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'Witnessing a Miracle': The Story of Two Young Sisters Lost in the Woods and the Frantic Search to Find Them 

click to enlarge The staging ground for law enforcement conducting the search for 8-year-old Leia Carrico and 5-year-old Caroline Carrico, who went missing in the woods near their home in Benbow on March 1. - PHOTO BY ALEXANDRA HOOTNICK
  • Photo by Alexandra Hootnick
  • The staging ground for law enforcement conducting the search for 8-year-old Leia Carrico and 5-year-old Caroline Carrico, who went missing in the woods near their home in Benbow on March 1.


10:32 a.m., Sunday, March 3

Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal is running late for a hastily scheduled press conference that's been called in the face of an onslaught of media attention as a rapt nation awaits word on the status of two young girls who have been missing in the woods near Benbow for 44 hours. Honsal doesn't have much to tell the assembled press. So far, search parties — comprised of personnel from 20 agencies and six scent-tracking canines — have come up empty. The girls — if they are still alive — have now endured two nights out in the rain, with temperatures in the high 30s to mid 40s, in terrain that's rugged and steep, with gullies and gulches and creeks swelled from days of rain. In short, things look bleak. But Honsal is prepared to put a good face on it, to assure the public that he and hundreds of searchers who have descended on Benbow State Park from throughout Northern California are doing all they can.

"We were on our way up to the press conference at the Benbow Inn, about 10:32, walking up from the command center at the state park," Honsal recalls. "I hear this yelling and screaming coming from the command post. Now, I have a professional group of leaders working underneath me and when I see them yelling and gesturing for me to come back, I could tell something significant was happening."

Honsal turns and begins walking back. His walk turns to a run.

"I'm running back and get about 50 feet from my incident commander and I look at him and he gives me this thumbs up and I'm just like, 'Thank God,'" Honsal says, the relief still audible in his voice 24 hours later.

The girls have been found.

click to enlarge The Carrico girls are reunited with their family - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • The Carrico girls are reunited with their family

click to enlarge Caroline Carrico explains that her sister wanted to go on a little more of an adventure before they got lost. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • Caroline Carrico explains that her sister wanted to go on a little more of an adventure before they got lost.

2:15 p.m., Friday, March 1

Misty Carrico is home alone with her three kids at their place near Benbow, which is off the grid, up 6 miles of dirt road. Her husband Travis is at work and Misty Carrico is in the backyard, which abuts an 80-acre forest, watching her two girls — Leia, 8, whose name is pronounced "like the princess," she'll tell you, and her 5-year-old sister Caroline — play in the treehouse while she corrals her 2-year-old son Wyatt.

The girls are restless and ask their mom to take them for a hike. But Misty Carrico has garbage to load up for a dump run and tells the girls they have to wait for a hike. After she takes Wyatt inside to start gathering trash, the girls decide to go for a walk. This isn't unusual — Misty Carrico homeschools the girls and they are used to traipsing around the property, walking the road and exploring when they're not studying, or being shuttled to ballet and baseball practices.

The two follow a deer trail until they come to a log — the marker their parents have designated as the boundary they aren't allowed to pass. But this time they keep walking.

"Leia wanted a tiny little bit more adventure," Caroline later explains in her mousiest voice, adding that Leia wanted to find a sunny spot on the cloudy day and she followed her sister.

A short time later, Misty Carrico looks up after loading a couple garbage bags and notices the girls are no longer near the treehouse. She notes the time: 2:39 p.m., grabs Wyatt and walks down to the treehouse, where she calls the girls' names. There's no response. But Misty Carrico says she wasn't really concerned. After all, her girls were used to some freedom to explore.

But when they haven't shown up about 15 minutes later, Misty Carrico scoops up Wyatt and a big bell she uses for such occasions and starts walking the property.

"I started screaming their names and ringing a giant bell that they always come back to," she says, adding that she and Wyatt walked a couple of miles around the property. "The kids never came back."

