Pilot's license found in Calif. may be Fossett's

By: AP
By: AP

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- A hiker in a rugged part of eastern California found a pilot's license and other items possibly belonging to Steve Fossett, the adventurer who vanished on a solo flight in a borrowed plane more than a year ago, authorities said Wednesday.

The number on the pilot license in a photograph sent to the Federal Aviation Administration matches the number on the pilot certificate the agency has on file for Fossett, spokesman Ian Gregor said.

"We're trying to determine the authenticity of the document," Gregor said.

The hiker, Preston Morrow, said he found an FAA identity card, a pilot's license, a third ID and $1,005 in cash tangled in a bush off a trail just west of the town of Mammoth Lakes on Monday. He said he turned the items over to local police Wednesday after unsuccessful attempts to contact Fossett's family.

Mammoth Lakes police investigator Crystal Schafer confirmed that the department had the items, including the ones bearing Fossett's name.

Search teams led by the Madera County Sheriff's Department have been sent to the scene, and an air and ground effort was expected to be under way soon, said sheriff's spokeswoman Erica Stewart.

Morrow said he found no sign of a plane or any human remains.

Fossett, whose exploits included circumnavigating the globe in a balloon, disappeared Sept. 3, 2007, after taking off in a single-engine plane borrowed from a Nevada ranch owned by hotel magnate Barron Hilton. A judge declared Fossett legally dead in February following a search for the famed aviator that covered 20,000 square miles.

Michael LoVallo, a lawyer for Fossett's widow, Peggy, said, "We are aware of the reports and are trying to verify the information."

Aviators had flown over Mammoth Lakes in the search for Fossett, but it had not been considered a likely place to find the plane. The most intense searching was concentrated to the north, given what searchers knew about sightings of Fossett's plane, his plans for when he had intended to return and the amount of fuel he had in the plane.

Morrow, 43, who works in a Mammoth Lakes sporting goods store, said he initially didn't know who Fossett was. It wasn't until he showed the items to co-workers Tuesday that one of them recognized Fossett's name.

"It was just weird to find that much money in the backcountry, and the IDs," he said. "My immediate thought was it was a hiker or backpacker's stuff, and a bear got to the stuff and took it away to look for food or whatever."

Morrow said he returned to the scene with a friend Tuesday to search further and did not find any airplane wreckage or human remains. They did find a black Nautica pullover fleece, size XL, in the same area, but he said he wasn't sure if the items were related.

Morrow said he consulted local attorney David Baumwohl, and they initially tried to contact the Fossett family but were unable to get through to their lawyers.

"We figured if it was us, we'd want to know first. We wouldn't want to learn from the news," Baumwohl said.

Baumwohl and Morrow tried to contact the law firm that handled the death declaration. When they weren't successful, they decided to turn everything over to the police, the attorney said.

Mammoth Lakes is at an elevation of more than 7,800 feet on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada, where peaks top 13,000 feet. This year's biggest search for Fossett focused on Nevada's Wassuk Range, more than 50 miles north of Mammoth Lakes. That search ended last month.

The California Civil Air Patrol and private planes from Hilton's ranch previously had flown over the area, but it was "extremely rough country," said Joe Sanford, undersheriff in Lyon County, Nev., which was involved in the initial search.

One of Fossett's friends reacted to Wednesday's news with cautious optimism.

If the belongings turn out to be authentic, then that could help narrow the search area for possible wreckage, said Ray Arvidson, a scientist at Washington University who worked on Fossett's past balloon flights.

"It would be nice to get closure," Arvidson said.

Fossett made a fortune trading futures and options on Chicago markets. He gained worldwide fame for more than 100 attempts and successes in setting records in high-tech balloons, gliders, jets and boats. In 2002, he became the first person to circle the world solo in a balloon. He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in July 2007.

He also swam the English Channel, completed an Ironman Triathlon, competed in the Iditarod dog sled race and climbed some of the world's best-known peaks, including the Matterhorn in Switzerland and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

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Associated Press writers Jason Dearen in San Francisco, Scott Sonner in Reno, Nev., and Alicia Chang and Jacob Adelman in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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