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Sheriff’s deputies investigate whether woman ‘staged’ 12-day disappearance in Zion National Park

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The 38-year-old Los Angeles woman who went missing for 10 days while hiking in Zion National Park is being investigated for allegedly staging the ordeal as part of an elaborate plan to raise money on GoFundMe.

The Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Utah cautioned that as of Monday investigators did not have evidence to support the allegation that Holly Suzanne Courtier, 38, sought to defraud the public.

The GoFundMe crowdfunding effort launched by Courtier’s sister raised nearly $12,000 before it was deactivated.

Jaime Strong, Courtier’s sister, said the money raised on GoFundMe will be used to reimburse hotel and car rental expenses incurred by family and friends who joined in the search. Some of the money will also be used toward Holly’s medical care.

But authorities in Utah decided to launch the investigation after determining that Courtier’s story contained ‘discrepancies and questions that do not add up.’

The sheriff’s office also said it has received ‘numerous tips’ that indicated ‘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.’

‘Despite the thorough investigation conducted by the National Park Service, Utah State Code does not grant them the authority to investigate violations of Utah law,’ a sheriff’s department press release reads.’Based on our local authority and jurisdiction, the Sheriff’s Office had an obligation to the public to investigate the criminal allegations which were being presented.’

However, it also stated, ‘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.’ 

Holly Courtier (shown left with her 19-year-old daughter Kailey Chambers) was found on October 18 after she was previously seen 12 days earlier in Zion National Park. Utah investigators are looking into whether her disappearance was staged

Courtier had gone for a solo hike without a phone in Zion National Park on October 6. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office said this week that so far no evidence has surfaced indicating that Courtier intended to defraud the public

Holly’s family raised more than $12,000 of their $15,000 goal. They say she needs medical care but the sheriff said she had no serious injuries when she was found on October 18

The sheriff’s office also said it has received ‘numerous tips’ that indicated ‘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’

On October 6, Courtier was dropped off by a private shuttle bus at Grotto Picnic Area and did not return.

Courtier was found by park rangers on October 18 after receiving a tip from another hiker, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.

In the expansive search for Courtier, K-9 Units were deployed as were drones and search and rescue teams.

Courtier was located by park rangers about half a mile from where she was last seen in the Grotto parking area.

Sergeant Darrell Cashin of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office told KTVX-TV that search and rescue teams ‘went above and beyond’ in locating Courtier.

‘They even had GPS tracks of every trail, every part of the backcountry, and every valley they searched,’ Cashin says.

‘They had everything about Holly they possibly could’ve gotten to give an indication of what her behavior was like and where she might have gone.’

‘Understand, there’s a lot of country up there.

‘If you go off-trail, it will be virtually impossible to find somebody unless they want to be found.’

‘If she’s by the Virgin River, she’s down in the valley, not in the backcountry up in the plateaus and the peaks.

‘She’s in that main part of the canyon, which always has thousands of people walking up and down those trails.

‘I’m sure people walked by yelling for her.’

Cashin said he began to have doubts about Courtier’s story after reading an interview given to CNN by the woman’s 19-year-old daughter, Kailey Chambers.

Jaime Courtier Strong (left) said her sister Holly Courtier (right) intended to go completely off grid. The 38-year-old left behind her cell phone and did not tell any of her family members of where she was heading

‘She injured her head on a tree,’ Chambers told CNN.

‘She was very disoriented as a result and thankfully ended up near a water source – a river bed.

‘She thought her best chance of survival was to stay next to a water source.’

Chambers told CNN her mother was without food while she went missing.

‘She was too weak and disoriented (to seek help),’ she said.

‘She was unable to take more than a step or two without collapsing.

‘This prevented her from being able to seek out help. She told me she was so dehydrated she couldn’t open her mouth.’

In Cashin’s mind, however, those claims raised red flags.

The only major source of water in Zion National Park is the Virgin River, which is known to be toxic due to the many species of parasites that are present there.

In July, park officials warned visitors to avoid all contact with the river due to high concentrations of cyanobacteria that resulted from a toxic algal bloom.

Sgt. Darrell Cashin said parts of Holly Courtier’s survival story ‘don’t add up’ 

Cashin said that Courtier would have likely died if she drank river water for 12 days.

‘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 says.

‘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.’

Without any water, Courtier likely would have died within two to three days.

Cashin also cast doubt on the family’s claims that Courtier hit her head.

‘If we had found somebody in that condition with that kind of severe head injury, we would have at minimum called for a transport agency to check her out,’ Cashin said.

‘The fact that that didn’t happen tells me that they did not find any significant injury to her that would’ve prompted them to do that.’

Cashin added: ‘Physically, she seemed to be in a condition that did not warrant an ambulance and they felt was comfortable to release her to her family to address.’

According to Zion National Park officials, Courtier was able to walk out of the park on her own power with minimal assistance.

