In July the British tabloid News of the World reported that Fossett might have staged his disappearance to get out of financial trouble. Sourced to Robert Davis, identified as a risk assessment specialist for Lloyd’s of London, the company reportedly responsible for Fossett’s $44 million life insurance policy, and Lt. Col. Cynthia Ryan, a spokesperson for the Nevada Civil Air Patrol, the article suggested that the aviator absconded into the waiting arms of his alleged mistresses. "I’ve been doing this search and rescue for 14 years," Ryan reportedly said. "Fossett should have been found." It didn’t seem to matter that Lloyd’s denies ever knowingly employing Davis, who in turn claims that he was ambushed by a "Taliban tabloid reporter." Or that Ryan says she was severely misquoted. Or that an attorney for Fossett’s wife asserted that his estate "is large and debt free." In the echo chamber created by Fossett’s disappearance, the salacious allegations were splashed worldwide.
The irony is that while speculation grows wilder, the on-the-ground hunt for the crash site has never been more focused. Last year teams confronted a 20,000-square-mile search area; this year three new privately mounted campaigns have narrowed the area to less than a hundred square miles west of Hawthorne, Nevada. Last year searchers required planes and 4x4s to canvass the enormity; this year the crews consist primarily of hikers examining narrow canyons and tree-cloaked slopes that could never be adequately scoped from a road or the sky. In mid-July a group of six endurance athletes led by Canadian adventure racer Simon Donato explored the mountains near Bridgeport, California. Unfortunately, a week of blister-producing labor returned only litter, venomous creatures, the door of a snowcat, and Keep your chins up, lads! dispatches for the team website. In late August Robert Hyman, an Explorers Club member from Washington, D.C., and a team of 28 mountaineers and pilots searched the Wassuk Range west of Hawthorne. But they too struck out, locating, according to a press release, just a "piece of unusual cloth . . . about the size of a quarter."
The most intriguing quest, however, is being mounted by the humblest team—Mike Larson, a land surveyor for the Bureau of Reclamation, and Kelly Stephenson, who works for a John Deere distributor. They aren’t parachuting in from afar but are Carson City locals, familiar with Nevada’s convoluted desert terrain. Patient and methodical, they have conducted weekend searches since January, plumbing small swaths of wilderness on foot. They’ve done their homework. "We have compiled and evaluated technical and geospatial data, electronic and conventional mapping, personal testimony, and eyewitness accounts," Larson says. "The information was obtained from the Fossett/Hilton private search team, the Civil Air Patrol, eyewitnesses, and the National Transportation Safety Board." The result is a persuasive theory about where Fossett might have crashed.