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Hunting Accident File > Safe Hunting?: > 2006

Lightning strike kills hunter

Katharhynn Heidelberg

Daily Press News Editor

NUCLA — Missing Washington hiker Robert Heichel was found dead in a scrub-oak filled canyon area north of Nucla Wednesday afternoon, bringing an end to a search begun Sunday by the Montrose County Sheriff’s Posse and authorities.

Heichel, 40, apparently died of natural causes after being hit by lightning, possibly on Sept. 7, the day he was thought to have gone missing. He was found in the Burro Creek area, approximately 1 mile north and east of his camp, Montrose County Lt. Shawn Cline reported to Montrose County Undersheriff Dick Deines.

“We wish it would have turned out some other way, that he could have been found prior to now and alive,” Deines said Wednesday afternoon just after receiving the news from Cline.

“He was killed instantly,” said Montrose County Coroner Mark Young, who is also a posse member and helicopter pilot. “He was sitting under a big cedar tree. Lightning hit it and it caught on fire. He never knew what hit him.”

A cadaver dog from Moab, Utah, made the grim discovery at 2:40 p.m. Wednesday. The dog and its handler, Nancy May, had been brought in Wednesday morning, Young said.

Shortly after the discovery, a family member ran out of the woods before collapsing against a tailgate with the words, “He’s gone!”

The death was a blow to family members and additional rescue teams who had arrived from Washington State to search for Heichel.

“It was a pretty sad situation for the family, that’s for sure,” said DeeAnna Burbridge, who was visited by Heichel upon his arrival in the area Sept. 6. Heichel was camping above her property and had first met her last year. He had called her a few weeks ago to let her know he’d be returning.

“He thought about coming to this place every day. He was one of those warrior hunters at heart. If every man was like him, there would be no wars.”

She said she saw him again last week, when he stopped by her house.

“Sometimes that’s really typical of hunters when they come in by themselves,” she said Wednesday morning, before Heichel was found. “They want to make sure somebody knows where they are.”

When another hunter in the area stopped by Burbridge’s Saturday, she asked him to go introduce himself to Heichel. The man returned to tell her no one was about the camp, which hadn’t been disturbed, despite heavy rainfall Sept. 7 and 8.

“There should have been tracks, but there weren’t,” Burbridge said. “I called Bob’s wife to let her know he’d been out overnight and asked if it was unusual. She said it wasn’t.”

Burbridge then sent a note to Heichel’s camp with the other hunter, asking Heichel to stop by her home no matter how late it was.

“He didn’t show up early Sunday morning. I went to check and he wasn’t there, so I came back and called his family.”

The posse began searching Sunday. Also involved were Cline, MCSO Lt. George Jackson and Sgt. Joe Scott, an expert tracker. Sheriff Warren Waterman was at the scene Wednesday, with 48 searchers from several agencies.

Other search and rescue agencies from San Miguel County, Mesa County, Delta County and Grand County, Utah assisted, as did several members of Heichel’s family and rescuers from his hometown of Stanwood, Wa. On Tuesday, a second pilot, Devon Felix of Olathe Spray Service joined the hunt. A tracking dog and its handler had been on scene since Tuesday, Young reported, but the heavy rains hampered the canine’s efforts so May’s cadaver dog was brought in.

The last contact with Heichel had come in the form of a phone call home Sept. 6. Because no cellular signal was available in his camping area off of Road U, it was thought Heichel had driven somewhere closer to Nucla where he could pick up a signal. There were no confirmed sightings prior to the discovery of his body Wednesday.

Searchers found Heichel's camp intact, including his weapons and most of his gear. They later found his all-terrain vehicle a half-mile from the camp; by air, the distance was put at a quarter mile, Young said.

The terrain had hampered the search and Heichel was wearing camouflage, Deines said. Young said the tree under which Heichel was lying was overgrown with brush. “It was pretty much impossible to see him by air. Even after the dog pointed him out and we were 50 feet away with the helicopter, we still had a hard time seeing him.”

Young had not determined the date of death as of Thursday morning, but said it was likely Sept. 7 or 8.

Burbridge conveyed thanks from Heichel’s father, Jerry. “He wanted to thank everyone who stayed,” she said. “It means to much to them to hear they wouldn’t leave until they heard he was found. They (searchers) were phenomenal. They kept going and going like Energizer bunnies. They just didn’t give up.”

She additionally praised the searchers from Stanwood, who’d driven straight from Washington Tuesday night. “All of them were just like brothers to Bob. There were other people that were on their way here today.”

Heichel’s body was being transported to Montrose Wednesday evening.

“He was an incredible person,” Burbridge said. “I don’t even really remember his face, but I remember his voice and I remember his presence.”

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