SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - More than 150 law enforcement officers on foot and horseback on Saturday spent a second day combing the central Idaho wilderness in search of a California man suspected of killing a friend and her son and abducting her teenage daughter.
A national manhunt for fugitive James Lee DiMaggio, 40, and 16-year-old Hannah Anderson focused on the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness after a group of backcountry horsemen reported to Idaho authorities that on Wednesday they had encountered a pair they believed to be the suspect and the teen.
One horseman told police he exchanged casual pleasantries with them and that their appearance on a trail to a mountain lake was odd but not cause for alarm, authorities said. Police searched the trailhead for clues and found DiMaggio’s car, stripped of its license plates and covered with brush. Police feared the car could be rigged with explosives but a bomb squad found none on Friday.
Authorities in Idaho said on Saturday that no other sightings have been reported and air, land and river searches have so far uncovered no signs of the pair in rugged mountainous terrain crisscrossed by sheer granite canyons and whitewater rapids.
Joe DiMaggio, the suspect’s uncle, raised concerns on Saturday about his nephew’s state of mind. He said his nephew has been haunted by the suicide of his father and the cancer death of his mother some years back.
“I wish I knew what he was thinking,” said DiMaggio, who has been in sporadic touch with his nephew in recent years. DiMaggio said his nephew is an experienced hunter, fisherman and camper.
The telecommunications technician is wanted in the killing of Christina Anderson, 44, and 8-year-old Ethan and in the disappearance of Hannah, all of whom were last seen last Saturday, the day before DiMaggio is suspected of setting his house on fire in the Southern California community of Boulevard, triggering a multi-state search.
The San Diego County Sheriff confirmed late Friday that the remains of a second body found at the house were Ethan‘s. Police declined to say how Christina Anderson or her son were killed.
As teams of searchers hiked, rode horseback and flew over the towering peaks, alpine forests, granite cliffs and undammed rivers of the Frank Church wilderness on Saturday, San Diego County authorities underscored their belief that DiMaggio had planned to hide out in the 2.3 million-acre (930,780-hectare), largely roadless area long before he fled with the 16-year-old.
DiMaggio bought camping equipment and other gear in the weeks leading up to his flight and news that he had relatives in Idaho strengthened the links between a crime scene in California and the untamed lands of the Frank Church, authorities said.
“We don’t think this was random or that he ended up there by chance,” said San Diego County Sheriff’s Captain Larry Nesbit.
One of the backcountry horsemen interviewed by police said the pair he encountered appeared to be in good health and that he saw no indication that the girl was upset or being held against her will, said Andrea Dearden of the Ada County Sheriff’s Office in Idaho.
Asked if police suspected the 16-year-old of complicity in the crimes, Nesbit said, “At this point, nothing leads us to that conclusion. That will be a factor that will be looked at when we interview her after her rescue.”
The Frank Church, which draws thousands of international visitors every summer season for whitewater rafting, fishing, camping and hiking, contains some of the most challenging terrain in the Lower 48 states.
Chris Grove, district ranger with the national forest in Idaho that oversees the wilderness, said fallen trees and routes that lead to impassable cliffs will make the going slow for anyone traveling cross country.
“On a good trail, someone who is highly motivated can probably log 15 miles a day. But cross country can be brutal, slowing travel to less than 2 miles a day,” he said.
Law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Office and the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security, have set up checkpoints at all trailheads to monitor anyone going in or out of the wilderness, according to the Ada County Sheriff’s Office.
Carl Hess, head wrangler at a guest ranch near where the pair thought to be DiMaggio and Hannah Anderson was spotted on Wednesday, said weather, equipment and survival skills will determine how long they last in the wilderness.
“If he’s a city Joe, not long,” he said. “If he’s a seasoned outdoorsman, until the snow flies.”
Editing by Scott Malone and Vicki Allen