintertime ... and this is the first where we truly don't know where he is."

Ms. Hall said search crews are considering several possibilities and tailoring aspects of the search for each scenario. Mr. Walker could have been in an accident and was injured or killed. It could have been a suicide attempt, or he could have been the victim of a crime. He could be intentionally evading detection or is unaware he's being sought.

"We know what he was wearing during the day. He was dressed for the elements and wore size 101/2 boots," Ms. Hall said. "We know he was coming to Ohiopyle to go hiking, and that he had been here before hiking and rafting. The Pennsylvania State Police have his computer and the family has provided some of his possessions. [State park] staff is handling the investigative side, searching his financial transactions and other things to see if anything turns up there."

On Jan. 2, search-and-rescue dogs scoured the Ferncliff Natural Area, a rugged ridge that the river wraps around at Ohiopyle. Another dog team traced Mr. Walker's trail from his vehicle to High Bridge where he was last seen, but Ms. Hall said a plunge from the bridge is considered unlikely.

"One of the pluses is we had the snow, with very little precipitation after Jan. 1," she said. "There were a lot of park visitors that day so there are lots of tracks from where he parked, but we could rule out searching areas where there were no footprints. One of the first things we checked was High Bridge and the snow was intact on the railing the whole way across. There's no way somebody could have crawled over the railing without knocking snow off."

On Jan. 5, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the gates at the Youghiogheny River Dam to lower the flow and aid the search.

But after days of exhaustive land searches, Ms. Hall said they've mostly ruled out the possibility that Mr. Walker is anywhere within 0.7 miles of his vehicle, and no evidence gathered from his home or in the park suggests he was the victim of a crime.

Immersion in 35-degree water would quickly lead to hypothermia and death. Bodies tend to sink, said Ms. Hall, and as they decompose they fill with gas and rise to the surface. The process generally spans five to seven days, but in cold water it could take two weeks.

Mr. Walker's family has cooperated with authorities, but has not issued a statement to the media and has requested privacy. They did post a message on Facebook regarding the weekend's massive land searches:

"We are so grateful for the outpouring of love and support for Jeremy and our family," it read. "Over 140 volunteers and trained personnel searched for Jeremy yesterday. We still haven't found him, but a huge 'thank you' to everyone! Please keep us in your prayers."

Eight days into the investigation, Ms. Hall said the available evidence leads her back to the Youghiogheny River -- a 132-mile waterway, called by indigenous people "the river that flows in a contrary direction."

"The river throws in a whole other element that you wouldn't have in other places, it's part of the whole psychology of the search," Ms. Hall said. "Each day you're running through all the scenarios and trying to decide which of those are the highest probability and directing the search to fit accordingly, and it keeps coming back to the river. It's something you can't easily rule out. It being in close proximity there's a high probability, based on available evidence to this point, that he may be in the river."

Nevertheless, Ms. Hall said she's open to other possibilities and is reluctant to call the search a "recovery."

"We don't know what gear he had or if he set out on purpose," she said. "We're unclear if he's evading us, if he jumped a train and is safe somewhere. So I don't want to use the word 'recovery' yet. I wish there was more information. I wish we could bring him home."

If you have information that might help searchers call Ohiopyle State Park at 724-329-8591.

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John Hayes: 412-263-1991 or jhayes@post-gazette.com.


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