Kyle Gibson sat shaken and sweating in the air-conditioned patrol car’s back seat, silently hoping the two Southern California sheriff’s deputies wouldn’t arrest him.
Gibson, 36, knew his fears were irrational. He’d done nothing wrong and everything right since arriving an hour before at the Bureau of Land Management desert east of Twentynine Palms. Still, just in case, he kept the squad’s rear door cracked open. That was irrational, too. The desert’s early-morning air on Aug. 8, 2020, was already soaring past 80 degrees and would hit 100 before noon. He should be conserving the car’s cooled air, not letting it vent into the arid landscape just north of the Joshua Tree National Park and Wilderness.
Still, Gibson kept the door cracked and waited quietly, hoping he didn’t look paranoid to the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department deputy in the front seat. Gibson—an avowed MeatEater fan—had hunted that morning for the first time in his life, hoping to shoot jackrabbits or desert cottontails with his new 12-gauge Winchester shotgun.
Unfortunately, his hunt turned haunting within 30 minutes as Gibson poked through the sand, rocks, and brittlebush of a dry wash. Instead of jumping a hare or rabbit, he walked up on a person’s skeleton. He tried believing the dried flesh clinging to gnawed bones weren’t human, but tattered jeans bunched atop a black Nike shoe on one foot dispelled that hope.
After taking photos, calling his wife, and summoning authorities with his smartphone, Gibson returned to his truck to await the sheriff’s deputies. Once they arrived, the officers asked basic questions about why Gibson was out there, how and where he found the skeleton, and whether he had anything to do with the person’s death.
Gibson answered their questions confidently until they asked if he would lead them to the remains. No. He couldn’t do that. He’d seen the skeleton once, and the sight was tormenting him. Instead, he pulled out his smartphone, tapped his onX app, and showed the deputies where he had walked, and how to find the site.
“I had used the app’s tracking feature to record how far I walked, so I showed them exactly where it was,” Gibson said. “You could easily tell on the phone, because I’d been pacing back and forth while talking to the police and my wife. My pacing created this strong zig-zag line.”
Gibson then waited with the female officer while her partner hiked out to find the remains and verify they were human. “He was on the radio a few minutes later to say he found it,” Gibson said. After the deputy returned, Gibson drove home.
Over four months later, on Dec. 15, 2021, after collecting DNA samples from worried family members, the coroner confirmed the remains were those of James M. “Blackhawk” Escalante, 56, of nearby Wonder Valley. Acquaintances told investigators they hadn’t seen or heard from Escalante since the morning of June 25.
Escalante’s live-in girlfriend said he had bicycled about 10 minutes from their place to help a friend who got her car stuck in “sugar sand” the night before while rock hunting near Highway 62 and Shelton Road east of Twentynine Palms. When Escalante didn’t find the woman at the intersection, he called his girlfriend to check-in. She connected him with her friend on a three-way call, and Escalante told her to honk the car’s horn so he could pinpoint her location.
He reportedly heard the horn, said “Got it,” and hung up. The women said Escalante never showed up at the car, but that two other friends arrived later that day to free her vehicle. None of the four people, however, reported Escalante missing in the weeks that followed.
Escalante’s identity might have remained unknown if Gibson hadn’t contacted the man’s family in early September 2020 after reading their Facebook page, “Seeking Justice for James Escalante — #BlackhawksWarriors.” Escalante’s son, Jon, and his wife, Heather, live in South Carolina, and grew increasingly worried in July and August when they couldn’t reach him. Heather created the Facebook page and posted photos and a description of her father-in-law in hopes someone in Twentynine Palms/Wonder Valley area might know his whereabouts.
Gibson, meanwhile, monitored news accounts and social media for clues about the skeleton’s identity. “When I found that Facebook page, I read that Heather was looking for her husband’s father, who had long black hair, was last seen wearing black Nikes, and hadn’t been in contact with them since late June,” Gibson told MeatEater. “Their descriptions fit what I had found, so I contacted them.
“As we shared information, I realized I knew Heather’s husband, Jon, who is James Escalante’s son,” Gibson continued. “Jon and I used to skateboard together in school. Now things felt really weird. Everything was wrapping full circle and hitting home. I suddenly had a direct connection to the body, and could match a face to it.”
Jon and Heather Escalante soon flew to Southern California to meet Gibson, who took them to where he found the skeleton. They filed a missing person’s report Sept. 7, 2020, and talked to investigators and people who knew James Escalante. Jon also provided DNA samples in mid-September when the family couldn’t locate his father’s dental records. Three months later, the coroner confirmed its identity.
