MINDEN — A Lyon County sheriff said Wednesday that his department investigated and dismissed the possibility that missing millionaire adventurer Steve Fossett staged his disappearance and flew to another country.
Undersheriff Joe Sanford said deputies checked Fossett’s financial records and talked with family members. They are convinced that Fossett did not plan his own disappearance.
"That possibility has been checked out in more ways than one," Sanford said. "I don’t want to say never say never. I have seen a lot of things, but the chances that this gentleman did something like that are extremely slim."
Fossett, 63, has been missing since Sept. 3, when he flew away from Barron Hilton’s Flying M Ranch, southeast of Yerington. He reportedly was looking for dry lakes where he could try to break the land speed record, and his flight was supposed to be short.
Aerial and ground searchers have not turned up any trace of Fossett in nine days of looking but have found dozens of abandoned cars and pickups and six planes from crashes dating to the 1960s.
A search Wednesday over a 17,000-square-mile area of western Nevada and eastern California by 15 Civil Air Patrol planes, five Nevada Air National Guard aircraft and planes flown by private pilot friends of Fossett found nothing.
In response to tips, ground searchers were sent Wednesday afternoon to check the Sunrise Pass area on the Douglas County-Lyon County line and Sonora Pass in eastern California.
Jeff Page, the Lyon County emergency manager, said Sunrise Pass had been flown over repeatedly by aerial searchers who saw nothing.
The search has cost the National Guard between $150,000 and $200,000.
Maj. Ed Locke said rescue efforts will continue as long as Gov. Jim Gibbons authorizes them. Locke added the National Guard would have incurred some of the costs anyway in flying normal training missions.
The CAP pilots and their two-member crews are volunteers who take time off their regular jobs and receive no pay. The federal government covers the fuel and operational costs of their planes. The costs have not yet been estimated.
CAP Capt. Bill Schroeder said thorough attempts would be made to search and rescue anyone missing in a crash, regardless of his or her income or fame.
CAP recently spent 10 days in California looking for a 10-year-old boy, he said.
The search for Fossett has been more extensive than normal because many of his friends also are looking for his plane, Schroeder said.
Searchers continued to put on a positive face Wednesday and predicted that Fossett still might be found alive.
"People have been found several weeks into a mission," Nevada Highway Patrol trooper Chuck Allen said. "I don’t see a reason to leave prematurely."
The blue and white plane would not be readily visible if it crashed upside down or into trees or brush.
Allen said they welcome and will investigate any leads. Hundreds of tips have been given to the searchers, including from people in Belize and the Netherlands who looked at satellite photographs of remote Nevada locations taken last weekend for the Google Earth Web site.
Google had a satellite capture images of rural Nevada to help in the Fossett search. The photographs, available on the Internet, show objects as small as cars.
Sanford said rescuers are receiving "repeat leads," tips that previously have been received and checked out.
Sanford said the sheriff’s department did a thorough investigation to make sure Fossett did not stage his disappearance.
Fossett — who has held more than 100 world records or world firsts and is perhaps best known as the first man to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon — is well-known in the flying community.
He would have been recognized if he stopped at airports to refuel his small Citabria Super Decathlon plane, Sanford said.
"Wherever he would go, someone would see him, and they would have reported that," he said.
Sanford said his department has notified the Nevada Department of Wildlife to ask deer hunters to look for Fossett’s aircraft when hunting season starts in two weeks. Thousands of hunters will be wandering through remote areas, and they could turn up something, he said.
Much of the search Wednesday was in the heavily forested areas of the Sierra Nevada in eastern California near Bishop and Mammoth Lakes. A man reported seeing a plane that looked like Fossett’s flying overhead there on Sept. 3.
Sanford said that in his 32-year law enforcement career, he has never known of a crash in Northern Nevada in which the aircraft was not found.
Pilots have discovered six previously unknown crash sites during their search for Fossett. Those aircraft crashed in the 1970s or earlier, when Nevada was far less populous and sophisticated equipment was unavailable to help in searches, Schroeder said.
"It is a mystery," Schroeder said of Fossett’s disappearance. "The problem is we don’t know the direction he was going. In most searches, we have a general idea of where they were going."
Most often when the CAP looks for missing planes, the pilots have filed flight plans or their families knew where they were going, he said.
Once the Fossett search ends, the Federal Aviation Administration will send personnel to check the six previously unknown crash sites, locate serial and identification numbers and contact the families of the missing pilots.
Ground searchers have checked several of the crash sites and are convinced the crashes are several decades old.
In the past two years, the remains of two members of the crew of a military plane that crashed during World War II in the nearby Sierra Nevada were discovered by hikers.
Schroeder warned families of pilots who have been missing for many years not to become overly optimistic until the FAA can determine the owners of the planes.
William Ogle, a Gainesville, Fla., physician, has given interviews in recent days expressing hope that the plane of his father was found during the Fossett search.
The Cessna flown by Charles Ogle has been missing since Aug. 12, 1964. He was flying from Oakland, Calif., to Reno.
Ogle was 4 years old at the time of his father’s disappearance and has wondered for the past 43 years what happened.
"I knew he had taken off in a plane and never came back," said Ogle, now a professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Florida.
"I can remember flying in his plane. He let me hold the controls, and I remember looking out the window."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.