The search for a small airplane that departed from Shafter with three people onboard and bound for Wyoming ended Sunday morning when the wreckage and bodies of the crash victims where found in the mountains of central Utah.
While the cause of the crash is under investigation, Sheriff Nathan Curtis of the Sevier County Sheriff's Office in Utah said the plane hit the side of a mountain.
"They basically didn't clear the mountain ridge," Curtis said.
The bodies recovered from the plane are believed to be those of Matthew Ahrens, 37, of Bakersfield, and his girlfriend, Trista Meyer, 34, and her daughter, Shyann Lenz, 9, according to a sheriff's office news release. The news release said Meyer and Shyann were from "Rocet," Wyo., but posts on the Facebook page "Prayers for Trista, Shy and Matt" said Shyann attended "Rozet Elementary" and asked for newspaper clippings and cards to be sent to an address in Rozet.
The flight crew of a Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter found the crash site shortly before 8 a.m. Mountain Standard Time about 12 miles from the Fillmore airport, where the plane had stopped for fuel, according to Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Ted Tingey and Curtis.
"We decided to remove the bodies of the victims from the scene," rather than hold the site until other investigators arrived, Curtis said.
"It's time for them to come home," the sheriff said.
The remains of two dogs that were also onboard the plane were found as well but left at the crash site.
The helicopter brought search and rescue personnel and deputies to the scene, and flew the bodies out of the mountainous area, Curtis said.
The small 1982 Piper Archer II plane left Minter Field airport on Nov. 25 headed for Gillette, Wyo., and went missing after stopping for fuel in Fillmore just before noon. Ahrens was returning to Wyoming with Meyer and Shyann after spending Thanksgiving with relatives in Kern County. Ahrens grew up in Bakersfield, graduated from South High and worked as an auto mechanic in Oregon and Bakersfield before relocating to Wyoming.
Last week, Donna Moran, one of Ahrens' siblings, said that Ahrens had lived in Gillette for at least four years. She said Ahrens was an experienced pilot who owned his own plane and would have known if something was wrong with the aircraft.
Ahrens' family members did not return phone calls Sunday afternoon.
The bodies were taken to Richfield, Utah, and will be sent to the Utah Medical Examiner's Office for autopsies, the news release said. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration will investigate the crash along with the sheriff's office. Curtis said an NTSB investigator will arrive in Utah today for the investigation.
The plane did not have an emergency locator transmitter onboard and no flight plan was filed for the journey, according to the sheriff's office news release.
On Sunday, the Facebook page dedicated to the trio was flooded with condolences for the families of the three crash victims. Mark Lenz, who identified himself on Facebook as Shyann's father, expressed grief at her death, and gratitude to Ahrens for his role in Shyann and Meyer's lives.
"Matt thank you for everything you did, you treated Shy very well that little girl loved you too, and you made Tris very happy and that was all I ever wanted for her to begin with," Lenz posted.
Curtis said he was glad the crash victims were found but expressed sympathy for their families.
"Our hearts go out to these families," he said, adding that the tragedy was no way "to end a holiday season."