According to Courtier’s family, the 38-year-old mother of one was found in the park on October 18 disheveled, pounds lighter, with a concussion, kidney failure, foot injuries and suffering from severe dehydration.

What Courtier had intended to be a solo spiritual pilgrimage in the Utah wilderness quickly turned into a fight for her life, her sister Jaime Courtier Strong said.

Just under two weeks earlier, Courtier had left her Los Angeles home in the middle of the night and departed for Utah in her car.

Strong said Courtier intended to go completely off grid.

Courtier, who lost her job as a nanny due to the COVID-19 pandemic, left behind her cell phone and did not tell any of her family members of where she was heading.

‘She definitely was having a mental breakdown,’ Strong told The Spectrum.

‘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 has since checked herself into a mental wellness center in California to be treated for mental illness, where she remains.

Strong said she set up the GoFundMe to ‘cover the costs of her search and possible aftercare when she is found.’

Donations continued to roll in while she was still missing and soon amassed more than $12,000.

Holly, seen above in social media photos, was described by her family as an experienced hiker. She set off without her phone and had no food with her. The sheriff’s sergeant now says there are questions about why she went to the park. She left California on the middle of the night and didn’t tell anyone where she was going 

There was a lengthy search and rescue effort to find Holly. Authorities searched the park with dogs and advanced technology as well as releasing information to the public that may help her be found 

‘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 told Spectrum.

The family then organized its own independent search party, with the help of dozens of volunteers, and also made a website.

Chambers became the spokesperson of the search efforts, leaving school and her California home to find her mother.

‘In simple words, it’s been absolutely so real. I never in a million years thought I’d have to experience something like this,’ Chambers said. ‘It’s been a very emotional experience.’

During an October 13 press conference, with Courtier having been missing for a week, Deputy Chief Ranger Andrew Fitzgerald offered a glimmer of hope to Courtier’s family, telling them mild weather conditions had increased the chances she was still alive.

While swaths of volunteers continued to scour the park, Courtier kept track of the passing days by marking a tree with a black Sharpie pen.

Strong said that during the search, Courtier had spotted another person in the distance but later said she couldn’t yell for help because she was so dehydrated.

Courtier was eventually spotted by a mother and son on a hike, around half a mile away from where she had started on her solo trek.

They spotted the hammock it was known Courtier had with her and placed a call into search and rescue.

A press release of Courtier’s rescue said she was able to ‘leave of her own capability with minimal assistance.’

Strong, however, says the statement is inaccurate and that Courtier was actually in a bad way when she was found.

‘It’s just so blown out of proportion,’ Strong said to Today.

‘When you think you’re going to die and you see a ranger, she said she literally got like giddy inside because she knew she was going to see her daughter and her family, so you definitely have some adrenaline working for you at that point.’

She said her sister had to stop every five feet to rest as she made her way out of the park, with a ranger standing behind her to catch her in case she fell.

‘She was very scared and traumatized, and she wanted to leave the park in my car with me and my husband and her daughter, and we drove her straight to the emergency room, so things have just been twisted.’

Courtier was later diagnosed with a concussion and was treated for foot injuries caused by the cold, as well as famine and dehydration, according to strong.

The 38-year-old has since checked herself into a mental wellness center in California to be treated for mental illness, where she remains.

‘She’s getting better every day,’ Strong told Spectrum.

Courtier’s family members said Cashin’s comments were damaging, as they claim she never drank the water.

They say they’ve been forced to deactivate their social media accounts and change their numbers after becoming inundated with hate mail and comments claiming the entire ordeal was a ‘hoax’ and a ‘scam’.

‘The Sheriff’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 and looked at things on paper. 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 and the attention has gone to him. The focus should actually be on the rangers and search and rescue team.’

Strong told Spectrum 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.’

But a press release issued by the Sheriff’s Office on Monday said that it stands behind the comments and observations made by Cashin.

‘It was our finding that the investigative methods were consistent with Sheriff’s Office investigative practices and no further action was recommended.’

Courtier’s family said she suffered a ‘mental breakdown’ and remains in a wellness clinic

Holly Courtier, pictured, is said to have lost 15 pounds while she was missing

Her daughter Kailey pictured as she joined the search for her mother in Utah

The extensive search for Courtier was led by the National Parks Service

Much of backlash against Courtier and her family has indeed been centered around the GoFundMe page.

Strong said she wanted to set up the fundraiser for friends and family to donate. But as Courtier’s story gained national notoriety, the GoFundMe grew. 

Strong is now offering refunds to anyone who has concerns over her sisters’ story. So far, only $50 has been requested to be refunded.

A GoFundMe spokesperson confirmed that the company’s Trust & Safety team is reviewing the fundraiser and has reached out to the organizer for more information.

They noted that the platform is protected by a guarantee that means donor funds are fulling protected and eligible for a full refund if GoFundMe, law enforcement or a user finds funds are misused.

Zion National Park is also finishing up its own investigative report on Courtier’s case, with officials saying they will be releasing it to the public as soon as possible. 

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