Personal effects apparently belonging to Steve Fossett, the millionaire adventurer who vanished over a year ago, have been found in a mountainous area of eastern California. Police in Mammoth Lakes, a holiday resort 60 miles from the Nevada airfield where Fossett was last seen alive, confirmed that a ski-shop worker had found two identity cards bearing the aviator's name on Monday.
Further searches revealed 10 crumpled $100 bills and a black Nautica fleece covered in animal hair. The hiker, Preston Morrow, called police on Tuesday after taking a GPS reading of the site. "Fossett's name didn't pop in my head immediately," Mr Morrow said. "But I did wonder, 'Gee why are there some ID cards and money here when there is nothing else?' There was no wallet, no bag... nothing." Accident investigators are combing the area, reported to be near the top of a ridge in the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The area has steep, tree-lined hillsides and remote gullies.
Although no wreckage or remains have been found, police investigator Crystal Schafer said the ID cards were genuine. "We have some ID that has the name Steve Fossett," she said.
The location of Mr Morrow's discovery fits with the theory that Fossett, who was declared legally dead in February, crashed after getting into difficulty during a routine pleasure flight. The aviator, who set more than 100 records in five adventure sports and was best known for his collaborations with Sir Richard Branson, went missing on the morning of 3 September 2007 after setting off alone in a light aircraft from an exclusive private club.
Despite one of the biggest peace-time search operations in US history lasting several weeks, covering 20,000 square miles, no trace of Fossett has been found. The absence of a body led to speculation that he could have faked his death to avoid debt or the prospect of a messy divorce from his wife of 38 years, Peggy. He was believed to have lost large sums on the stock market, and investigators discovered he had two mistresses and hidden accounts.
Conspiracy theorists asked how one of the most experienced aviators in history could have hit trouble on a clear day. His aircraft, a Citabria Super Decathlon, was made from wood and fabric, making it easy to hide and undetectable to radar. They are unlikely to be completely silenced until Fossett's body or his aircraft turn up. Locals say that is unlikely. "He has probably been eaten," said Mr Morrow's lawyer David Baumwohl. "Bears and mountain lions will eat the body."
Experts who dispute the theory that Mr Fossett faked his death say the topography of Mammoth Lakes makes it possible for even an experienced pilot to fly into a narrow gully without time to reach the altitude to get out of it. Michael LoVallo, Mrs Fossett's lawyer, said: "We are aware of the reports and are trying to verify the information."