ST. GEORGE, Utah — Twelve days of searching for a woman in one of America’s most treacherous and beloved frontiers ended in a rescue.
Holly Courtier, a 38-year-old California mom, was found Oct. 18 in Zion National Park visibly famished, pounds lighter and dehydrated. She had a concussion, kidney failure, and foot injuries due to the cold, according to her family.
What was supposed to be a brief spiritual pilgrimage turned instead into a fight for her life.
Upon her discovery, she left the park with her family and sought medical care.
And then the online frenzy began.
What started as a widespread plea for tips and support to find Courtier became an international sensation filled with vitriol and conspiracy theories about her disappearance.
Family members say they have since received exponential amounts of hate mail and comments, forcing them to shut down their social media and get new phone numbers.
Hundreds of comments on Facebook posts by the family say things like “hoax,” “scammer,” or “crazy”. Online observers created private groups to hypothesize about the case. Some postulated that an online fundraiser was actually a fraud.
A Sheriff’s sergeant was quoted in a television interview suggesting that Courtier’s story didn’t add up. His comments spread all over the country, stirring the controversy further, creating more hate toward the family, they say.
Jaime Courtier Strong, Holly’s sister, spoke with The Spectrum, part of the USA TODAY network, about what happened and how the online frenzy has affected them.
“There are not holes in the story, there are no discrepancies. It just got blown very out of proportion,” she said.
Let’s start at the beginning.
‘She was seeking a total disconnect from everything’
In September, Holly Courtier and her daughter Kailey Chambers visited Zion together to hike.
Courtier had lost her nannying job due to the pandemic earlier this year, and was traveling the country in a converted van.
Jillian Oliver, Courtier’s younger sister, told the Los Angeles Times that Courtier is a “free spirit” who was prone to spontaneity and regularly fasted.
After having dinner together a few days before Courtier left for Zion, Oliver told the Times, “She gave me a big hug and said, ‘I love you so much.’ She seemed a little choked up. Like she wasn’t going to see us for maybe a few weeks or something.”
Courtier spent a few weeks at her California home but then departed in the middle of the night in early October, leaving for Utah. She left her phone behind and did not tell anyone where she was going.
“She definitely was having a mental breakdown,” Strong said. “She told us later she was seeking a total disconnect from everything. She really just wanted to be alone. She had no idea it would turn into anything it would turn into or the worry she would cause or what it would become.”
Courtier arrived at Zion National Park on Oct. 6, parked her car in Springdale, and took a private shuttle to the Grotto area at 1:30 p.m.
That was the last time anyone saw Courtier for nearly two weeks.
She only had a hat, jacket, tank top, hiking boots, backpack, sweatshirt, blanket and hammock with her.
Oliver told the Times Courtier’s roommate reported her missing and authorities triangulated Courtier was in Zion because she used her credit card to pay the entry fee.
Strong said Courtier had already begun a food fast to kick off her spiritual journey where she just wanted to “connect with nature and read her Bible.”
Courtier told her sister that she took a big hike that first day, weakening her early in her trip.
After setting up her hammock in a vegetated area, Courtier went to sit on it and swung back, hitting her head hard on a tree, Strong said.
Disoriented, Courtier stayed by the Virgin River for days where she would scoop up the water to wet her mouth, swish it around, and spit it out, Strong said.
Courtier told Strong that she knew about the toxic cyanobacteria in the water from signs in the park and didn’t want to drink it, but that she just needed to keep her mouth wet.
Oliver told the Times she thought maybe because Courtier fasted often, she could survive without food and water for a while.
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Strong had established a GoFundMe fundraiser to “cover the costs of her search and possible aftercare when she is found.”
While Courtier was still missing, the fundraiser garnered $12,010.
Strong said she established the GoFundMe because friends and family kept asking how they could help and “things were getting expensive.”
“I figured it was the most public way for everyone to see where the money was going. The donations were mostly personal friends and family,” Strong said.
The family organized its own independent search party filled with dozens of local volunteers and made a website.
Courtier’s 19-year-old daughter became the spokesperson for the search efforts, leaving school and home to look for her mother.
“In simple words, it’s been absolutely surreal. I never in a million years thought I’d have to experience something like this,” Chambers said. “It’s been a very emotional experience.”
At a press conference on Oct.13, Deputy Chief Ranger Andrew Fitzgerald said that due to the mild weather, the chance of survivability was increased. They knew she had supplies with her and were hoping she found a source of water.
Meanwhile, Courtier kept track of the days passing by marking a tree with a Sharpie.
During the search, Courtier saw another person but later said she could not yell for help because she was so dehydrated, Strong said.
Eventually, someone saw her.
A tip was called into the search and rescue teams who were quickly deployed.
A press release of Coutier’s rescue said she was able to “leave of her own capability with minimal assistance.” Strong told NBC’s Today Show that Courtier was in bad shape.
Strong told Today that in reality, Courtier had to stop every five feet to rest as she came out of where she had been staying and had a ranger standing behind her in case she fell.
“She was very scared and traumatized… We drove her straight to the emergency room,” Strong told Today.
