In June 2018 in Lake Pleasant, Arizona, Joseph Casey was enjoying a day out with new friend Helena Ramirez. But when their Jeep broke down in a remote part of the park, Casey went in search of help – and never returned. Two weeks later, a body was discovered nearby. But how did a simple adventure go so wrong?
Set in the mountains surrounded by Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, Lake Pleasant is an oasis of picturesque calm in an often harsh and unforgiving landscape. Moreover, it provides a welcome respite from the city heat for many of the more than four million people living in the nearby Phoenix metropolitan area.
Lake Pleasant is a popular place to hike, bathe and fish. It’s easy to think of it – and the 23,000-acre park that surrounds its waters – as one of America’s safer outdoor destinations. However, the desert always comes with its own risks. And sometimes an innocent outing can quickly turn into a deadly nightmare.
Joesph Casey, 34, was from Howard Beach, an affluent neighborhood in the Queens borough of New York City. He went to high school in the coastal village of Bellmore some 20 miles to the east. He later moved to Phoenix, Arizona, to study nutrition at the city’s Paradise Valley Community College.
Afterwards, Casey stayed in the area to attend Arizona State University, before moving on to a career in the United States Navy. Later, he would leave the military and begin working in insurance. And by June 2018, he lived in Peoria, a city located in the suburbs some 15 miles northwest of Phoenix.
Later in June 2018, Casey would embark on a fateful trip to Lake Pleasant. He had recently met a woman named Helena Ramirez, and on June 21 the pair decided to head out in his Jeep Wrangler to enjoy a day out.
According to Ramirez, the trip started pleasantly enough. But after spending the day relaxing on the lake’s northern shore, they decided to drive back – and that’s when the trouble started. Casey’s vehicle came to a halt, and despite his attempts the engine would not restart.
Although Lake Pleasant is around an hour’s drive away from the center of Phoenix, some parts of the park remain relatively remote. And so, Casey decided to venture out in search of help. Ramirez said he spotted some people in the distance. He then decided to ask them for assistance, leaving the vehicle at around 4:30 p.m.
“There [were] people at the top of the hill that were going to take [Casey] somewhere to get help. So he walked up there, came back down and said goodbye and took off,” Ramirez recalled in a June 2018 interview with local news network Fox 10 Phoenix. And, watching him climb into a dark vehicle, she naturally assumed he would soon return.
“[Casey] made it sound like he was going to be back,” Ramirez continued. “But he never showed up.” Confused – and alone in the desert – she eventually managed to find a ride back to Peoria, some 30 miles south of Lake Pleasant Regional Park. But when she arrived at Casey’s home, the Navy veteran was nowhere to be seen.
Finding Casey’s house empty, Ramirez took her own vehicle and drove home. But when a day passed with no news, she decided to report her friend missing to the authorities, and they soon launched an investigation. However, police had little to go on. They found that both Casey’s bank card and keys had remained with Ramirez in the Jeep.
As part of their probe, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office seized Casey’s vehicle – although they could find no clues as to where its owner might have gone. And as the days passed without any developments, volunteers and friends of the missing man began descending on Lake Pleasant.
The search for Casey continued. Local news outlets carried the story and interviewed those who had last seen him. “I think he’s alive,” Ramirez told Fox 10 Phoenix. “He’s too much of a tough cookie not to be alive.” Then, five days after Casey disappeared, the local off-roading community joined in the search.
With its rugged terrain, the area around Lake Pleasant is popular with motorists keen to explore off the beaten track and put their vehicles to the test. And when Casey disappeared, the community kicked into gear to help search for the missing man. It all started on June 26, when an unnamed friend of Casey’s contacted Will Rollins for help.
In response, Rollins, who shares a mutual friend with Casey, created a Facebook event that locals subsequently shared around a number of off-roader groups. And soon, more than 50 people had arrived in Lake Pleasant to help scour the area where the Navy veteran had last been seen.
And at first, the group seemed hopeful that they might locate the missing man alive. “If he is still out there, he’s going to be very dehydrated, probably won’t be able to speak or move,” Rollins told Fox 10 Phoenix. “It’s really a matter of trying to locate him as soon as possible. We’re looking for anything – any kind of clothing on trees or bushes where he may have taken refuge or something.”
But despite combing the area for two days, the off-roaders still couldn’t find Casey. Similarly, authorities struggled to find any clues to explain his disappearance. And even though they noted that the missing man had security cameras installed at his Peoria home and a gate had been left open, they did not suspect foul play.
Then, at 6:30 p.m. on July 6, police received the phone call that they had been dreading. A body had been discovered in the French Creek area of Lake Pleasant. Unfortunately, the badly decomposed remains initially made it impossible to determine who they may belong to.
Three days later, police confirmed from fingerprints that the body belonged to Casey. But what had happened after he left Ramirez, and how had the fit and healthy young man died? An autopsy revealed no evidence of trauma or foul play. This led the medical examiner to record an initial verdict of accidental death.
Currently, investigators are awaiting the results of a toxicology report which could shed further light on the strange circumstances surrounding Casey’s disappearance. But unless they reveal something unexpected, it seems likely that he died due to an unfortunate accident caused by the searing desert heat.