Jeff Jardine

Remains in Sierra should ID one victim; other families left to wonder

Fliers hang near the restrooms at Donnell Vista Point in Tuolumne County in 2005, where Nita Mayo’s car was found in the parking lot. Nearly 10 years later, Patty Sue Tolhurst’s car was found at the same spot. Both are missing personsrge.
Fliers hang near the restrooms at Donnell Vista Point in Tuolumne County in 2005, where Nita Mayo’s car was found in the parking lot. Nearly 10 years later, Patty Sue Tolhurst’s car was found at the same spot. Both are missing personsrge. Modesto Bee file

One family, at least, will get a modicum of certainty to accompany years of grief and wondering.

On Thursday, a person who lives along Old Strawberry Road east of Sonora and near Pinecrest saw what turned out to be human remains. Tuolumne County sheriff’s investigators came out and confirmed they are human, then released some information Monday afternoon.

What they didn’t release, and won’t until completing further lab work and notifying family members, is the victim’s name. It could be any one of several missing persons, including those who vanished more than a decade ago.

Michael Madden? The 20-year-old Modesto man disappeared from his campsite at Sand Bar Flat in August 1996. Friends coming up to join him found his camp intact but no Madden or his dog, Matilda.

“There was a campfire lit, right there in Mike’s campsite,” said Josh Rocha, one of his friends. “Some creepy guy popped out of the bushes and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ 

Four days later, Matilda limped into camp worn out and dehydrated. Authorities never found a trace of Madden. Madden’s father, Larry, died at 73, heartbroken and with no blood kin remaining, never knowing what happened to his son.

Nita Mayo? The 67-year-old Hawthorne, Nev., resident’s car was found at Donnell Vista Point in August 2005. Her purse and cellphone were inside, along with a receipt from the Strawberry General Store about 12 miles away from the vista point and only a couple of miles from the place where the remains were found last week. When dogs searched the vista point area, they picked up no scent of her other than right at the car.

Again, search teams found not a trace, and Mayo’s grown children still don’t know anything more now than they did when the searches were called off that summer 11 years ago. Mayo worked at a medical clinic in Hawthorne. Tracy Mayo, Nita’s daughter, told me that the day her mother’s car was found at Donnell Vista Point, a man who had been a patient at the clinic showed up there claiming he’d heard Nita Mayo had disappeared but had been found, the latter untrue.

“They hadn’t even started the searches yet,” Tracy Mayo told me Monday. “He was really weird.” She said he later was interviewed and failed a polygraph, but there have been no arrests, and the case went cold when the snow began to fall that winter.

A year ago, Mayo said, she drove 21 hours from her home in North Dakota to Midland, Texas, where the person of interest now lives.

“I didn’t tell him I was coming,” she said. “I went alone, which probably wasn’t too smart. When I had some questions that needed answers.”

She went to his place of work, sat there and waited for him.

“When he saw me, I didn’t say a word,” she said. “He said, ‘Hello, Tracy. How are you?’ 

He was nervous as they talked, she said. But she extracted no new or potentially incriminating information from him.

Nita Mayo isn’t the only woman to disappear with her vehicle found at Donnell Vista Point. Two years ago last week, 46-year-old Tuolumne County resident Patty Sue Tolhurst disappeared. She’d been missing for a week when her SUV was found at the same spot, 42 miles east of Sonora on Highway 108. A friend told authorities Tolhurst planned to visit Kennedy Meadows Resort, 8 miles further east. She hasn’t been seen since then.

Then there’s the case of Carl Knight, who was killed in a fight in Jamestown in April 2008. His confessed killers, brothers Robert and Paul Slawinsky, told authorities they dumped his body into Don Pedro Reservoir. It never surfaced despite detailed searches, and some folks believed they really tossed Knight’s body down a mineshaft, then waived their right to a speedy trial to bargain for lesser charges. And that is what happened. The Slawinskys each pleaded guilty to lesser manslaughter charges and got 11 years each.

More recently and perhaps less likely, 35-year-old Allen Christopher Martin of Modesto vanished after leaving the Chicken Ranch Casino on Feb. 9 in Jamestown and has not been found.

Or the remains could be from someone else entirely.

Regardless, one family somewhere soon will have finality and the ability to properly bury their loved one.

The others will be left to continue grieving and wondering.

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