By Heidi Bunch
Thirteen years after the mysterious disappearance of Hawthorne resident Nita Mayo, there are still no answers as to what could have happened to the beloved nurse.
On Monday, Aug. 8, the 75-year old Mayo had traveled over Sonora Pass to do some shopping and sightseeing.
A friend of the nurse’s had called to cancel in traveling with Mayo, so the independent woman packed up her car for a day trip and headed to California.
Last seen at the Strawberry Store near Pinecrest in California, the nurse would not return to her job at Mt. Grant General Hospital. Becoming alarmed, her co-workers contacted Mineral County Sheriff’s Office and reported her disappearance. Tuolumne and Mono County law enforcement were also notified.
Mayo’s car would be seen by a Caltrans worker at Donnell Vista on that Monday night and again Tuesday morning. The worker didn’t think much about the empty car, as many backpackers also use that park at the vista to overnight.
Her 1997 Mercury Sable station wagon would be located on Wednesday the 10th of August by a Tuolumne County sheriff’s sergeant who initiated a search of the area just before nightfall. Mayo had already been missing for two days.
Search dogs were dispatched to the sight of the vehicle, but no scent was picked up other than from around the car.
When Mayo’s children: Cindy, Shelley, Tracy and Pete, heard that their mother was missing, they flew in from all over the United States, figuring she had been ran off the road but they received the news that the Mercury had been located on Donnell Vista with no sign of their mother.
Searchers from all over, including from Mineral County, combed the Donnell Vista area. Nothing was found.
Declared legally dead in 2013, the family of Mayo still hasn’t given up hope on answers as to the whereabouts of their mother. Located on a rock at the vista point, a bench has been erected in her honor as well as a plaque outside of the Strawberry Store, the last place she was seen.
Her coworkers at Mt. Grant General Hospital still honor Mayo. A missing poster remains outside the emergency room exit.
Mayo is not the only person to be reported missing from Donnell Vista Point in the last 12 years. The area has dangerous terrain, which Mayo’s children swear – she would never climb to as she is afraid of heights.
The area has a quarter mile trail which leads off from the parking lot and is surrounded by pine and cedar trees and granite rock formations. From this location, views of the Dardanelles, the Middle Fork Stanislaus River Canyon and the Donnell Reservoir can be seen.
“There was a campfire lit, right there in Mike’s campsite,” said Josh Rocha, one of Madden’s friends. “Some creepy guy popped out of the bushes and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’”
Four days later, Madden’s dog, Matilda would wander into camp. She was limping and dehydrated. No trace of Madden was ever found. His father, Larry, died at the age of 73 with no blood kin remaining and the nagging question of “Where is Michael?” still unanswered.
The area would also claim Patricia Tolhurst in 2014. The owner of Patty’s Shack in East Sonora, she had last been seen in Twain Harte, Calif. on April 18 of that year. On April 20, a letter was mailed to friends stating she would be hiking in the area of Donnell Vista. Her white Toyota 4-Runner would be found abandoned with her keys and identification inside on April 22. She had planned to visit the Kennedy Meadows Resort, eight miles to the east. A week long search gave no clues to where Tolhurst had vanished to. She has never been heard from again.
In October of 2016, Breck Phelps, age 68, disappeared from Donnell Vista while on a fishing trip. Once again, his abandoned car, a Nissan Versa, is all that remains. It was found a quarter-mile away near a trail leading to the Stanislaus River.
Phelps had in his possession his cell phone, which had been powered down and searchers were unable to track him because of this. Searchers came from all over California, including National Guard, a Black Hawk helicopter and all types of equipment was used to search the grounds and water around the area. No signs were found.
After four days, the search was “scaled back” due to access and difficult terrain.
To this day, Phelps is still listed as missing.
The disappearances go even further back. Some dating to the early 1990’s.
The children of Mayo, one who was born and raised in England and married an American soldier in the Air Force, continue to wonder about the fate of their mother.
Since her disappearance, the Independent-News has reached out on the anniversary of her death to see if new developments have occurred. To date – there are no new leads.
The family still insists that she had met with foul play. Her daughter, Tracy, had told the Independent-News in 2016 that a man who had been a patient at the clinic where Mayo worked, showed up on the day Mayo’s Mercury had been located claiming that he heard Mayo had disappeared but had been found, the latter being untrue.
“They hadn’t even started the searches yet,” Mayo explained in 2016. “He was really weird.”
The man would later be interviewed and would fail a polygraph but no arrests were made and the case went as cold as the snow that fell on Sonora Pass.
A year after the interviews, Tracy would make a 21 hour drive from her home in North Dakota to Midland, Texas to confront the person of interest to his face.
“I didn’t tell him I was coming,” she said. “I went alone which probably wasn’t too smart. I had some questions that needed answers.”
She went to his place of employment and waited. “When he saw me, I didn’t say a word. He said, ‘Hello, Tracy. How are you?’”
She was unable to extract any new or potentially incriminating information from him.
In December of 2016, Sheriff Randy Adams would be contacted by Detective Phillip Halencak of the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office in California, who was requested by the Mayo family to search the Connelly Drive area of the Hawthorne Army Depot for possible remains of the missing Hawthorne nurse. The Connelly housing area had recently been demolished and the family was requesting that a cadaver dog be used in the area.
A dog and handler from Washoe County were brought in and the area search. Unfortunately, no evidence of Mayo was found.
Seven months earlier, in May of 2016, the family had received word that human remains had been found near Pinecrest, Calif. Unfortunately for the families of both Mayo and Tolhurst, the Tuolumne County sheriff’s investigators had to inform them that the dental remains were not a match to either one of the missing ladies.
Though the Mayo case is 13 years old and could be considered to some as a “cold case” due to the lack of activity, Mineral County residents and her coworkers still actively think of the five foot tall nurse with the British accent. She is truly missing but not forgotten some say. Others have theories as to what happened that fateful day while other reminisce as to her skill as a nurse during their time of need.
A suffering mother of a missing person once wrote, “What is a Missing Person?” She explains that it is a living person without a body – a body without a soul and a voice not heard but always there.
Information is still being collected on Mayo. Those that may have information about that fateful day, 13 years ago, can reach out to the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office at 209-533-5815 or to the Mineral County Sheriff’s Office at 775-945-2434. No lead is too small.