Expert: Hiker PCSO failed to find 'likely lived for days,' family to move ahead with lawsuit

A Valley hiker and rock-climber who the Pinal County sheriff's search team failed to find in the Superstition Mountains was likely alive for more than two days, according to an expert forensic pathologist.

PCSO spent four days searching for Christopher Hensley, 34, who was reported missing after a hike on April 15. He was found dead by another search and rescue team just a few hours into their independent search.

See ABC15's investigation into PCSO's failed search

In a report based on photographs of Hensley's body and an autopsy, Daniel Wescott, PhD, wrote that the "most likely date of death is April 17 or early on April 18."

Hensley's widow, Tonya, has filed a notice of claim against the sheriff's office, alleging a "negligent failure to conduct a competent search." Her attorney Gary Hendrickson said the new report proves that PCSO could have found Christopher alive.

"I believe it will be the piece that makes our case," Hendrickson said.  

Christopher Hensley goes missing

Hensley went rock climbing to get pictures to show his wife and daughters.

As he climbed, his final hours and some of his final thoughts were recorded on a camera hanging from his waist. Five minutes into the videotape, Hensley says, "I would love to hit the tip today, but I'm afraid I would be stuck up there ‘til dark."

At another point on the tape, Hensley declares that he had run out of time and had to begin the climb down through dangerous terrain.

"We'll make it, in one piece or in ten," Hensley said. It would foreshadow the tragedy about to unfold.

When his wife Tonya didn't hear from him as night fell, she became very concerned and called 911. For the next four days the Pinal County Sheriff's Search and Rescue Team mounted an effort to find Hensley.

PCSO told the ABC15 Investigators they expended 800 hours of manpower looking for the missing climber.

But Pinal County's search was unsuccessful.

Frustrated and distraught, Tonya Hensley contacted the Superstition Mountain Search and Rescue Team, an independent group that used to work with Pinal County until the two squads parted ways in 2009.

After listening to the information Tonya Hensley had about where her husband was going and how he planned to get there—the Superstition Mountain team said they located Chris Hensley's body in less than two hours.

"If (PCSO) would have only listened, I would have my husband and my kids would have their dad. They didn't listen," Tonya said.

In an email, PCSO said that Chris Hensley may have been dead even before he was reported missing but there is compelling evidence to the contrary.

How long did Hensley survive?

Evidence at the scene suggests Hensley fell while descending the mountain.

An autopsy shows he suffered internal injuries including a broken rib that punctured his lung. The men who found his body say they believe Hensley survived the fall long enough to move to a spot under a bush in an apparent effort to get out of the sun. 

Hendrickson sent autopsy results and pictures taken by the Superstition Search and Rescue Team of Chris Hensley's body to an independent forensic anthropologist.

"We didn't tell him who we represented, we didn't tell him the result we wanted," Hendrickson said.

The man he hired is Dr. Daniel Wescott, the Director of the Forensic Anthropology at Texas State University—a school that boasts one of the best "body farms" in the nation. A body farm is a facility that looks like a gruesome cemetery but allows scientists to study the decomposition of human bodies in a variety of settings.

Wescott is an award-winning scientist and a nationally recognized expert.

The ABC15 Investigators have obtained Wescott's 3-page report on the death of Chris Hensley.

"He was alive at least 37 hours and more like 49," Hendrickson said. "The doctor is leaning more towards the 49."

Wescott's report bases his determination on several scientific findings including the condition of Hensley's external wounds, the number of flies on the corpse and the absence of maggots.

The report's full conclusion, "Based on professional experience with human decomposition, information in the scientific literature about human composition and insect development rates, and the available information, Mr. Hensley most likely died less than three days before discovery. This indicates that he likely died on April 17th or 18th. However, I cannot conclusively rule out that he died on the 15th or 16th."

Hendrickson said he is waiting for the county to respond to their notice of claim. If the county doesn't, he said he will move forward with a lawsuit.

"We have the evidence we need now to proceed," Hendrickson said.

The Pinal County Sheriff's Office issued a statement saying, "PCSO Search and Rescue team is a nationally recognized and certified team that conducts hundreds of successful missions each year. The facts and evidence surrounding this case are contrary to how Ms. Hensley has portrayed them through the media and now with this lawsuit. As with any pending civil litigation it would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this time."

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