By 3:30 p.m., Misty Carrico says she is "terrified." She calls neighbors and family, asking them to come search and help watch Wyatt. She calls her husband, who urges her not to worry too much but soon jumps in his car and begins the almost two-hour drive home from work. By the time Travis Carrico arrives home, it's clear the girls must be lost. There's still no sign of them despite hours of searching. He mounts his motorcycle and starts driving the network of dirt roads through the area.

At this point, Leia says she knows she and her sister are lost. They've been walking for hours on a web of deer trails and must have taken a wrong turn. She notices the same metal post and realizes she's taken her sister in a huge circle. Their legs ache. The sky is growing darker and cloudier, and rain is beginning to fall. Caroline has her rain jacket on but Leia doesn't have one.

"Dad told us when we get lost we should stay in the same spot," Leia says. "It was starting to drizzle so I knew we had to find shelter fast."

They find a fallen tree branch big enough to shield them from the rain and crawl underneath. It's cold. Caroline takes off her jacket and the two girls each take one of its sleeves, stuffing both arms inside, and huddle together to stay warm. Caroline is inconsolable.

"My sister cried the whole night so I told her to think happy thoughts of our family," Leia says.

Caroline tries to think of trips to the ocean and other fun outings, but she's afraid bears will come out of the dark to eat her and her sister. She keeps crying.

As nightfall approaches, the family calls Dianna Totten and the Southern Humboldt County Technical Rescue Team, which notifies the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office.

Nightfall, Friday, March 1

When the sheriff's office gets the initial call, it follows standard protocol and dispatches a patrol deputy to take a report. The office receives similar calls every week but, once on scene, the deputy quickly realizes this one is different.

"When we get there and find out the family's already been searching for a couple of hours and the search area is massive in Southern Humboldt, with so many possibilities, we immediately contacted our special services division, which encompasses all of our search and rescue personnel," Honsal says.

Under the direction of Sgt. Kerry Ireland, the search begins almost immediately, joining forces with the technical rescue team. By midnight, having found no signs of the girls and with the gravity of the situation becoming clear, Ireland puts out a mutual aid request to the state Office of Emergency Services' regional hub in Alameda County. He asks for enough personnel to fill 10 search teams, scent-tracking dogs and helicopters to canvas the area from the air.

An alert goes out to all emergency services offices in the region and, within the hour, teams are mobilizing to head to Benbow from Del Norte, Mendocino and Lake counties, with a National Guard team also deploying from Sacramento.

Misty Carrico, meanwhile, is at home, per instructions from the sheriff's office, which wants her there in case the girls wander back or call. She says she's in a "dark place."

"I constantly heard my kids screaming for help in my head," she says.

At 2 a.m., she decides she can't take it anymore, suits up and goes out to join the search, climbing hills and landslides, looking for her girls.

About the same time, Honsal says the professional staff from the sheriff's office begins to pull back to regroup and come up with a plan for first light.

click to enlarge Search teams from across Northern California gathered for the morning briefing on March 3. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • Search teams from across Northern California gathered for the morning briefing on March 3.

Daybreak, Saturday, March 2

Early Saturday morning, a member of the search team finds a break — a small pile of twigs and branches, according to Totten. It appears someone has tried to start a fire and searchers can tell it was just the night before, as there are patches of dry ground under the pile.

By 8 a.m., personnel from at least 10 agencies have arrived at Benbow State Park, where they're reporting to command staff and getting organized. With the local Office of Emergency Services activated, staff from a variety of agencies are scurrying to get things in order.

In addition to coordinating the search, the command team — under the direction of Incident Commander Brian Quennell — also has to make sure it can provide for the various personnel flooding Benbow State Park. Lt. Mike Fridley is overseeing operations and there's a hurried effort to coordinate the delivery of food and portable toilets, and arrange places for people to stay. Employees from Humboldt Bay Fire, the county Department of Health and Human Services, the County Administrative Office and CalFire all respond to the scene to take care of the logistics. Additionally, medical teams are assembling, readying to deploy at a moment's notice if the girls are found in need of medical attention or someone searching for them gets injured.

