Missing in Joshua Tree, the search for Michael Rodriguez

On June 20th, 2016, Michael Rodriguez went missing from his home in Azusa, California. Nearly two weeks later, on June 30th, Joshua Tree National Park officials found his vehicle, a blue 2016 Hyundai Elantra, parked at the Juniper Flats backcountry board. After reviewing surveillance video from the park entrance, footage of his vehicle entering the park on the same day that he went missing was found. Search and Rescue efforts began, and lasted in the park through the Independence Day holiday weekend.

Rodriguez is a 58 year old Hispanic male, 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs about 195 pounds with brown hair and brown eyes. Photographs released by the Azusa Police would indicate that Rodriguez was more than likely not a hiker, but his vehicle was found at a location in the park that is mostly used as a jumping on or off point for the California Hiking and Riding Trail, a 36.5 mile trail routed through the park’s backcountry and wilderness. If I am wrong, and Rodriguez is a hiker, he picked the worst time to hike in J-tree, day time temperatures well exceed 100°F.

Search efforts by JOSAR (Joshua Tree’s volunteer search & rescue team) were called off on July 4th, after several days of no leads and not finding Rodriguez. Sources close to the situation have stated that there was no information to work off of, leaving the search team to look for a needle in a haystack. Helicopters were brought in for air search, and some ground searches took place, but Rodriguez had disappeared like a ghost.

With the official search called off, I was left feeling as though I should do something. On the night of July 4th, I assembled a small search team. The next morning, I was joined by Kelly Crawford, the owner of Joshua Tree Excursions, and John Smolinski. We knew very little, only the information that had been released publicly. We left the backcountry board, and followed an old, gated dirt road north for two-miles. The road had a lot of footprints, and tire tracks from the official search, but stopped after a mile. At two-miles we figured that Rodriguez likely hadn’t come this far, so we swung east, then followed a hidden valley back south. We ran across instances of lone footprints, which we followed, but there was never a sign of our man at the end of them.

When we neared Keys View Road, we followed it west back to the backcountry board. It was along the immediate stretch of desert following the road that we noticed the evidence of a good ground search, with plenty of footprints, and ribbons tied off on dusty shrubs. This left us assuming that JOSAR, much like we had, suspected that Rodriguez hadn’t ventured far from his blue Elantra. In total we covered nearly 7 miles on that morning. We found nothing odd or of interest, but after having spent time searching for this man, we all felt a sense of obligation to continue our search on another day.

On the morning of July 8th, I was again joined by John Smolinski (Kelly was unavailable due to prior engagements). The thought for the day was to search areas south of the Juniper Flats parking area. We search Horse Camp, Ryan Camp, and along the hills of Ryan Mountain. Again, we came up empty.

Later that evening I was joined by my friend Mike. We decided to follow the California Hiking and Riding Trail east for about 3.5 miles. Once again, nothing.

At this point all involved are well aware that we are not searching for a live human, but rather a body. An inexperienced, let alone an experienced person is not going to survive what has now been three weeks in the blistering heat and wilds of Joshua Tree National Park. The hope is still that we or someone else will find him, because no family should have to not know what happened to their loved one.

The search will continue.

Anyone with any information regarding the whereabouts of Rodriguez are encouraged to contact Investigator Martin of the Riverside County Sheriffs by calling 760-836-3215.


Tracks were recorded by GPS of all searches. They are available to law enforcement and park officials by request.

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.