Pinal County Sheriff's Office Criticized Over Handling of Search for Missing Superstition Mountain Hiker
It's a heartbreaking question that 5-year-old Alexa has been asking her mom, Tonya Hensley.
It's been nearly two weeks since members of the Superstition Search and Rescue (SSAR) traced Chris Hensley's steps into the Superstition Mountains and located his remains in an area known as No Name Canyon.
"He's in Heaven watching over you," Hensley says, trying to explain their father's absence to Alexa and 7-year-old Alyssa.
The search-and-rescue team that discovered Hensley's body worked alongside the Pinal County Sheriff's Office for more than two decades. But after Sheriff Paul Babeu was elected in 2009, he snubbed the all-volunteer team and started his own crew.
Although the PCSO and other search volunteers scoured the desert and mountains for more than 800 collective hours, SSAR members found the body about two hours after they joined the search early Friday.
It's a source of frustration for Tonya Hensley, one that prompted her to share her story even as PCSO officials maintain they conducted a tireless and selfless search.
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Tonya Hensley says she is grateful to all those who searched for her husband and risked their own safety in doing so. But she says PCSO officials managing the search left her feeling embittered because they didn't listen to her when she told them where or how high up the mountain they should search.
She believes that if they had, Chris would have been found much sooner and it would have shortened the days of agony the family experienced not knowing what happened to him.
Her youngest daughter still wants to save a place at the dining room table for her father.
When they get older, she will tell them that he fell about 200 feet off the flat face of a massive rock, that he slammed against at least two rock ledges before landing on the ground. She'll tell them that death investigators say that his broken ribs punctured his left lung. She'll tell him that he died unattended in the wilderness, laying on his back and laying partly under bushes.
It was supposed to be a quick hike before heading home and having dinner and ice cream with the family. And, they had a full calendar the following day. The couple had stopped at Glendale Community College earlier in the day and both planned on signing up for classes. They were also planning a move from Mesa to Glendale.
Chris had just returned the day before from Indiana, where he had visited his mother for about a month. A born daredevil who loved rollerblading, extreme sports, and spending time outside, he was itching to venture into the wilderness. He planned to make it to the top of Flatiron Peak.
He'd done it once before his trip to Indiana and, Tonya recalls, it was an exhilarating experience for him.
At about 5:30 p.m. on April 15, he reached Shiprock Street and Geronimo Road, an intersection of rural roads just half a mile from the base of the mountain. He snapped a photo of the street signs, texted it to his wife and then called her.
They spoke for seven minutes -- the last conversation they'd ever have.
Hensley tells New Times that her breathless husband chuckled on the phone, telling her that he was out of shape. Chris explained that he'd cut through the yards of homes close to the mountain, borrowed a water hose to wet himself down and refill his bottle of water.
"He told me that if he was too tired to walk back home, he wanted me to pick him up at this intersection," she says. "He told me he could see the base of the mountain from where he was."
She and her daughters waited for a call, but it never came.
She texted him and asked him if he was okay. When he didn't reply, she sent another message, telling him that she was getting worried. Still no reply.
She loaded up the girls in her car and drove to the intersection where she hoped he would be waiting. Nothing. She drove around for two hours, up and down private roads. Nothing.
Her children grew restless, so she drove back to her mother's house and dropped them off. She returned to the intersection and waited in her car. It was dark, so she kept her foot on the break so Chris could see the red lights and know that she was waiting.
When her desperation and fear peaked, she drove to a nearby police station. The building was closed. She pounded on the doors and honked her car horn, but no one responded. She looked on her GPS and found the next closest station about 20 minutes away. She got there and it, too, was shuttered for the night.
She called her mom and asked her to find a phone number for a law enforcement agency. Tonya ended up on the line with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office dispatcher.
"Is this an emergency?" the dispatcher asked.
"Yes, it is. My husband is missing," Tonya says she told her. "He went hiking and he hasn't come home."