Documents released Thursday regarding the search for a missing hiker in Zion National Park last fall are so heavily redacted they reveal almost nothing new other than the National Park Service spent more than $60,000 looking for her.
Holly Courtier’s disappearance and recovery 12 days later, on Oct. 18, near the Virgin River, drew national media attention and lots of questions about her case. Still unexplained are how she got lost in such a busy part of Utah’s most heavily visited national park and why it took so long to find her.
The Salt Lake Tribune, along with other news outlets, requested the material under the Freedom of Information Act nearly five months ago. The 21 documents, covering 136 pages, that were eventually released were rendered unintelligible by the copious blackouts. The park service stated that the deletions were all justified by the need to protect the privacy of all involved. That apparently includes law enforcement officers and other park officials because those names are blacked out, too.
“Because the harm to personal privacy is greater than whatever public interest may be served by disclosure, release of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of the privacy of these individuals,” the park service wrote in a cover letter to The Tribune. “Additionally, we have determined that the disclosure of this information would shed little or no light on the performance of the agency’s statutory duties.”
The redactions appear to go far beyond protecting privacy. For instance, the map indicating where Courtier was found is blacked out. Some material remained unredacted, but it is mostly maps and search logs detailing all the places crews checked and found nothing.
Courtier, then a 38-year-old Californian who had recently lost her nanny job because of the coronavirus pandemic, was dropped off by private shuttle on the morning of Oct. 6 at the Grotto, a busy spot inside Zion Canyon that accesses the Kayenta Trail. She didn’t show for her pickup that afternoon and was reported missing two days later.
Park officials began searching Oct. 9 using dogs, dozens of personnel, a helicopter and drone flights. They scoured Emerald Pools, Lady Mountain and West Rim — places reachable from the Grotto trailhead — and other spots but failed to find her. Then, more than a week later, a visitor reported seeing a “small human” in a hammock, according to an unredacted passage in one document. A search team found Courtier the next day hardly a mile from the Grotto. Officials have yet to disclose exactly where Courtier was found, but the general area is close to the main park road and heavily used hiking trails.
The documents released Thursday provided no insights into how someone could go missing for so many days in a heavily used portion of a popular park, usually visited by 4 million people annually. One document references an investigative report and a taped interview with Courtier, but those were not among the materials released Thursday.
The most potentially revealing document is a two-page report referencing the Oct. 17 tip received by the park service’s Investigative Services Branch that eventually led to Courtier’s rescue. But that entire narrative is blacked out except for a few phrases, such as “stated that.” The primary 10-page report on the search is mostly redacted.
A supplemental report describes how an official teamed with two volunteers to investigate the Oct. 17 tip of a possible sighting of the missing hiker.
The searchers were assigned certain areas to check, according to the unredacted portion of the narrative written by the person who found Courtier. He or she completed the assignment without spotting anything, but decided to explore a “social path,” or a user-created trail, that led off the official trail.
“I came to a small social path that looked unused but led to an area of dense vegetation. I decided to investigate the area,” the person wrote. “As I moved through the brush, I noticed a blue object that I later identified as a backpack. As I made my way closer to the object, the area opened up and I could clearly see a hammock and a [redacted word] laying in the hammock.”
The searcher recognized the person as the missing hiker, and the person in the hammock acknowledged her identity. The remainder of the narrative is largely redacted and reveals only that the searcher escorted Courtier to the road.
Apparently suffering from dehydration, weight loss and bruises, she was reunited with her family and taken to a hospital, according to published reports. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office later opened an investigation into the search, but its outcome remains unknown.