Jon and Michelle Schmidt: Grace Found In the Search for Annie

Episode #6: Published Nov 14, 2018

When Jon and Michelle Schmidt's daughter Annie disappeared while hiking in Oregon's Columbia River Gorge in 2016, they faced every parent's worst nightmare. On this episode, Jon and Michelle share with "All In" host Jamie Armstrong how their faith in the gospel sustained them during the grueling three-week search for Annie and how her body was miraculously found.

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Read a full transcript of the episode below.

JAMIE ARMSTRONG:  On October 19, 2016, Micelle Schmidt flew to Oregon to go on a camping trip with her daughter, Annie. But when she arrived at Annie's apartment and found her not home, she knew something was terribly wrong. In the weeks that followed, Michelle and her husband, Jon, faced every parent's deepest fear as they and countless others searched for their missing daughter. On this episode, Michelle and Jon share what is ultimately a story of both deep loss and profound faith in Jesus Christ. This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, "What does it really mean to be 'all in' the Gospel of Jesus Christ?" I'm Jamie Armstrong, and I recently sat down with Jon and Michelle Schmidt to talk about their experience and to share the legacy of their daughter, Annie. 

Annie disappeared two years ago while hiking in the Columbia River Gorge. Michelle is the author of the new book, Carried, in which she shares the story of Annie's disappearance and the miracles that lead to finding her body. And you might recognize Jon from the musical group, The Piano Guys. Here's some of my conversation with them. Jon and Michelle, thank you so much for sharing such a personal experience with us. This is such a difficult topic. Can you give us a little bit of background and tell us when you first realized Annie was missing?

MICHELLE SCHMIDT:  I had scheduled a camping trip with her and I was going up to Portland to meet her. And when I started to-- I had talked to her like on Saturday and then I was going to meet her on Wednesday. And I started sending her texts on Tuesday saying, "See you tomorrow," and hadn't really heard back from her. But hadn't worried about it because, you know, she was kind of free spirit, she'd go out and about and so it wasn't anything I was worried about. And then when I got up to Portland, she wasn't there to meet me and she still wasn't answering my calls. And when her roommate answered the door, she said she was quite surprised because she said, "I thought Annie was already gone, that she'd already left with you."

JA: So when Annie's roommate said that, that must have been the moment that panic set in, and like any frantic mother, you call the police. But I understand it took a few more days for an official search to start?

MS: Because of her age, because she was not a minor, we had to wait to get an official "ping" on her cell phone. And the police began right away looking for her and they were able to locate her car. And so the search did begin before that, but as far as searching the mountains, specifically, that didn't start until after the phone was pinged. So that was like, the phone was pinged on like a Thursday, and the official search began on a Friday, but she had been missing since Sunday.

JA: And Michelle, you write in your book about a spiritual experience you had, I believe it was the day that the search started when you were just taking in the beauty of the surroundings. Can you tell us about that?

MS:  The search was beginning that Friday morning and Jon and Spencer headed up earlier with some people to begin the search, and I came up later by myself in a car. So I was driving alone up the Columbia Gorge and I had never been there before, it was the first time I was seeing it. And it was something that Annie was really excited to show me because it was just something that she loved so much. And as I was driving up by myself, I, for the first time, looked around me and just noticed the beauty of the place where I was and it was overwhelming. The day before it had been raining and this day was crisp and clean and there was still some mist and clouds, intermittent clouds as I drove up. And then the colors were just breathtaking, just vibrant blues and greens and waterfalls. And I was so overcome that I just said out loud, I just said, "Oh Annie, I understand why you love this place so much." And completely, out of the blue, she just answered. She just said, "I know mom, I knew you would love it." 

JA:  Wow. 

MS: And it was real. It was an exchange.

JA:  Was it in your head or?

MS:  It was in my head, yeah. It wasn't audible, but it was a clear sentence. 

JON SCHMIDT: It was amazing to see how sure, the certainty that you had, as you told me that, told me about that.

MS: It said to me, oh, she's in the spirit world. She just spoke to me, she's aware of me driving in the car and she saw and heard me and she's in the spirit world. And that brought so much comfort to me, even though you know, great sadness also, but just, I wasn't worried about her anymore. 

