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THE MICHELIC SEARCH
By Marshall McClung
A search for a missing person that became what is probably the most extensive and exhausting search mission in Graham County, occurred in the autumn of 1988, just as the fall colors began to show across our mountains. At its peak, the search mission involved over two hundred searchers from fourteen rescue squads. The search for Jim Michelic, 25, of New Berlin, Wisconsin took part mostly in the Joyce Kilmer - Slickrock Wilderness Area and nearby sections of the Nantahala National Forest. Michelic had come to Graham County to hike and camp in the area, and promptly disappeared. The Graham Star and Asheville Citizen had several articles covering the search. Before the search concluded, all search and rescue personnel in Graham County and surrounding areas were involved.
The story begins with Jim Michelic's visit to the Cheoah Ranger Station on Massey Branch on Sunday, September 25, 1988. Michelic expresses a great interest in remote forest areas to U.S. Forest Service employee Dave Gustafson, stating that he wants to get away from people. After purchasing maps of the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock and Citico Creek Wilderness Areas, Michelic leaves for the Walker Inn in Andrews.
The following day, Monday, September 26, Michelic leaves Andrews for the wilderness, leaving some personal items behind at the Walker Inn, and advises the owners he will return for them after his wilderness trip. The next day, Tuesday, September 27 Michelic is seen on the Wolf Laurel Trail by John Wisham and John Brown of Andrews. This was to be the last report of anyone seeing Michelic alive, and his whereabouts would remain unknown until October 17. The two men later come forward with the information when they learn Michelic is missing. It is the first bit of information received as the long ordeal begins to get underway. Wisham and Brown stated that Michelic seemed to be tired and sweaty, and told them that he had brought too much gear. On Saturday, October 1, heavy rains hit the area wiping out footprints, and other evidence that would have been helpful to searchers.
On Monday, October 3, the U.S. Forest Service is contacted that Jim Michelic is missing. He had not returned to Andrews for personal items left behind where he had been staying, nor did he show up in Atlanta to visit friends as planned. District Ranger Steve Rickerson meets with Hugh Gibbs, Russ Arthur, and Marshall McClung and plans areas to be searched for Michelic's camp and vehicle.
On Tuesday, October 4, Gibbs and Mcclung search Strawberry Knob and Stratton Bald for Michelic's tent, while Rickerson and Arthur search trailhead parking lots for his vehicle. Gibbs and McClung encounter fog so dense that they can only see a few feet ahead of them. McClung finds the tent off to the edge of Stratton Bald, there is no one around. They check the tent, which has a great deal of rainwater in it as the tent has been left open. It does not appear to ever have been used since being pitched. A backpack is tied up in a nearby tree, and contains a food popular with hikers known as "trail rnix~'. Only a very small portion has been eaten. There are no footprints around the tent, or any evidence of recent use. Mcclung tells Gibbs that "Things don't look good, we may be searching for a body instead of a person." Rickerson and Arthur find a brown Oldsmobile Omega with a Wisconsin tag at the Wolf Laurel Trailhead. A license check confirms that it is Michelic's vehicle. A perimeter search of the area and nearby trails including Stratton Bald, Naked Ground, Hangover, Wolf Laurel Trail, and areas adjacent to these trails is conducted. The N.C. Forest Service provides a helicopter for an aerial search. Spotter Jim Burchfield reports that there is poor visibility due to the heavy foliage. Most of the leaves are still on the trees. Mcclung will later learn that he has come within one tenth of a mile of Michelic on the very first day of the search, but the terrain is so steep and rugged with underbrush so dense that crawling on all fours is necessary to get through it. Rickerson contacts the Graham County Rescue Squad and advises them of the situation.
Thursday, October 6, a massive search effort begins with Graham County units searching the immediate area around the camp while four Tennessee search crews check Citico. From this point through Sunday, October 9, what is probably the greatest search effort ever in Graham County is conducted with scores of search personnel from federal, state, and local agencies as well as dozens of other individual searchers. The support of the community is overwhelming. Large amounts of food for the searchers is donated and prepared by a crew of local women. Michelic's sister Marcie Gill, and brothers Mark and Tim, come to Graham County, while the parents Edward and Alice Michelic stay in contact by phone. Marcie, Mark and Tim practically live with the searchers for several days while the intense search is in progress. Rescue teams from other counties, search dogs from the N.C. Search and Rescue Dog Association join in.
Feeding the searchers is a whole operation in itself. Melinda Bailey and Sharon Slaughter were just two of the many women involved in the food preparation. Melinda has a son, Josh, who is almost four at the time. He becomes very special to Michelic's sister Marcie, as she has a son near his age at home. Bailey and Slaughter state that many of the local women have cooked for three days straight. During one meal, the many searchers consume a platter full of chicken and dumplings, green beans, and ten pounds of potato salad. The blessing is asked at meals, and prior to the start of each day's search, Graham County Rescue Squad Commander Warner Deyton, Assistant Commander Jack Millsaps, and Search Coordinator Jack Jackson meet each morning with the searchers for prayer. Searchers are working from early morning until late at night, but not one single clue as to Michelic's fate is found.