The autopsy also found no evidence of foul play. But finding no such evidence doesn’t rule out murder, Heather Escalante told MeatEater. She said the body was little more than animal-gnawed bones when Gibson found it, but was mostly intact. The bones and skull, however, showed no knife cuts, bullet wounds, or recently inflicted breaks.
Jon and Heather Escalante remain skeptical that his father died of natural causes in the desert. Heather Escalante said a San Bernardina Sheriff’s Department investigator told her she needs to accept that no one is to blame, but she can’t. She said nothing explains how her father-in-law ended up about 1.5 miles southeast of his bicycle, which was found near the intersection where he last spoke to his girlfriend and her friend.
“I know lots of people disappear and die out there in the desert, but James was a desert rat,” Heather Escalante said. “I doubt he got turned around. He grew up in that country and loved it. Day or night, he was in his element out there. He knew that area like the back of his hand.”
Gibson agrees nothing logical explains where he found Escalante’s body. He said a lost person could walk a mile north to Highway 62, a half-mile west to Shelton Road, or northwest 8 miles toward the Twentynine Palms Marine Corps base, which is well-lighted and visible for miles. It makes no sense to walk southeast into the desert or south toward the mountains of the Joshua Tree National Park and Wilderness.
Then again, the Southern California desert around Twentynine Palms is notorious for strange deaths in unexplainable places. Cold nights and pitiless daytime sun robs dehydrated people of their wits. In fact, nearly seven weeks after Escalante’s body was identified, nearby hikers found the remains of Erika Lloyd, 37, a northern Californian who disappeared 11 days before Escalante the previous June. According to a Feb. 5, 2021, article in the San Bernardino County Sentinel, Lloyd was the sixth body found in the area in the previous 14 months. Weeks after Lloyd vanished, Doug Billings, a searcher looking for the single mother, found Escalante’s bicycle near Highway 62 and Shelton Road.
That intersection is only two miles south of where Lloyd abandoned her damaged vehicle after striking a berm near Shelton Road’s intersection with Two Mile Road. Lloyd’s body was found Jan. 31, 2021, about three-quarters of a mile northwest of her car, and roughly 4 miles from Escalante’s body. Although the discoveries intensified rumors of a serial killer, law-enforcement officials downplayed the deaths as coincidence. They maintained the tragedies were more likely the consequences of an “unforgiving Mojave Desert environment.”
Data from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs, indicate over 600,000 people disappear annually in the United States, but most are soon found alive. The NamUs data also show an average of 4,400 unidentified bodies are found annually, of which 1,000 remain unidentified a year later. Unidentified cases remain active until solved. NamUs typically has 14,000 to 23,000 active cases at a given time, which include victims of murders, suicides, freezing/exposure, heart attacks, bad falls, lost/disoriented, and other causes.
Gibson, meanwhile, still can’t believe his first hunt led him to James Escalante’s grisly remains. However, as discussed in the June 10, 2020, MeatEater article, “When Hunters Find Dead People,” hunters are more likely than most people to find bodies. Hunters, after all, routinely leave roads and trails to poke through brush and past trees while studying the ground, looking for sign, and trying to flush game.
Gibson, however, said he didn’t yet self-identify as a hunter in August 2020. In fact, he probably wouldn’t have been hunting that day in the desert if not for the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he took up hunting only after social-distancing laws forbid him from rock-climbing with friends in the Joshua Tree National Park and Wilderness.
He said he’s an experienced angler and spear-fisherman, but those activities require farther travel from his home in Twentynine Palms. All those factors pushed him to try hunting near home, an idea that increasingly intrigued him in 2020 while watching MeatEater TV and listening to shows in MeatEater’s podcast network.
“You name it, and I watch it or listen to it, whether it’s MeatEater, Bear Grease, or Cal’s Week in Review,” said Gibson, a heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning mechanic. He had done some trapping in fourth- and fifth-grade with his dad’s friend when they lived in Mississippi, and he took up fishing in the Colorado River after moving to Twentynine Palms.
“But my dad didn’t hunt, so I didn’t either,” Gibson said. “I’ve been serious about spearfishing for a while now, which is basically hunting underwater, so MeatEater got me pumped up to buy some guns and go hunting during the pandemic.”