Meanwhile, parallel efforts are mounting.

On the search side, Sgt. Kerry Ireland is coordinating 10 teams — each led by professional staff with volunteers filling out its ranks — that will deploy in the field. Each of the teams will carry a Nano tracking device, courtesy of the National Guard, that allows the command center to use satellite technology to track the teams' movements, as well as the "breadcrumbs" of where they've been, as Honsal puts it.

At this point, the sheriff's office doesn't know what happened to the girls. Responding officers have found the parents' stories credible but can't rule out the possibility of something criminal.

"We didn't know if this was an abduction," Honsal says. "We didn't know if they made it to the road and someone picked them up. We didn't know if a neighbor snatched them up. We just didn't know."

While Ireland is put in charge of the search effort, Lt. Dennis Young heads an "investigative arm," comprising investigators from multiple agencies and tasked with looking for signs of foul play. A detective is deployed to the Carrico's house to interview Travis and Misty and search the residence. Others go door-to-door, asking neighbors if they'll allow searches of their homes and properties, and if they'll give DNA samples. They contact the FBI and the California Highway Patrol, making sure a child abduction unit is prepared if they receive information that takes the search in a different direction.

Public Information Officer Samantha Karges is tasked with putting together a missing persons flier for the girls, and soon asks for the public's help plastering it everywhere with the hope everyone in Humboldt will recognize their smiling faces.

Meanwhile, a disagreement has broken out at command. Some searchers want to deploy to the area of the makeshift fire pit that had been found that morning. Others feel the urgent need to head in the opposite direction to where a search team member had reported hearing voices. After some consternation, all teams are directed toward the voices.

The girls, meanwhile, have moved. They awoke at dawn, having not gotten much sleep. Leia says she was up keeping watch until she eventually drifted off and Caroline says she was mostly too afraid to rest. They'd also been dripped on much of the night.

Leia decides to find better shelter, falling back on survival skills she learned from an instructor in Miranda 4-H.

"We had instructed them on how to stay put," Misty Carrico says later. "He taught them how to stay dry."

Not far from the branch where they'd tried to sleep the night before, the girls find a thicket of huckleberry bushes that Leia calls a "huckleberry cave." It seems dry underneath, so the girls get on their bellies and slither inside. They spend part of the day singing nursery rhymes at the top of their lungs and drinking rain water from the brambles' leaves.

At various times, they hear yelling or the pounding of helicopter blades. They call out but nobody finds them.

click to enlarge Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal hugs Supervisor Estelle Fennell shortly before search teams held a debriefing at the command post on Saturday evening. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal hugs Supervisor Estelle Fennell shortly before search teams held a debriefing at the command post on Saturday evening.

Afternoon, Saturday, March 2

It's reported that a search party found granola bar wrappers matching a brand in the Carrico's house and tiny boot prints, providing a glint of hope. (The girls will later say they didn't bring any food with them, so the wrappers weren't theirs.)

At 2 p.m. Honsal holds a press conference. He stresses that every possible effort is being made to find the girls and his office isn't ruling out any possibilities, noting that detectives are working the case. All roads into the area have been closed to non-local traffic, he says, and police are searching "everyone coming off the mountain."

"We don't see a crime scene and we don't expect a crime scene, but we're not going to rule anything out right now," he says. "We don't know where these girls are right now."

Fridley says the clues found earlier that day help inform the search, providing some evidence of a possible direction of travel. Both men implore the public not to self-deploy into the search area, not to take matters into their own hands, warning that doing so may destroy footprints and other evidence leading to the girls.

What isn't said at the press conference is that a tip line set up by the sheriff's office and helmed by a "seasoned investigator," according to Honsal, has already yielded two credible sightings. The first comes from a woman who says she saw the girls at a hotel swimming pool in Arcata. A detective scrambles to get surveillance footage from the hotel and brings back images of kids who resemble the girls but aren't them. A bit later, a call comes in from Petaluma, where a person reports having seen the girls with an adult male at a gas station. Again, a detective rushes to get surveillance images.

