By Mark Esper
A body identified as that of a former Silverton resident was found near the summit of Cinnamon Pass on Friday, July 9, thanks to the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office’s newest deputy, a 10-month-old redbone coonhound being trained by deputy Bruce Conrad.
James Filip, 67, of Gunnison and formerly of Silverton, disappeared last November. His 2009 Jeep Liberty emerged from the snow last month on the Hinsdale County side of Cinnamon Pass, but there was no sign of Filip.
But as the deep snowbanks at the pass receded this summer, more evidence emerged.
Hinsdale County Sheriff Ron Bruce said that on Thursday, July 8, a New Mexico woman reported finding a piece of luggage near Cinnamon Pass, very close to where the Jeep had been found. Contents indicated it was the property of Filip.
On Friday, July 9, Conrad and San Juan County Search and Rescue Team member Don Curnow headed up to the location with Rufus, the coonhound, and another well-known Silverton dog, Ella.
“After arriving on scene, I allowed the dogs to run free with no work commands,” Conrad stated in a sheriff’s office report.
Conrad said he and Curnow searched for the suitcase in the snowfield indicated by the New Mexico woman. Conrad said he found a dark blue fanny pack just downstream from the snowfield.
“I called Rufus to my location and informed him it was time to work. Rufus responded and I gave the ‘find it’ command twice,” Conrad’s report stated.
Conrad said Rufus almost immediately alerted to a point in the snowfield “by sticking his nose in as deep as possible and beginning to dig intently.”
Conrad said he and Curnow probed the snow and began digging.
“Approximately 0.7 meters down we observed the black sole of a shoe. Further digging produced two shoes and two lower legs.”
Conrad, who is also deputy coroner for San Juan County, said he recorded the time of confirming human remains as 10:46 a.m. on July 9.
Conrad said he and Curnow then filled in the newly dug hole with loose snow and encircled the site with sheriff’s office tape.
Hinsdale County officials meanwhile, were also enroute to the scene and arrived shortly after Conrad and Curnow had left.
“Once back in cell (phone) range. I reported the find to the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office to relay to the Hinsdale County Sheriff’s Office,” Conrad reported.
Bruce, the Hinsdale sheriff, said “my undersheriff and coroner got up there and dug him out.
“It certainly made it a lot easier with Bruce (Conrad) pinpointing it,” Bruce said. “My guys just finished exhuming the body from the snowbank.”
Bruce said no autopsy is planned but the remains clearly are those of Filip.
“There was a lot found on the body” and “the physical characteristics meet Mr. Filip,” Bruce said. “It’s not ‘Forensic Files’ but it’s close enough for my coroner, anyway.”
Bruce said one factor in not conducting an autopsy was the cost — about $2,000 — which he said would be a huge “hit” for his county coroner’s budget.
While the exact cause of death may not be known, Bruce suspects Filip may have sustained some trauma as a result of the Jeep crash, which apparently occurred around Veterans Day last year.
“There’s a good chance his left temple could have smashed into the left post of the vehicle, or maybe he had a medical event going off the road,” Bruce said. But he said that given how near to the scene of the accident the body was found, it appeared that for some reason Filip was not able to get far.
Conrad, meanwhile, was impressed by his puppy’s performance at the site, which was at an elevation of 12,332 feet.
“Rufus has been locating stuffed animals buried in the snow since he was 7 weeks old,” Conrad said. “And now he is off to his first formal training this week with a successful first mission under his belt.”