Teton County sheriff’s Deputy Dave Hodges got word a week ago Saturday that the next day he’d be going for a hike in the morning.
The destination, the detective was told, was the wreckage of a light aircraft, which was crumpled and covered in snow high up Crystal Butte on the outskirts of Jackson. An elk hunter had sent in photographs of the plane debris, but when Teton County Search and Rescue member and pilot Tim Ciocarlan began asking around to learn when and who crashed a plane into the timber just a few miles east of town, he wasn’t coming up with any answers. Local pilots, the Bridger-Teton National Forest — nobody seemed to know anything.
“We just couldn’t find anybody that had any recollection or memory of that crash,” Hodges told the Jackson Hole Daily.
Stumped, Ciocarlan assembled and made plans to command a crew — Hodges included — to go see the plane for themselves. About a dozen Search and Rescue members responded.
“I actually tried to get people to go home,” Ciocarlan said. “Go spend it with your family or watch football or do something. They all looked at me, and then everybody went. Honestly, they had a blast. God bless those guys.”
The expansive crew didn’t even make it up to the shell of the aircraft before they came to realize that the wreckage had been there for some time and that they likely weren’t going to be recovering any bodies. When they were about a half a mile away, Hodges recalled, they ran into a couple of hunters who told them the plane has been up there for years.
“We started to think, ‘What’s going on here?’ ” Hodges said.
The story, they’d soon realize, was that the plane crashed in 1988, long enough ago that it had been forgotten by current Teton County Search and Rescue and agency personnel. Records of the wreck had not been digitized so they could not be easily located.
Up on Crystal Butte, the Search and Rescue team reached the wreckage, unfolded a portion of the crumpled Mooney M20F plane and were able to decipher its tail number: N9528M. Once that data point was available, the story immediately became clearer.
“Google a tail number,” Ciocarlan said. “Within two minutes, we knew that this thing was historical.”
The accident that left the Mooney M20F plane up on the timbered slopes of Crystal Butte occurred the afternoon of Aug. 27, 1988, and it claimed two lives, according to the National Transportation Safety Board and archives of the Jackson Hole Guide. The pilot, Robert Yoreck, was flying the single-engine plane with his wife, Leona, and bound for Rock Springs while en route to their ultimate destination of Broomfield, Colorado. This was while the ’88 fires raged around the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and “visibility was reduced by smoke,” the NTSB concluded.
Late the day the Yoreks took off, the Civil Air Patrol mounted an aerial search, though it was inhibited by smoky skies. Up to eight planes scanned the mountainsides beneath the flight path the following two days, and approximately 48 hours after the couple took off, their missing aircraft was finally located. The Yoreks would have died instantly upon striking two tall trees and falling to the ground, former Teton County Coroner Stan Wilhelmsen told the Jackson Hole Guide at the time.
The left-behind Mooney M20F plane on the slopes above Jackson has been reported before over the years. Ciocarlan found a report from 2008, also from a hunter, in a binder with a report about the crash that he eventually got his hands on after learning the tail number. The remains of the plane are at up over 9,000 feet in the drainage between Nowlin Peak and Cache Creek. It’s a hard-to-reach area up in the timber that attracts migratory elk seeking cover when they’re pressured by hunters and bounced off the National Elk Refuge.
The rediscovery of the Crystal Butte plane wreckage was first reported by an online news outlet, the Cowboy State Daily. In a complete coincidence, News&Guide reporter Mike Koshmrl encountered the same wrecked plane the day after it was reported when his cousin, Laura Marturano, spotted it through the trees while elk hunting.
Going forward, the Mooney M20F will be less of a mystery to those who come across the crumpled blue, red and white plane.
One of the Teton County Search and Rescue volunteers went up the following day and painted a big yellow X plus a “1988” on the remains of the plane — the FAA’s protocol for marking an aircraft that’s been located and investigated.
“So, if it never gets picked up, at least a future team doesn’t go through the same effort,” Ciocarlan said.