"We looked at the pictures and said, 'Oh my gosh, it looks exactly like the girls," Honsal says. "We were on pins and needles."

Someone is sent to track down Misty and Travis Carrico, who are out in the field searching. Travis Carrico is shown the pictures and says, "No," it's not his girls. But the tips were good ones, Honsal says, adding that detectives basically worked 36 hours straight following up on leads, maybe catching an hour of sleep in their cars when they could.

"If he had confirmed it was them, this would have gone in a very different direction," Honsal says.

Instead, the search continues.

click to enlarge Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal speaks with representatives from multiple agencies before the March 3 morning briefing. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal speaks with representatives from multiple agencies before the March 3 morning briefing.

Late in the afternoon, as the sun begins to set, Fridley and Honsal reluctantly recall the ground search teams. Not only is it dangerous to search such dense, rugged terrain after nightfall, it also runs the risk of destroying evidence. It's just too risky. Instead, the plan is for vehicles to patrol the network of dirt roads with flood lights, listening for any signs of the girls, with foot teams ready to deploy at word of any potential sightings.

With the sun setting on the girls for the second time and more rain in the forecast, Honsal says he knows the chances of finding them safe are about to diminish significantly.

"It was tough because nobody wanted to give up, so to speak," he says. "An 8 and a 5 year old were by themselves in the woods, in the middle of cougar country, with bears and everything. We were stressed. We were concerned. It was palpable."

Second District Supervisor Estelle Fennell approaches Honsal near the command center. The two exchange some words, wracking their brains over whether they'd left any stones unturned. After a few minutes, they embrace.

Nightfall, Saturday, March 2

Under the huckleberry bramble, Leia and Caroline snuggle close under Caroline's jacket as the sun sets. Caroline starts to cry again and Leia says she'll tell her a story if she stops. Caroline agrees but the story doesn't help much. She keeps crying. The girls are hungry.

"Our bellies grumbled the whole night," Leia says later, adding that her hands grew so cold she could hardly move them.

Back at the Carrico home, Misty is unravelling. She'd managed to sleep for a couple of hours but woke up in a panic attack and spent half an hour screaming and throwing things. Earlier in the day, she'd seen what she believed was one small set of boot prints. She'd become convinced they were Caroline's and that she was alone, with Leia having been hurt or incapacitated.

"I didn't think I was going to get my kids back," she says.

After a bit, she regroups, suits up and goes back out searching. Out in the field, Travis and one of his oldest friends have joined up with two volunteers who reportedly refused commands to return to Benbow State Park. They go back toward the area of the makeshift fire.

They spot some boot prints on a deer trail and follow it through the night, eventually winding up near U.S. Highway 101. On the trail, they call out repeatedly to the girls but hear nothing.

The official search effort, meanwhile, hits on something. One of the vehicle crews hears screaming in the distance and sends up an alert. A foot team is pulled out of bed and deployed. They track down the voices only to find it's "just other people" — not Travis Carrico and his crew — searching independently. Deflated, the team heads back to bed.

Other rogue search efforts continued through the night, with folks disregarding official admonishments not to conduct unauthorized searches and heading up a back road to access the property. At least a half dozen vehicles get stuck on the dirt roads, which were washed out from rain and heavy use, and have to get towed out.

Shortly before dawn, Travis Carrico relays to Misty the tracks he'd found. The girls are near that deer trail, he tells her. He's sure of it.

click to enlarge Left to right: Sgt. Kerry Ireland, Abraham Hill, Delbert Chumley and Sheriff William Honsal - HCSO/FACEBOOK.
  • HCSO/Facebook.
  • Left to right: Sgt. Kerry Ireland, Abraham Hill, Delbert Chumley and Sheriff William Honsal

Daybreak, Sunday, March 3

Early Sunday morning, Delbert Chumley IV is readying to leave his home near Piercy and his 5-year-old daughter and 4-year-old son. He packs some food and water to fuel his search effort. He also grabs some clothes — a hoodie sweatshirt from his daughter, another from his partner and a couple knit hats. He then meets up with Abraham Hill, who, like Chumley, is a member of the Piercy Volunteer Fire Department.

