By the time authorities found their car in a remote stretch of Death Valley National Park, Alexander Lofgren and Emily Henkel had been missing for four days.
Inside the abandoned white Subaru was a note: “Two flat tires, headed to Mormon Point, have three days’ worth of water.”
The April 8 discovery marked a turning point in the desperate search for the Tucson, Ariz., couple. Soon after, rescuers from the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office found Lofgren, 32, and Henkel, 27, in an isolated part of the California desert near Willow Creek.
The two were on a ledge so steep, the agency said in a news release, that rescuers could not reach them until the next day, April 9. When they did, they found Henkel injured. And Lofgren, an Army veteran and congressional staffer, was dead.
Many details remain unclear about the fateful camping trip; a cause of death has yet to be announced. The tragedy in the vast, rugged national park left Henkel hospitalized and unleashed a flood of grief for Lofgren, including from multiple members of Congress.
After serving in the U.S. Army as a combat engineer and deploying to Afghanistan in 2011, he had received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Arizona State University. He joined the district office of Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., in 2019 as part of the Wounded Warrior Fellowship Program. He then stayed on as a caseworker serving veterans in southern Arizona, Grijalva said.
“To know Alex was to know someone who loved life, loved his family, and loved helping others,” the congressman said in a statement. “Words cannot begin to describe the void this immeasurable loss leaves in the hearts of his colleagues and his family.”
Lofgren and Henkel, both experienced campers, set off for Death Valley with jugs of water, camping gear and at least one day’s worth of food, the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office said. Lofgren was known for camping in remote areas not designated as campgrounds.
But when the couple failed to return from the trip as scheduled on April 4, concern started to grow among those who knew them. On April 6, the sheriff’s office began a sprawling search after they were reported missing. Investigators first checked hotels in the Death Valley area and sent bulletins to the California Highway Patrol and Death Valley National Park to be on the lookout for the two and their 2018 Subaru.
They tried calling the duo’s cellphones but both went straight to voice mail. They tried tracking the phones but could not because of the remote location and lack of service.
They pored over a backcountry registration log Lofgren had filled out, listing the destinations the couple planned to visit: Artist Drive, Devils Golf Course, Racetrack and Badwater Basin.
“All the areas were checked,” the sheriff’s office said, “and some were checked morning and afternoon with no results.”
Ultimately, aerial search revealed the car in a location that was not on Lofgren’s list, alongside Gold Valley Road. The unpaved, four-wheel-drive road cuts a solitary path through the backcountry of the park, the largest in the continental United States. The National Park Service warns of “a lot of vegetation in the middle of these roads.”
The note inside the Subaru, the sheriff’s office said, “proved to be a crucial tip in directing search efforts.” It revealed that once their car became immobilized, the couple decided against hiking the 22 miles they’d just traveled back to a paved road. Instead, The Arizona Republic reported, they chose to trek toward Mormon Point, located near another, relatively well-traveled road.
The path the pair took was shorter but required crossing through a canyon with steep drops. They were about two miles from their destination when they became stranded on the ledge.
Rescuers spotted them using aerial reconnaissance at about noon on April 8, about an hour after locating the car.
“A hoist operation was attempted,” the sheriff’s office said, “but due to the extreme location the two team members who rappelled down were unable to reach Lofgren and Henkel. It is unclear at this point what condition Lofgren and Henkel are in.”
A search and rescue technical team arrived that evening. By the next afternoon, rescuers had descended into the canyon and reached the couple. Lofgren was pronounced dead and Henkel flown to a hospital.
“This has been a tremendously difficult operation in a very unforgiving geographic area of Inyo County,” Sheriff Jeff Hollowell said. “I sincerely hope for healing and recovery for all involved.”
An online fundraiser for the Lofgren and Henkel families said the couple’s loved ones were “devastated” at his death and her injury, described as a “severe foot injury requiring surgery.” By Wednesday, it had raised $35,000 for the search and rescue, Henkel’s surgery and Lofgren’s memorial service.
The families, who have asked for privacy, expressed gratitude for the support through what they described as “the disastrous events that took place between April 4-9.”