JA: She's not suffering somewhere. 

MS: Yes, it was huge. And so that enabled me to then handle the search in such a different way, rather than if I had been so anxious and worried about her suffering.

JA: And the peace that you felt, didn't you get a little bit criticized in the media for that?

MS: Totally. Because then we had all of these interviews, and they were live TV interviews. And I was just, we were in a fog, we were-- it was so surreal, the whole experience. And so I hadn't thought out anything what I was going to say, it was just raw, whatever I said was just raw, it just came out whatever I thought. And I would just say, "I feel like she's passed and I feel like she's okay, and we're searching for her body."

JS: You know what it reminded me of? It reminded me of, I think Michelle had a gift. Like with all of our kids, she knew the order. It was going to be, it's going to start out with a boy and then it was going to be a girl and then it was going to be a boy, but something about it really hard, and then a girl. And so she literally would plan their birth dates. Like when do we want this boy to have his birth? 

JA: That's incredible. 

JS: What works well for sports? I mean she has a little gift and it reminded me that, the certainty was very similar.

JA: Well, and Jon, that brings me to a question for you. When Michelle had this experience, and she felt so certain, were you on the same page? Or did it take you longer? Were you holding out hope?

JS: I didn't have the same assurance. Yeah. Yeah, Michelle was very assured. But I was for sure still holding out hope. And I was just combing the mountain, you know, all day, day after day.

MS:  And the way that he would call for her was a way that she would have responded to. We would do like this triad thing in our family where you would go, "do do do." And he would, he would just yell these triads through the mountain because he knew that she would know, "Oh, that's my dad." 

JA: Wow. Jon, you're famous for your work with The Piano Guys. I can't imagine losing a child, let alone in the public eye. How did your fame affect your experience?

JS: The thing that was amazing to us was to see so many people respond and come and help us and offer support and prayers. We literally felt like thousands of people were praying for us, we absolutely felt that. And if anything, I felt, I wish that everyone in my shoes could have this kind of support. It felt unfair. It made me ache a little bit for people that don't have that kind of support. Because we felt the power of that, undeniably.

JA: That's amazing. You're the parents of five children, some are in Utah, some are out helping you search, some are on missions. How did you hold your family together and hold on to your faith during this time? 

MS: We had a history of praying, relying on the Lord and going to Him in desperation, and other things. And so we had had experiences of trusting Him and having Him help us, carry us and deliver us. And so we relied upon our faith and our past experiences, that He had heard us, that He was aware of us and that He knew what we were going through, and that He would help us through this also. And our kids were great. Our kids also were a strength to us. There were times when they would bouy us up. And there were times when we would bouy them up. Our twins on missions were a huge strength. It would have been nice to have them there searching with us, but their strength that they received while they were on missions was such powerful faith. 

JS: It was miraculous. But you know, I felt the same thing when I was on my mission, my sister passed away. And my son, Chris, described the way he was feeling, which just described to a tee how I felt when my sister passed away on my mission. I think he used the scripture, "My angels shall be round about you to bear you up." And he said, "I feel that."And I can't remember the exact wording that he used, maybe you remember, Michelle, but it was something about he felt like somebody had hugged him so tightly that, you know, that his eyes were going to bulge out or something, he felt like he was being carried. So just such a distinct feeling of being carried and supported and hugged. 

JA: That's so powerful.

JS: The way he described it was to a tee what I felt when I found out that my sister had passed away on my mission, just this immediate comfort, and assurance.

JA: One of the things you mentioned in the book was that you talked about covenants with your family. Was that a big strength for you to draw on? 