They are driving toward the command center in Benbow shortly before 8 a.m. when they get a call from Shanda Rial, a friend of the Carricos. She says she spoke to Misty, who relayed Travis' information about the deer trail. She thinks they should go check it out.

They call Totten, who relays to incident command that the trio is going to follow up on this lead. Honsal says incident command is supportive and it asks the group to keep reporting back through Totten every 15 minutes.

By 8 a.m., Benbow State Park is brimming with personnel from 20 agencies, as well as some 270 volunteers — members of volunteer fire departments and search and rescue teams — that have deployed from as far south as Santa Clara County and as far east as Placer County. Command is readying for a massive push throughout the day, seizing what they hope is a last decent chance to find these girls alive.

Chumley and Hill meet up with Rial and start driving ATVS up a rugged access road, climbing a ridge, hoping to get to the other side, where Travis Carrico had seen the prints on that deer trail. The drive is slow and rough, and they have to stop several times to chainsaw through trees that have fallen across the path. After a while, the terrain becomes too dense for the ATVs but the group spots what they think might be a footprint. Hill and Chumley decide to continue by foot, with Rial waiting with the vehicles.

The pair bushwhacks their way up the ravine, stopping periodically to call out to the girls, shouting, "Princess Leia, Caroline!" Every 15 minutes, Chumley calls Totten to update her on their progress and give their GPS coordinates. After about two hours, they think they hear a cracking in a huckleberry thicket nearby. Chumley thinks he hears a voice, calling, "Dad." He calls out again to the girls.

"Dad?" came another call from the bushes.

Chumley and Hill look at one another. They then both cover their faces to guard against the huckleberry brambles and plunge into the thicket, falling into a slight gap.

"I slid under and there were these purple rain boots," Chumley says, emotion taking his voice.

The pair check out the girls to make sure they're OK and call back to Totten to report the good news. Word gets back to the command center at just about 10:30, as Honsal is walking toward the Benbow Inn.

The news is great but the sheriff's office needs confirmation. "We have to have one of our team members put eyes on them," Fridley says. "Then we can rejoice."

After some back and forth, it's decided that the easiest way to get the girls out safely is by foot. Hill and Chumley take turns giving Caroline piggyback rides and Leia walks out on her own strength. They make it back to the ATVs and meet up with someone from the sheriff's office who confirms that it's the Carrico girls and they are alive and well.

Fridley then makes the call he's been hoping for.

"Misty, we got 'em," he recalls saying. "She started crying. First, she was screaming. Then she was crying."

"He said they had my kids and they were OK and they weren't even hurt and they had my kids," Misty recalls. "I couldn't even talk."

click to enlarge The Carrico girls reunited with their family - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • The Carrico girls reunited with their family

A volunteer then quickly packs Misty and Travis Carrico in a truck and drives them to a nearby rendezvous point, where they wait anxiously for Hill and Chumley to deliver their girls.

Leia is the first to appear, wrapped in blankets on an ATV. Travis Carrico picks her up, sobbing. A moment later, Caroline appears. Misty, looking still in shock, scoops her up. All four embrace in a hug, Travis' mixture of sobs and joyful laughter filling the air.


Almost simultaneously, at 11:40 a.m., Honsal approaches a makeshift podium set up near the command center, where he stands before an obviously giddy and proud group of incident command staff.

"Good afternoon," he says. "I'm pleased to report that we're all witnessing a miracle today."

click to enlarge Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal, "... we're all witnessing a miracle today." - PHOTO BY ALEXANDRA HOOTNICK
  • Photo by Alexandra Hootnick
  • Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal, "... we're all witnessing a miracle today."

Local reporter Kym Kemp contributed to this report, which would not have been possible without her. Follow her work at www.kymkemp.com.

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or thad@northcoastjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.


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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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