MAMMOTH LAKES, Calif. – Preston Morrow was having a little adventure, wandering off-trail alone to look for a remote mine. He was scrambling down a rugged embankment Monday when he noticed some brittle, weathered identification cards scattered among the decomposing pine needles.

“JAMES STEPHEN FOSSETT,” a pilot license read.

As in Steve Fossett, who circumnavigated the globe by himself in 2002 and vanished on a solo flight in a small plane more than a year ago. The subject of untold fruitless hours of searching by teams armed with high-tech equipment and NASA-designed software.

Didn’t ring a bell.

“I have to admit the name didn’t pop into my head,” Morrow said. It wasn’t until Tuesday, when he discussed his find with co-workers at a Mammoth Lakes sporting goods store, that he realized what he might be holding.

“Oh my gosh, this is going to be huge,” Morrow remembers thinking.

A picture of the pilot license – including a certificate number and Fossett’s date of birth -was sent to the Federal Aviation Administration and matched the agency’s records, spokesman Ian Gregor said.

“We’re trying to determine the authenticity of the document,” Gregor said.

The find fired up flagging search efforts and gave the widow and friends of the millionaire adventurer renewed hope.

“I am hopeful that this search will locate the crash site and my husband’s remains,” Peggy Fossett said in a statement Wednesday. “I am grateful to all of those involved in this effort.”

Morrow, an avid outdoorsman who moved to Mammoth Lakes to be closer to the mountain slopes he had skied since childhood, was west of the Sierra Nevada town when he found IDs with Fossett’s name and some scattered cash – 10 $100 bills and a $5 bill.

Fossett disappeared Sept. 3, 2007, after taking off in a single-engine plane borrowed from a Nevada ranch owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton. A judge declared Fossett legally dead in February following a search for the famed aviator that covered 20,000 square miles.

Aviators had flown over Mammoth Lakes, about 90 miles south of the ranch, in the search, but it had not been considered a likely place to find the plane. The most intense searching was concentrated well north of the town, given what searchers knew about sightings of Fossett’s plane, his plans for when he had intended to return and the amount of fuel he had in the plane.

Search teams led by the Madera County Sheriff’s Department began combing through the loose, rugged terrain Wednesday looking for the airplane wreckage. An air effort was expected to be under way soon, said Madera County sheriff’s spokeswoman Erica Stuart.

Morrow said he found no human remains or signs of the plane when he hiked back out to the mountain slope Tuesday with his wife and three friends.

While standing on a ridge about 100 yards from where the documents were first seen, Morrow’s wife, Natalie, found a black fleece sweat shirt, Nautica brand, size XL.

“It looked like it had been there a while – it was faded out quite a bit,” Natalie Morrow said. She left the sweat shirt, but gathered GPS coordinates to guide authorities to the site.

“I’m hoping the family can know exactly what happened, so they can have some kind of closure,” she said.

Preston Morrow had wanted to contact Fossett’s family first, so he consulted local attorney David Baumwohl, and together they tried to get through to lawyers representing the missing adventurer’s kin.

“We figured if it was us, we’d want to know first. We wouldn’t want to learn from the news,” Baumwohl said.

When they did not hear back by Wednesday morning, they decided to turn everything over to the police, the attorney said.

The California Civil Air Patrol and private planes from Hilton’s ranch previously had flown over the area, but it is “extremely rough country,” said Joe Sanford, undersheriff in Lyon County, Nev., which was involved in the initial search.

Mammoth Lakes is at an elevation of more than 7,800 feet on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada, where peaks top 13,000 feet. This year’s biggest search for Fossett focused on Nevada’s Wassuk Range, more than 50 miles north of Mammoth Lakes. That search ended last month.

One of Fossett’s friends reacted to Wednesday’s news with cautious optimism.

If the belongings turn out to be authentic, then that could help narrow the search area for possible wreckage, said Ray Arvidson, a scientist at Washington University who worked on Fossett’s past balloon flights.

“It would be nice to get closure,” Arvidson said.

Fossett made a fortune trading futures and options on Chicago markets. He gained worldwide fame for more than 100 attempts and successes in setting records in high-tech balloons, gliders, jets and boats. In 2002, he became the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in July 2007.

He also swam the English Channel, completed an Ironman Triathlon, competed in the Iditarod dog sled race and climbed some of the world’s best-known peaks, including the Matterhorn in Switzerland and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.



Juliana Barbassa reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Jason Dearen and Malia Wollan in San Francisco, Scott Sonner in Reno, Nev., Tom Tait in Las Vegas, and Alicia Chang and Jacob Adelman in Los Angeles also contributed to this report.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.