Courtier was later diagnosed with a concussion and was treated for foot injuries due to the cold, as well as famine and dehydration, Strong said. Courtier then checked herself into a mental wellness center in California.
“She’s getting better every day,” Strong said.
Conspiracy theories about the rescue
When Washington County Sheriff’s Sgt. Darrell Cashin spoke to ABC 4 the day after her rescue, he commented on the case and at one point speculated about whether Courtier drank the toxic water from the Virgin River for 12 days, saying the water would likely have killed her.
The harmful algae has plagued the Virgin River in Zion since at least July when park officials discovered it after a dog died after playing in the water.
“If she had been drinking that water, unless she had some really high immune system, she would’ve been very, very ill and probably unable to come out on her own,” Cashin told ABC 4. “She either took a lot of water with her or had another clean water source that was near here, but the Virgin River is not that source.”
However, a sheriff’s office public information officer said on Monday that Cashin’s earlier statements to other media organizations were just as an “expert witness” and not in an official investigating capacity. The official said Cashin was drawing on his years of experience in the area to comment on the case, not to draw definitive conclusions.
“Cashin spoke to an observation that there are inconsistencies,” they said. “Our job is to be objective. We’re fact-finders.”
A Sheriff’s Office press release sent out on Monday said the Office stands behind the observations and statements made by Cashin.
The Sheriff’s Office was only involved by Zion National Park to review the case and make sure the park was thorough. They were only consultants, not investigators, according to the release.
“It was our finding that the investigative methods were consistent with Sheriff’s Office investigative practices and no further action was recommended,” according to the release.
But Courtier’s family members say the comments were damaging.
They have been forced to deactivate or severely restrict their social media accounts, get new phone numbers and enact other privacy measures.
A post on Chambers’s Facebook page asking for help early in the case had nearly 300 comments as of Monday. While some were supportive, others question Courtier’s story. Some say the money raised on GoFundMe should be refunded. Some call Courtier and her family members scammers or lob other insults.
There was a private Facebook group where people could speculate about what “really” happened.
“The Sherrif’s sergeant has made it 10 times worse for [Kailey],” Strong said. “I’ve never even seen him or met him. This is someone who looked at some paperwork…He wasn’t there. I think it might be easy to look at a few things on paper and make conclusions. He’s taken something and blown it out of proportion.”
Strong said the family delayed releasing some details purely because they were trying to put their lives back together before they let the public in.
“I think we just took our time to answer the questions because we were much more focused on getting her better,” Strong said. “We never said she drank the water. He made it look like there’s a hole in the story and there wasn’t.”
The problem some critics of Courtier’s story take with the case is the GoFundMe fundraiser.
In the few days it was online, it raised $12,010 for Courtier’s recovery.
Strong said she wanted to set up the fundraiser for friends and family to donate. But as Courtier’s story started to receive regional and national media attention, the GoFundMe grew.
“Holly has suffered from mental health issues in the past and went on her hike not in the best frame of mind,” Strong said on the GoFundMe page on Friday. “She did not intend to become injured or so weak on her journey. Nor, did she intend for her trip to become a search and rescue effort. If Holly was not found when she was, she would have died.”
Strong said the funds garnered would be used to reimburse the family and friend’s costs for the search including hotel rooms, equipment, car rentals and food for the search party. The rest of the money was intended to help with Courtier’s medical care.
But given the mass public backlash after Cashin’s comments and other conspiracies, Strong said she wanted to be “honest.”
“We acknowledge and respect people’s concerns over the many inaccuracies portrayed by the press and social media regarding Holly’s ordeal. Whoever has concerns about our use of their donation is welcome to request a refund without any objection from the family,” Strong wrote on the GoFundMe on Friday.
“We are honest people. We’re not holding your money hostage,” she said to the Spectrum.
As of Monday, only $50 had been requested to be refunded.
In Monday’s news release, the Sheriff’s Office said, “Numerous tips have been received indicating the incident was possibly conceived and carried out as part of a plan to fraudulently generate money to a GoFundMe account for Courtier’s recovery.”
However, the release also said, “At this point in the investigation, there has been no evidence to support the theory that the incident was committed intentionally as an effort to achieve financial gain.”
In the future of this case, the only role the Sheriff’s Office could hold is to conduct a criminal investigation, if there is a need for one. The National Park Service cannot have jurisdiction over a legal case in Utah as they are a federal organization.
Investigative report coming soon
Zion National Park is currently finishing up an investigative report on Courtier’s case and officials say they plan to release it to the public as soon as it is complete.
Details of the case, including how much taxpayer money the search cost, how many staff and volunteers searched for her, her discovery and other conclusions will be included in the report.
“I’m just glad we found her and reunited with our family,” Zion spokesperson Amanda Rolland said.
The family, Zion National Park and other partners in the search and rescue of Courtier said they are extremely grateful to the rangers and volunteers for finding her.
Follow K. Sophie Will on Twitter at @ksophiewill.
This article originally appeared on St. George Spectrum & Daily News: Holly Courtier’s rescue in Zion National Park led to rumors, theories