Last May, Anna Rodriquez headed out alone on a healing journey into the deep woods of Humboldt County, California. In August, her remains were found near a campsite in Slate Creek. What happened in between is a story of grief, frustration, and inspiration.
“Anna was a very loving and very courageous young woman,” said Anna's mother, Jacqueline Zumwalt. Rodriquez drew spiritual sustenance from her mixed Apache, Sioux, Yaqui and Cherokee heritage, she said. But she had also battled bipolar disease and drug dependency.
“She needed to detox her body and doctor her spirit,” said Zumwalt. “We were all very worried about her and tried to talk her out of going in there alone. But, she was very confident and very determined.”
Her brother Jesse Rodriquez met her with supplies from time to time when she came out of the woods. On August 10, she failed to show, so he called the Humboldt County Sheriff's department.
“Instead of calling a real search and rescue and calling dogs and stuff like that they sent a tactical team raiding marijuana growers around here,” said Rodriquez.
The team searched for a day and a half with a helicopter and then, Rodriquez said, "basically gave up."
Detective Todd Fulton defended his decision to send in a marijuana tactical team for the search instead of a search and rescue team.
“Our search and rescue teams are all volunteer posse members,” he said. “We're not in the habit of putting civilian searchers out there in harm's way if there's a possible marijuana grow
in the area.“
It was Jesse Rodriquez, Fulton said, who “had mentioned something about a Hispanic style type grow” in the area.
“They actually brought it up with me,” Rodriquez insisted. "Upon telling them that she was missing in the woods they were like what was she doing out there, obviously this time of year she must be growing weed.”
"They were like last name's Rodriquez, out in the woods, Mexican Mafia, right? I was like well, actually, no.”
Rodriquez and other friends and family organized their own search.
"We had an average of 5-10 searchers a day, for 21 days, searching canyons, walking ten miles a day, 13 hours of walking in really rough country."
Jacqueline Zumwalt put together a Facebook Page called Finding Anna Rodriquez, which brought in over 600 members. Volunteers contributed gas money, food, hiking and climbing equipment, and prayers.
In late August, Anna's cell phone and some human remains were found by local residents at a remote campsite. The Sheriff's department returned the residents' call but did not hear back from them for another week. Finally, Sheriff's investigators were guided to the site and a positive identification was made.
But Jesse Rodriquez and the other teams of searchers continued to hunt for another week because no one from the Sheriff's office informed them that Anna had been found.
Anna's mother was told that her daughter had been found “on Facebook by someone who was there when they brought her remains out,” she said. “My son called the Sheriff's office and they denied finding her.”
Fulton says he is aware that there was “some controversy over the delay of why we didn't communicate. The main thing is I have to approach it as a crime scene. I didn't know if she died of natural causes, or if she was murdered. It's a hard pill to choke down for a family member, I can definitely understand that. But I have a job to do, and my concern is justice for the victim."
But the Rodriquez family thinks the Sheriff's office could have done more.
“The thing that really upset me was that during the three weeks that I was searching for my sister I had my radio on and I'd hear about how the sheriff's office busted this crop and that crop, said Jesse Rodriquez. “I know they don't really get paid to search for lost people by the federal government and they do get paid to eradicate marijuana. But to base your manpower decisions on what is economically feasible instead of what is morally right is, you know, it's business. It's privatized business."
No evidence of marijuana growing or of foul play was discovered, Fulton said, though the case will remain open. Humboldt County coroner Dave Parris said the cause of death was unknown, but that Rodriquez appeared to have passed on “about two months” before her discovery. He speculated she may have had a heart attack following an injury.
With the hundreds of other people who joined in the search for Anna Rodriquez, Jesse Rodriquez will always remember his sister as an inspiration.
“She was willing to lay down her life to live in a better way and be right with God and that's a really powerful message,” he said.