The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He ran out of gas in Death Valley. Days later, he was dead, park says.

The sun rises over the Panamint Mountain Range, seen from Highway 190, during a weekend of extreme record-breaking high temperatures on July 11, 2021, in Death Valley National Park. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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Days after David Kelleher disappeared into Death Valley National Park, visitors found the Southern California man dead Tuesday. He appeared to have tried to walk to find refuge in temperatures that reached as high as 123 degrees.

Kelleher’s car had been parked in the same spot for days, and when authorities searched it, they found a message confirming their fear. “A crumpled note inside Kelleher’s vehicle said, ‘Out of gas,’ ” National Park Service officials wrote Wednesday in a news release.

Officials said the 67-year-old man from Huntington Beach, Calif., had been walking from Zabriskie Point toward Furnace Creek in hopes of getting help in Death Valley National Park, which is known to be one of the hottest places on Earth. Rescue crews searched the area but the operation was limited because of the heat.

Visitors discovered Kelleher’s body Tuesday afternoon about 2½ miles from his car — but only about 30 feet from California Highway 190, the officials said.

A note helped rescuers find two missing campers in Death Valley. For one of them, it was too late.

A park ranger had first encountered Kelleher on May 30. Records show Kelleher was cited for off-road driving and, that same day, Kelleher “mentioned being low on gas,” officials said in the news release.

Then, on June 8, a park ranger noticed only one car was left in the parking lot at Zabriskie Point, a legendary Death Valley spot known for its breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. When that park ranger saw the same vehicle in the parking lot three days later, authorities initiated an investigation Saturday. They learned that the car belonged to Kelleher and initiated a search around the Golden Canyon and Badlands Trails, the officials said.

Fuel has been a problem across the United States as surging gas prices have forced many drivers to put off filling their tanks, often leaving them stranded. In April, AAA received more than 50,000 calls for roadside help from drivers who had run out of gas — a 32 percent increase from the same time the previous year.

And it comes amid a record-setting heat wave, which spread from Texas to California around the time Kelleher went missing before making its way east, sending temperatures toward the triple digits and triggering heat advisories in more than a dozen states.

But heat wave aside, Death Valley, in the northern Mojave Desert, is known for its sweltering temperatures. Last summer, Death Valley experienced a record high for the planet — a daily average of 118.1 degrees.

Death Valley had planet’s hottest 24 hours on record amid punishing heat wave

Kelleher’s death is the second fatality reported in June in the national park. John McCarry, 69, of Long Beach, Calif., was found dead June 1 in Panamint Valley. Park officials are also still searching for Peter Harootunian, who has been missing since his vehicle was noticed to be abandoned May 23. The man has not been found, and the search for him has been scaled back to limited and continuous, the officials said.

It is not known exactly how many people have died in Death Valley. Last year, two campers went missing in Death Valley after leaving a note in their car: “Two flat tires, headed to Mormon Point, have three days’ worth of water.” When authorities found them, Emily Henkel, then 27, was injured, and Alexander Lofgren, a 32-year-old Army veteran and congressional staffer, was dead.

The National Park Service cautions visitors to avoid extreme heat by forgoing low-elevation hikes after 10 a.m., staying within close range of air conditioning, and carrying drinking water and salty snacks.