It all started with a rafting trip down the Nisqually River.
James Mull, 69, and his brother, William Mull, 69, both of Olympia, were dropped off around the convergence of the Mashel and Nisqually rivers by their sister, Marilyn Novak, for a rafting and camping trip.
Each with a 9-foot inflatable pontoon boat and supplies in hand, the two headed down to the banks of the river where they planned to float down the Nisqually to an improvised campsite, stay a couple nights, then raft back down to a pull out location near McKenna where their truck was parked.
But by the time were prepared to float the river, a darkness set in. They would have to wait until the next morning.
Not long after that, William Mull was missing.
William “Willy” Mull went missing on Friday, Aug. 16, at his brother’s improvised campsite just off the Nisqually River in the thick forests of the Bald Hill area. It wasn’t until four days later, after getting back to their shared trailer home in East Olympia, that James first reported Willy as missing to local law enforcement.
For four days, search and rescue teams moved through the rough terrain around their campsite, searching for Willy. Efforts concluded when Mull, who reportedly suffers from dementia, was found by a Pierce County K9 team.
He was on the ground, safe and sound, about a quarter-mile from the campsite near an embankment.
“Willy was in good spirits,” read a supplemental report by Thurston County Det. Howard Reynolds. “His blood pressure, pulse and blood sugar were all within normal limits, although he was dehydrated. He was only wearing jeans, a T-shirt and sandals. He did not have any other supplies on him. I asked Willy what happened. He said, ‘I like the woods.’”
Overall, about 44 people and 469 hours were dedicated to Mull’s rescue, Thurston County Washington Explorer Search and Rescue President Devin Guy told Nisqually Valley News.
Thurston County Jeep Patrol, Thurston County Explorer Search and Rescue, Thurston Search and Rescue, South Puget Sound Mobile Search and Rescue, German Shepherd Search Dogs, and other out of county resources were utilized in the search.
”Being next to the Nisqually River, the area’s dense and the bank is very dense,” said Guy, who helped lead the search. “It’s a very difficult area to get into for searchers.”
Guy said they originally got the call for a missing person case on the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 20, and mobilized resources, including many vehicles during the first period of searching.
The team began the evening searching around Piessner Road in Thurston County, about the area where James said he and his brother had set up camp. Search and rescue teams set up camp shortly at Bald Hills Fire Protection District 17.
The next day, teams started expanding the search area to access points along the river and began looking in brush and dense thickets along the river.
Guy said when working on a missing person case, you have to take certain snippets of information and work with the information that’s presented to you.
“So, throughout the days of a search, it morphs and it moves to different areas,” he said.
The team searched many miles of the river and forest, Guy said. Eventually, Thurston County Dive Rescue Team was called in.
After three days of searching for the camp, teams got a break in the case.
After Reynolds put up a missing person post on social media, he reportedly received an email from Bret Forrester, the Tacoma Power wildlife and lands manager.
“Bret told me that he and his crew had found an improvised camp that he believed was Main Camp. He said he and his crew walked all over the area, but did not see anyone,” Reynolds wrote in a narrative.
After confirming with James that it was indeed the camp he and his brother had stayed at, the dive rescue team floated down river from the put-in at Mashel and Nisqually and trailed the brother’s route down river, according to Reynold’s account.
After roughly two hours of floating, the team located the brother’s camp where Willy was suspected to be.
“My partner and I searched Main Camp and the surrounding area for about an hour. There were no indications that a struggle had occurred at the campsite. There were working lights, tarps, food, fire making materials, cigarettes, vodka, a tent and other survival tools at the camp,” Renolds recalled.
With a few of Willy’s personal belongings, two dog teams were called in the next day, Friday, Aug. 23, to lead search and rescue personnel around the embankments of the camp.
“The access to main camp from land was very difficult,” Reynolds wrote in a narrative.
Willy was eventually found after a thorough investigation of the camp by first responders concluded. Using machetes to clear the path leading down the location, and utilizing a large roll of rope to assist the steep ascent out, Willy was able to walk out of the embankment into a clearing where emergency responders loaded him into a rescue basket equipped with a large bicycle tire.
He was transported to Providence St. Peter Hospital for further evaluations, Reynolds wrote.
Why Willy suddenly disappeared into the dense Bald Hill woods still isn’t quite clear. James Mull said his brother reportedly told him he needed to use the restroom, walked off and never came back.
“I asked him how he became separated, he again said, ‘I like the woods,’” Reynolds recalled. “Willy said he was a logger for 17 years and knew how to survive in the woods.”
From the Thurston County Search and Rescue perspective, Guy said missing person cases can often be very difficult to maneuver, especially when you can’t locate the specific area where the person was last seen.
“It all varies, depending on the situation and the time of year,” he said. “Our volunteers, we do the best to get into even the hardest to search areas.”
Because some of Willy’s clothes were accidentally thrown out during the investigation at the camp, Det. Reynolds reached back out to the former-logger on Aug. 28 with a $200 Walmart gift card so that he could purchase some new clothes.
“I told Willy that his property had been thrown away by mistake. I then presented him with the Walmart gift card, for which he was extremely thankful,” Reynolds wrote. “Willy followed me back to my car and continued thanking me.”
Reynolds also wrote that he referenced Washington state law to see if James broke any laws by not reporting his brother for four days until his sister compelled him to. Findings were inconclusive, he said.