Even though no one knows how James Escalante ended up in the desert far from his abandoned bicycle, Gibson got there intentionally after pinpointing that area as a likely spot for hares and rabbits. He said rabbit season opens in July, so he started scouting with help from the onX Hunt app. He soon focused on the head of a dry wash that starts east of Shelton Road, an unpaved route that winds southward through BLM property toward the national park.
After parking his truck a mile down Shelton Road from Highway 62, Gibson hunted northeasterly uphill through the wash. A half-mile later he noticed an odd patch of dark, oily dirt covered in animal tracks and coyote scat.
“At first I wondered who drove this far or walked this far to dump motor oil on the ground, but that didn’t explain all the coyote tracks,” Gibson said. “As I looked around, I saw what looked like human hair scattered around. I squatted down to look more closely and wondered if someone had buried something. When I stood back up and looked around, I saw the corpse about 25 yards away. I assumed coyotes dragged it over there.”
Gibson said the sight “freaked him out,” but he cautiously moved toward the skeleton thinking, “No way is this a human.” Once he was within two or three yards of it and had an unobstructed view, he identified jeans on one of the legs and a shoe on the foot below. He stayed put, not wanting to leave his footprints near the corpse. When he stood on his tip-toes to look at the skeleton’s upper body, he saw the skull.
“It took a few minutes to come to grips with what I was looking at,” Gibson said. “Then it hit me that I should photograph everything as I found it and call the police. I sent the photos too. When I called my wife, she told me to come home right now, but I didn’t want to do that. I was thinking I’d just started my hunt, but now it’s over and I’m supposed to go home? I hadn’t even fired a shot. But I also realized I was now dealing with a human corpse and not rabbits. All I could do was walk back to my truck, put my gun away, and wait for the cops.”
Consciously or not, Gibson had followed crime-scene protocols, which urge people to look and photograph, but not touch. Shoes, jewelry, tattered clothing, and the corpse offer vital clues, so he stayed back and took photos. Gibson said he has seldom viewed those photos since that day, but doubts he’ll ever unsee what he photographed.
“I was shook up that day, but it felt a lot more traumatic after I learned who it was, realized I knew his son, and put a face with what I found,” he said. “Before that, I felt bad for the person and hoped they’d identify him, but I live in the area so I knew people die in the desert all the time while hiking.”
Gibson last visited the death site with Jon and Heather Escalante in September 2020 when they asked him to take them there. “I’d been there once before by myself,” he said. “I circled the site where I thought he died. I thought about how he died alone out there, and there’s nothing to memorialize the site. Since then, I’ll sometimes go a while without thinking about it, but then something reminds me about it. Like when I listen to MeatEater’s ‘Campfire Stories,’ it all comes back to me.”
He also recalled that Jon and Heather Escalante handled that visit calmly. “They took it in stride,” Gibson said. “They knew Jon’s dad had some problems and did drugs, but they just want to know what happened to him. I think investigators wrote it off as just another drug addict walking off into the desert and dying, but the family doesn’t believe it’s that simple.”
Heather Escalante, for instance, is convinced someone knows exactly how her father-in-law died, and she doesn’t think it was heat exposure.
“I wish I could blame James or the desert for his death,” she said. “I could stomach that. We loved him. We can hate some choices he made, but we don’t hate him for making them. I just can’t come up with a scenario that explains him wandering off at 8:30 in the morning, heading nowhere that makes sense, and somehow dying naturally. He spent his entire life in the desert, so that’s hard to believe.
“Unfortunately, he hung around people who didn’t even report him missing after claiming they talked to him that morning,” she continued. “That’s harder to understand. And when we flew out there to meet these so-called friends, they talked about him in the past-tense three months before his body was identified. We might never know how he died, but we know he was a good man who always ran to protect those he loved.”
The San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department didn’t return MeatEater’s requests for comment or updates.
“Since that day (Aug. 8, 2020), I’ve only had one unsuccessful rabbit hunt out there, and I shoot more jackrabbits than cottontails,” Gibson said. “The hunting is good, and my wife and I eat the jackrabbits, not just the cottontails. Jackrabbits taste fine. They’re OK. We also don’t buy that advice that you should only eat rabbits killed during months ending in ‘R.’ That’s a myth. I bring a cooler of ice when I hunt rabbits. I know how to take care of them.”
Although Gibson continues to hunt the BLM desert east of Twentynine Palms, he no longer goes near the death scene. “I’ll hunt west, north, or south toward the (national) park, but I usually go southwest from where I park on Shelton Road—not east.”