On Sunday, October 9 after days of intense searching with no clues being found, and after consulting with medical personnel, the decision is reluctantly reached to scale down the search effort. Since Michelic's disappearance, there have been heavy rains, and freezing temperatures at night. Almost all of Michelic's food and clothing are either in his car or was at his campsite, indicating he probably has had no food with him, and has been dressed in light clothing not suitable for the high elevation autumn weather. The next several days are uneventful. Someone reports smelling a bad odor in the Rock Wall Branch area of Deep Creek. Russ Arthur and Marshall McClung spend a good portion of the day searching through rock cliffs, but find nothing.
Finally, on Sunday, October 16, a clue arises concerning Michelic, and it is a big one. Two local fishermen, Willie Perkins and Charles Mauck, Jr., decide to take a shortcut to the headwaters of Little Santeetlah creek which flows through Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. They encounter dense rhododendron thickets and rock cliffs and get into such rugged terrain that they begin to regret their decision to come this way. They are now in the same area as that checked by McClung on the first day of the search, except further downhill. At the base of a rock cliff, to their surprise, they find a pair of boots and a backpack. They take the items to the Graham County Sheriff's Office. Sheriff Melvin Howell turns the items over to the U.S. Forest Service. Michelic's brothers identify the items as belonging to their missing brother.
On Monday, October 17, the first day of hunting season, a crew consisting of personnel from the U.S. Forest Service, N.C. Forest Service, Graham County Rescue Squad, Graham County E.M.S., Graham County Sheriff Melvin Howell, J.D. Holder of Townson-Smith Funeral Home, and other individuals meet at the Wolf Laurel Trailhead. They are accompanied by Perkins and Mauck to guide them to the area where Michelic's items were found. Michelic's brothers, Tim and Mark also accompany the searchers.
Upon reaching the area indicated by Perkins and Mauck, searchers spread out and begin combing the area. The area contains rock cliffs, loose1 moss covered rocks, and rhododendron and laurel thickets. It is difficult to stand and walk around. A short distance from where the boots and backpack were found, searchers begin locating other items. A blue denim vest, identified as Michelic's by his brothers, a brown tee shirt, a pair of pants containing a pocket knife, one sock, and a set of keys, are found. Some of the articles have the distinct odor of decaying flesh. Near the pants, McClung locates a portion of human remains.
Further away, Leonard Moody discovers the remainder of the body. There is evidence that indicates a bear has been feeding on the body. The searchers now turn their attention to a rock cliff about thirty feet in height where the initial items were found. A pair of eye glasses are located and identified by Michelic's brothers as his. Other evidence on a rock at the base of the cliff makes searchers think Michelic had fallen from the cliff to his death. At the top of the cliff, a cloth pullover cap is found, along with marks on the ground that appear to have been made where someone had slipped, lost their footing, and fell over the edge of the cliff.
The body is carried to the Joyce Kilmer Picnic Area parking lot known to locals as "The Run Around". Townson-Smith Funeral Home transports the body to Chapel Hill where an autopsy is performed by Dr. Thomsen.
On Wednesday, October 19, Dr Thomsen calls McClung and gives him the following information:
Michelic has been dead close to three weeks, probably since the first day he entered the area on September 27. Dr. Thomsen further stated that Michelic died from injuries received in the fall, and not a bear attack. The fall would have caused unconsciousness. Michelic would have only lived a short time after his fall, and would have been unable to walk. The head injury was the fatal wound.
A memorial service for Jim Michelic was held October 30 at Grace Evangelical Free Church in New Berlin, Wisconsin. On Sunday, July 22, 1990, Michelic's parents, Edward and Alice Michelic visit Graham County for the first time. They are accompanied by his sister Marcie Gill who had spent much time with the searchers. The family wishes to visit Stratton Bald and ask McClung to go with them. On Stratton Bald they scatter the ashes of Jim Michelic at his campsite. The parents are led to the ridge top above where his body was found. This is as far as McClung will take them due to the dangerous terrain. The family expresses their appreciation and say that visiting the scene helps give them closure in dealing with his death.
What caused Michelic to be in such a rugged area off the trail? We will never know for sure. Searchers think that Michelic discovered that he had left some needed items in his car and was hiking down from Stratton Bald to get them when he was overtaken by darkness and lost the trail in one of the switchbacks, veering off to the left into the headwaters of Little Santeetlah Creek, and contouring around the ridge until he encountered the rock cliffs and fell to his death. Searchers regretted that the search ended on such a sad note, but at the same time were glad that the mystery of what had happened to Michelic was finally solved.
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This page is maintained by Tom Livingston, Robbinsville, North Carolina