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She was missing for months, surviving on grass and moss. Police found her when a drone crashed.

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 5/5/2021 Timothy Bella
a large mountain in the background: The Diamond Fork section of Utah’s Spanish Fork Canyon. (Isaac Hale/The Daily Herald/AP) The Diamond Fork section of Utah’s Spanish Fork Canyon. (Isaac Hale/The Daily Herald/AP)

The search for the missing camper continued with little more than a drone and a prayer. More than five months since a 47-year-old woman went missing in the Diamond Fork section of Utah’s Spanish Fork Canyon, the Utah County Sheriff’s Office joined with an aerial search group in hopes of gaining any clues to a case that had stretched from winter into spring.

When the drone crashed on one of its first passes Sunday, a sheriff’s sergeant and the pilot retrieving the unmanned aerial vehicle noticed what appeared to be an abandoned tent. As they were looking at the lone camping setup in a remote area of Spanish Fork Canyon, the blue-and-red tent’s zipper began to unzip. The team was surprised by who greeted them.

“This woman, who we had identified the previous year in November and December, sticks her head out,” Utah County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Cannon recalled to KSTU-TV.

The sheriff’s office announced Monday that the Salt Lake County woman, who had been missing since before Thanksgiving, had been found alive in an area not far from where she was camping. Authorities said the woman, who had yet to be publicly identified, “had lost a significant amount of weight and was weak” when she was found. She was lauded by the sheriff’s office as “resourceful,” living off grass, moss and water from a river.

“We now believe she knowingly chose to remain in the area over the months since November 2020,” the sheriff’s office said in a news release.

The sheriff’s office said information suggested the woman “might struggle with mental health challenges.” She was taken to a hospital for a mental health evaluation this week, authorities said.

Cannon told The Washington Post on Wednesday that the woman indicated she “wanted solitude and isolation.”

Criminology experts have noted the first 72 hours of a missing-person investigation are the most crucial, as leads for the person’s whereabouts tend to dry up over time. Cannon acknowledged to KSTU that finding the woman alive this week after more than five months was welcome news.

“I have to be honest — we fully expected that we wouldn’t find anybody related to that alive up here, given how long it had been,” the sheriff’s spokesman told the outlet. “In situations like that, we often find somebody after they had passed away.”

On Nov. 25, U.S. Forest Service officials found camping equipment and the woman’s red sedan in a parking lot in the Diamond Fork area of Spanish Fork Canyon, about 60 miles south of Salt Lake City. With no evidence that the woman was still in the area, the sheriff’s office said, they “searched the area by ground and from the air but could not find anyone.”

What unfolded over the next five months amounted to dead ends. Search-and-rescue teams remained unsuccessful. The sheriff’s office said it was unable to reach the woman’s family. Some former co-workers contacted by authorities could only point to her purported struggles with mental health and did not know where she might be, according to the news release. Telephone information acquired by the sheriff’s office indicated she could have been in Colorado.

Seeking new evidence that she could still be in Diamond Fork, the sheriff’s office worked with representatives of a Utah-based nonprofit aerial search organization over the weekend. Authorities confirmed to The Post that the group was Western States Aerial Search, which has used drones to search for missing people in recent years.

Photos of the woman’s tent released by the sheriff’s office show that she was living with minimal possessions, including a camping chair and a towel. She told the search-and-rescue team that she had a small amount of food she stretched out over time to go along with the grass and moss she foraged “to subsist.”

“She did not plan exceedingly well for such a long period during harsh winter months, but she was resourceful,” Cannon wrote in an email to The Post.

Authorities emphasized that the woman “did nothing against the law.” The sheriff’s office said she indicated “she might choose to return to the same area” and that it had made resources available to her if she did so.

“For most of us, to think of someone spending the winter in an area like this, literally camping in a tent in a sleeping bag all winter long, is beyond what almost anybody would consider,” Cannon told local media. “But for her, it worked.”

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