NPS Downscales Search for Missing Kentucky Woman

Ken Kreis, seated, and Scott Guenther show a map of the search area. (Source photo by Amy Roberts)
Ken Kreis, seated, and Scott Guenther show a map of the search area. (Source photo by Amy Roberts)
National Park Service technical climbers search Ram Head. (NPS photo)
National Park Service technical climbers search Ram Head. (NPS photo)

The National Park Service announced Wednesday it was downscaling its search for a Kentucky woman who has been missing on St. John for two weeks from a wide search to a limited, continuous response, according to Nigel Fields, superintendent of the Virgin Islands National Park.

At a news conference Wednesday, NPS officials estimated search teams and volunteers have put in more than 2,000 hours looking for Lucy Schuhmann, a 48-year Kentucky woman who last seen on St. John on Sept. 18.

Schuhmann was reported missing after she failed to check out of her vacation rental in Coral Bay or return her rented Jeep on Sept. 19. Local law enforcement and search and rescue agencies immediately began searching. They found her Jeep parked at the entrance to the trail to Salt Pond Bay and later found her backpack at the top of the connecting trail to Ram Head, a steep headland in a remote part of the Virgin Islands National Park.

Superintendent Fields met with local and off-island Park Service employees Wednesday to thank them for their extraordinary efforts.

“We feel like we’re part of a family, from all corners of the country, that looks out for each other,” he said.

Nearly a dozen federal employees with technical expertise in search and rescue arrived on St. John on Sept. 26 to assist the Coast Guard, the Virgin Islands Police Department, St. John Rescue, local Virgin Islands National Park personnel, and volunteers.

Their arrival was delayed by the onset of Tropical Storm Karen, which caused airports and marine facilities to shut down from the previous Monday, Sept. 23, evening through Wednesday, Sept. 25, morning. VINP rangers continued to look for Schuhmann even throughout the duration of the storm, which turned out to be relatively mild on St. John.

Technical climber searches Ram Head. (NPS photo)
Technical climber searches Ram Head. (NPS photo)

Five National Park Service climbing rangers from parks around the country, including the Grand Tetons National Park, Great Smokies National Park, Shenandoah National Park, and Obed Wild and Scenic River participated in the search. They used ropes to descend into the steep crevices from the top of Ram Head (where Schuhmann’s pack was found) and scrambled around the rocky shoreline. They encountered extreme heat, sharp rocks, stinging wasps, and pricking cactus, said Ryan Williamson, one of the technical climbers, but no serious injuries were reported.

Two teams of officers with search dogs – one based on St. Croix with the Virgin Islands Police Department, and one based on Puerto Rico with the Park Service – aided in the search. The dog from Puerto Rico was trained in detecting human remains, his officer said.

The U.S. Geological Service sent over a team of three individuals to search for Schuhmann using drones. This was an unusual detail; the Louisiana-based team usually uses drones for mapping purposes.

Divers and snorkelers from the VINP, St. John Rescue, and the wider community combed the shorelines around St. John and searched intensively in the waters surrounding Ram Head.

Two investigators – essentially detectives from the National Park Service – coordinated with local law enforcement agencies to investigate whether foul play was involved.

“At this point we don’t see anything, but we can’t rule out criminality,” Fields said.

Scott Guenther, who has served as incident commander since arriving on St. John Sept. 27, said investigators will continue to search for clues about Schuhmann’s life off-island.

“It will leave a lot of unanswered questions,” he said. “As rangers, our job is to be careful about speculation. We all want to solve the case. We all care, but we want to be careful about speculation. We don’t want to hurt the family.”

Guenther said Schuhmann’s family was “very grateful, and very satisfied, as much as they could be,” by the efforts put forth by professionals and volunteers.

Fields particularly commended Angela Sligh, who works with the Park Service, for her role as family liaison.

“She has the unimaginable job of feeling the pain of the family,” he said.

As VINP rangers and local agencies continue their search, they will use interactive cloud-based maps created daily showing areas covered by air, land, and sea.

“You’ll be able to check exactly what was searched and when,” said Ken Kreis, a climbing ranger from Grand Tetons.

People get lost in National Parks all the time, according to one ranger, but they’re usually found within 24 hours. Schuhmann’s disappearance is made particularly complicated because of the vastness of the surrounding sea, he said.