MS: Absolutely. Absolutely. When you are stripped of everything, you know, which we weren't, I'm not saying we were, but when you feel like you are in such a desperate position, place, emotionally and spiritually and physically and you know, what do you have to hang on to? What is real, what is concrete, what is solid, what is lasting, what is enduring? Like, what do you own, what is something real? And the thing that was the most important to us was our covenants, our covenants bound us together, then they bound us to the Lord. And there was nothing that was going to break that, you know, it was, it was something that was so real to us that it was so comforting, we were safe. We were completely safe in our covenants and no death or nothing, nothing was going to take away what our covenants had given us. And as we drove into the search on Saturday morning, we were absolutely blown away to see tents set up and tables set up and the parking lot filled with people and people streaming in and people already. And these were, I think it was the church up there in Oregon, that had set up their own search and they wanted to cooperate with the official search. And they didn't want to get in the way, but the hundreds of people that showed up that day. And they had their own maps, and they had their GPS coordinates and they were sending out people in such an organized way and then there were tents set up with food. And food was just being brought in all throughout the day and water, to feed the volunteers. And it was just this amazing well-oiled machine that was just running completely unbeknown to us.

JS: It was a lifesaver.

MS: And then to see people from Utah, just flooding in. Just my ward and my neighborhood and my stake and people, other people in Utah, and friends and the support was absolutely overwhelming.

JS: Yeah, as far as the actual help, I think most of it was from the church. The actual hands-on help that we received was from a stake, that we had no idea who they were up there, and they just came out because

MS: They knew we needed help. 

JS: They knew one of their members needed help. 

JA: What a bittersweet experience that must have been to have thousands of people supporting you. I read in your book that because there were other people missing in the area, resources were stretched really thin and the official search for Annie only lasted three days.It had to be so heartbreaking when, at the end of those three days, there was still no sign of Annie. What happened next?

MS: At the end of that last day, that Sunday night, we were so empty. We were completely spent and so sad and just depleted. 

JS: And a lot of our personal prayers were, you know, we felt like Heavenly Father could have told us where she was so easily and chose not to. And that was hard. That was very emotionally hard.

JA: Yeah, understandable.

MS: To hang on to your faith to trust that he's hearing you and wondering why. Why is this not working out? Why are you not answering us? And so as people began to leave, and as the crew packed up and left, we kind of just milled around in the parking lot there with a handful of us, my brothers and John Harding and a couple of others that stayed. And my son, Spencer, decided to ask john Harding to take over the search. He just stepped up to the plate and decided to keep going.

JA: So people kept searching for weeks, is that true?

MS: Yes. There were some that never stopped searching. The search actually never ended, the official search ended, but John Harding agreed to take over the search, kind of being the head or the manager of it. But we were all out of Utah, the people that were up in Portland, there were several that kept searching like Lydia McGranahan and Dave Perry, and there were others that went out and just kept looking.

JA: And in your book, you mentioned several miracles that happened that eventually led searchers to find Annie's body on November 11. Can you tell us about a miracle that you experienced?

MS: There were several, I think the very first one that comes to mind is just receiving guidance as to know what to do, how to move forward. Because there were so many ideas, there were people contacting us saying you need to do this, you need to do that, and we want to hold a vigil, and we want to contact this agency, and it was overwhelming. And Jon and I were trying to muddle through it and talk with Jon Harding, and we didn't know what to do. It was like trying to decide something when your brain is in shock.

JS: And we heard that several hikers had gone missing on that same area and hadn't been found. And it had been, in some cases, years. 

JA: Oh, wow.

MS: So there was the possibility that we would never find her. But we had such a strong desire to do so, obviously.

JS: I don't think I could have functioned in life if we hadn't found her.

JA: Why do you think it was so important for you to find her body?

JS: Knowing that we had found her and had a funeral and having that comfort, I was able to go forward and not feel like I should be, I should be coordinating with the search, you know, I there's no way I could have done it. I would have been feeling, the whole time, we're not going to move on from this. We're going to keep trying to find Annie until we find her. And that just doesn't mix with concert tours.

JA:  Or everyday life in general.

MS:  Right, I think too, it made me think about the worth of our body. Like I had never thought of before, because so many of us hate our bodies and are unhappy with them, and wish that they were different. And I remember saying to Heavenly Father because I believe that Annie had passed and at this point, I think it was obvious that she had, but still, we wanted her body. And I remember saying to Heavenly Father, I kind of helped make this body, and I feel like we might have a little bit of claim upon it, so will you please help us get it back? And as I thought about our bodies, it gave me a whole new respect for how precious they are. They house our spirits, but they are sacred. Our bodies are a part of our identity and they will rise with us in the resurrection and they will be glorious and we need to not hate them. And this is one thing I mentioned in the book, I am certain that Annie looked down on her body and said, "Why did I waste so much time being unhappy with you? You were a great body."And we just realized, I realized for the first time, the value and how precious our actual, physical bodies are.

