Authorities say it appears the human remains found in Mesa Verde National Park do indeed belong to a Texas man who vanished without a trace in 2013 while visiting the park.
Montezuma County Coroner George Deavers said he is “99%” sure the remains are that of Mitchell Dale Stehling because of items found at the scene: a driver’s license, credit cards and a Social Security card that had Stehling’s information on it.
Deavers said he is going to meet with a forensic anthropologist in coming days to examine the remains, looking for any signs of trauma or any clues that can explain the circumstances surrounding Stehling’s mysterious death.
At this point, foul play is not suspected, Deavers said, and it does not appear he was attacked by an animal.
Because all that remains are bones, Deavers said it is likely impossible to determine a cause of death, unless Stehling had obvious signs of trauma, which he does not.
“Just from what I saw, (I’d say) natural causes,” he said. “But we’ll look everything over.”
It’s unclear if a DNA test is possible. To take DNA from a bone sample, the bone must have retained some moisture. Many of the bones found at the scene were bleached, but it’s possible there is still some moisture in them.
If a DNA test is possible, Deavers said it would take about a year to get results back.
Deavers said Stehling’s remains were found by a hiker in an area that is closed to the public. His remains were found at the bottom of a canyon, and it is believed that is where he died.
A call to Mesa Verde National Park Superintendent Cliff Spencer was not returned Friday.
In a prepared statement, park spokeswoman Cristy Brown said the remains were found about 4.2 miles from the point where Stehling was last seen.
“Our thoughts are with the family, and we appreciate the help and support over the past seven years from park staff, community search and rescue and law enforcement groups, and the public in this case,” she said.
In an email to The Durango Herald, Brown said the exact location will not be revealed.
“Due to the fact that the remains were found in a closed area, by someone hiking off trail in a closed area, and because of the cultural sensitivity of the park and its resources, and to prevent others from also hiking off trail, causing resource damage, and potentially turning into additional search and rescue cases, the park will not be releasing the exact location name,” she wrote.
Spencer, speaking to the Herald on Thursday, said an anonymous tip came in Wednesday that indicated the remains of Stehling were in a remote section in the park, west of Durango.
Search and rescue crews found the remains later that afternoon. Spencer indicated that the area had been searched when Stehling first went missing in June 2013.
Calls to the Stehling family were not returned this week.
The finding of Stehling’s remains puts an end to a more than seven-year mystery that included searches for clues as recently as November 2019.
Stehling went missing on June 9 2013, while visiting the park. According to past reports, Stehling and his family, from Goliad, Texas, were on an extended road trip visiting national parks throughout the West.
About 4:30 p.m., Stehling decided to hike alone to the Spruce Tree House, one of Mesa Verde’s most popular ancient cliff dwellings, about a quarter-mile hike. When Stehling did not return after about two hours, his wife alerted the park, kicking off what would become a massive search.
It was determined Stehling had taken the Petroglyph Point Trail, a longer path that connects to the Spruce Tree House trail and has some more difficult hiking terrain. Stehling was reportedly seen by a group at the petroglyph panel. He then left and was never seen again.
A search began that night and grew in the following days to include up to 70 people, search dogs and helicopters. Searches continued over the years – most recently in November – but no trace of Stehling turned up.
Spencer said the family has been notified of the situation.