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His third night alone in the wilderness happened in 2007 on the day before Christmas Eve. That night, he had decided to conquer the Blue Ridge Trail in Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve, on the border of Yolo County. He set off at 4 p.m. and promised Melanie he would be home by 8 p.m. The two of them had planned to eat and wrap gifts together. "He didn't show up," said Melanie. "At 9 p.m., I put away the food and started wrapping gifts by myself. At 1 a.m., I went to sleep. ... That's when I did a lot of praying." Mintz called his wife at seven o'clock the next morning. He'd gotten lost in a thicket after dark and spent the whole night bushwhacking. Melanie was beside herself. "I said, 'Let's talk about this later. I'm calling you in late to work.'"
But the July trip was different. This time, it really did seem as though Mintz' luck had run out. "When I would try to pray I felt like the prayers weren't going anywhere," Melanie said.
That Monday, John's parents, Robert and Gloria Mintz, filed a missing-person report with the Santa Clara Police Department, which, Melanie said "did the routine thing, which was to send out a bulletin." The police seemed cagey around Melanie. "They weren't concerned about him being missing because apparently it's common because of the foreclosure crisis — people are just abandoning houses and disappearing by choice," she continued. "I said, 'There's no mortgage problem for us, I don't know anything in particular he'd be running from.' I'm a very candid person. I was telling them all this stuff so we could find him."
In fact, Melanie got the impression that the Santa Clara police were treating the case as a homicide, and that she was a suspect. "They asked me all these strange questions about John," said Melanie, who was puzzled by the police department's request for the name of Mintz' dentist, lest a body turn up somewhere. "They were also asking questions about me to see if I was participating in foul play or something," Melanie said. On Thursday, she went into Bank of America to find out if any activity had occurred on Mintz' bank account. She was denied access to the account. It turned out that the police had already frozen the account, and the teller said there were specific instructions not to give any information to Melanie Mintz.
Detective Dan Moreno demurs. "In my mind, she was never a person of interest. They were getting divorced on his birthday. It was beginning to look like he was depressed and he maybe wasn't coming back or didn't want to be found. The reason his bank account was closed was because I was calling to see if there was any activity on it. I think that may have frozen his account." Moreno said the dentist question is a "check-the-box thing." He continued: "There's nothing that led me to believe there was any kind of foul play. It got weird because of the whole divorce. He was depressed. He was potentially suicidal because of the circumstances." After filing the missing-person report, Moreno put together a flyer containing Mintz' picture and a description of the case. He sent it to agencies throughout Contra Costa County, Santa Clara County, and Shasta County — home of Mintz' original destination, Mount Lassen.
Meanwhile, Mintz' parents were going down another rabbit hole. On Monday, they called the rangers at Lassen, who said they had no record of John or his car ever being there. John's father Robert drove up to Lassen with a friend on Wednesday and realized, when he got there, that there are actually two different park service entities: Lassen National Forest and Lassen Volcanic National Park. "We were talking to one group of rangers on the phone, and thinking we were talking to everybody," Robert said. "When I got up there they didn't know anything about him being lost. ... They didn't even know who he was. They said they'd keep their eyes open, but at the end we found out he wasn't even there." That afternoon he told Melanie, "My God, I've lost my son. There were so many things I didn't get to say to him."
It was Melanie who decided, on a hunch, to go search Colusa County. She and John had been there the previous year for John's 42nd birthday, when he decided to visit all the libraries in Colusa to celebrate. That Wednesday — the day before his 43rd birthday — Melanie remembered a conversation they'd had. "He said, 'I'm coming here next year, and I'm gonna hike to the highest peak.'"
On Wednesday night, Melanie drove to Yuba City to stay with her 26-year-old niece Juley, and the two of them began brainstorming every possible thing they could do to advance the search effort. They woke early the next morning and started working. They called CalTrans. They cut-and-pasted a flyer to pass out to local merchants. They called AT&T to ensure that John's cell phone hadn't made or received calls for the past week. They went to Bank of America and found out about the blocked account. They e-mailed friends and newspaper reporters, and called local station News 10, who, Juley later wrote, "refused to do anything without the cops contacting them first." They posted a missing-person notice on Craigslist.
That afternoon, they drove to the Colusa County Sheriff's Office to file a second missing-person report. The two women met with Deputy Teresa Torres of Colusa County. "I thought it was a bit weird," Torres said. "I thought maybe he was suffering from a depression problem. ... His birthday was the day his divorce was final. I thought 'Man, if I had all these things slammed against me, I'd want to get away, too.'" As for the homicide angle: "That did cross my mind, but I never thought that of her. ... If she was a suspect, I don't think the suspect would be contacting as many resources as she did."
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