JA:  That's such a beautiful perspective. We could all learn a lesson from that. 

MS:  Yeah.

JS: I think that, in the condition that she was in when she was found, I don't think she should have been found. She went so far off-trail. She just saw the place she wanted to go and went straight from her car.

MS: Off-trail.

JA: Because she was an experienced hiker? 

MS: She was crazy, she could go up anything. And she always was that way, even as a little girl, she could just scamper up anything.  

JA: Okay, it was a big passion of hers.

MS: Oh, yeah.

JS: She absolutely, in my opinion so easily could not have been found. 

MS: That's another mircale. 

JS: And the fact that we got these dog teams that we got, they were special dog teams. They were just special. And it was an absolute miracle that would be, probably take about a half-hour to explain, but without that miracle, she so easily could not have been found. I would have bet that she wouldn't be found. 

MS: No, I don't think she would have been found without dogs. So that was another miracle, is that we were able to assemble dog teams. Annie Castiel took the lead of helping us find those under the direction of John Harding.

JS: And that was like a last-ditch effort. She tried many, many avenues and came to a dead-end and was about to give up. And I think what she was able to put together was miraculous.

MS:  And the fact that these people were willing to come. And the fact that we had some people in our neighborhood, that did kind of a GoFundMe type thing to raise the money to pay for them to go out there was a miracle. And the morning that they began their search, it was a clear morning, and it hadn't been, it had been raining and raining. And it was a perfect day for searching in the mountains, a perfect day for a dog to pick up a scent, and that was another miracle. And the first day there were two dogs that caught scents at the base of the Munra cliffs. They couldn't pinpoint anything, but the fact that two dogs marked a scent was a huge find. And that was a miracle. And then the next morning, when Liz with her dog Roo went up with Lydia McGranahan. And the morning that they went up, Lydia took them right back to the spot where the other dogs had marked, and the dog, Roo, immediately caught the scent 

JA: In the same location?

MS: In the same location and took off. And that was a miracle.

JS: And all of the locals were saying we've done everything we can do with dogs. No other dog efforts, we're going to-- they hit a drop, I think one dog or something.

JA:  Maybe there we more, I just, it didn't seem like the amount that we had hoped and had been told it would be. So what do we know or what do you believe happened to Annie?

MS: So because she was found at the base of cliffs, we feel like she fell. And later, my brother, who is a rock climber, went up with a friend of theirs,

JS: She probably climbed up a way up the cliff and then slipped.

MS: They went rappelling and went back and tried to retrace her steps, and felt like they had seen enough evidence of moss being ripped off the side of the cliff and things to verify that she most likely had slipped and fallen. 

JA: Okay. After going through such a difficult experience, why did you choose to write a book?

MS: Well, it's something I never wanted to do or never, not that I was opposed, I just never thought about writing a book. And I have a sister, named Angie Taylor, who is a writer. She got a degree in writing and she kept trying to write about this experience. And finally, one day she called me and she just said, "This isn't my story, this is your story." And I said, "Yeah, you're probably right." But still, had no desire to write a book. And then she said, "Well, let's just go meet with Desert Book and see what they think." We came and met with some people here, and they were very supportive and excited about me being able to share my story in conjunction with past experiences that have helped our faith to grow, helped our ability to rely upon the Lord, become stronger and stronger. So then we decided, well, maybe we'll try it. Maybe Angie and I will write this book together. And then just where we were in our lives, I just wasn't feeling it and I wasn't going to do it, like, isn't it, I don't want to do it. And we were moving and we finally got settled into a home several months later, like, almost nine months later. And once we got settled, I just began waking up very early, four or five in the morning, with just a flood of ideas of what to write. And I would just get up and write as quickly as I could. And I would write down the chapter and what it would be titled and what would be in it. And sometimes I didn't even know what was in the chapter because I was writing so quickly what was coming to me. And it happened over a period of about three months that I couldn't sleep, I would just be woken up early and write. And it ended up being extremely therapeutic for me to write. It was very healing for me to think through everything that had happened and to record my experiences from my journal of times when my faith had been strengthened. It was a beautiful experience for me, very healing.

JS: You mean look back into your journal? 

MS: To look back into my journals and go back and share some things that were most precious to me. And it just kind of came about that way, I really hadn't decided to do it but it just came to me. And so I hope that it will be the means of blessing somebody. I hope something that I share, you know, it's really, it's crazy I'm doing this because I'm really a very private person. And I don't post anything, and I don't have a desire to share anything, but I do have a desire to share if I can make a difference for good.

JA: I admire people so much who can allow us into their most vulnerable thoughts and feelings. So thank you so much for sharing that with us. What is the biggest lesson you have learned from losing Annie?

MS: I think that the message that Jon and I would desire to share is that we have a Heavenly Father, and we have a Savior. They are aware of us, they love us, and we can trust them. Whatever we experience in life, whatever the nature of our challenge if we stay connected and close to them, they will lead us through.

JA: It might not always feel like it, but it will happen.

MS:  Yeah, I mean, the trials are brutal. They're hard. But I have such a witness that they are able to turn everything to our good.

JA: How do you continue to honor Annie, even now? And is there anything you'd ask of the people listening? Is there a way that we can honor Annie?

MS: Well, yes, a definite way. Annie was passionate about loving others. She was passionate about reaching out, and befriending and noticing those that might have felt left out or marginalized. And if there's one thing she would love, it is for us to love. To reach out, outside of our comfort zones, outside of our circles, to become more like the Savior in the way that we love. 

JA: And in your book, you publish something called "Annie's Manifesto." And it's a letter to her twin brothers, who are just starting High School. And I think it so beautifully illustrates her heart. Can you read a few paragraphs of her manifesto for us?

MS: Yes, of course, she wrote, "If you want to be truly remembered and have a lasting influence on your school and community, strive to always be motivated by love. Desire to serve because you care about your eternal brothers and sisters all around you. The best kind of leader is motivated by charity, the pure love of Christ. If you sit by lonely people at lunch because you care about them, you will be happy. If you invite people who are different, the same, insecure, mediocre, stand out or blend in, to join you in your friends' circle. And if they can feel that care and charity from you, and see the effect of them grasping the fact that you are doing this not for attention or to be popular or to be good or whatever, but for them, you will be happy. Keep the spirit with you, and do every random thing he prompts you to do. And I promise that you will make a mark for good, not only in the heart of your school but upon each and every human heart you take even just five minutes to care for and to encounter every day. I promise that this mark you make will be lasting."

JA: Thank you so much for sharing Annie with us. It's beautifully written and to see little glimpses of her and her heart, she truly lived what she believed. 

MS: She did. 

JA: It's so rare, we can all definitely learn a lesson from Annie. 

MS: Thank you, 

JA: Jon, Michelle, after going through everything you've been through, what have you learned about what it means to to be "all in" the gospel of Jesus Christ from this experience?

MS: The thing that keeps us absolutely tethered to the gospel of Jesus Christ is the Book of Mormon. We have had countless witnesses, countless personal experiences with the Book of Mormon that have testified to us that this book is a true record. And it's a true testimony of Jesus Christ. And just reading from this book daily, it is a constant means of keeping us connected, connected to Heavenly Father and receiving personal revelation. I mean it doesn't happen every day, of course not. But in striving to read it every day, it has had this cumulative effect of building up a witness that this book is true, and that the person that brought this book forth, is a true prophet of God. Joseph Smith could not have done this without divine help and being called of God to do this. And I feel that without the Book of Mormon, I don't know that my testimony would be as strong as it is, I mean, I know it wouldn't be as strong as it is. But the Book of Mormon has enabled me and it helped me through my search. Through the time we were searching for Annie, it was a daily opportunity to feel God's love, to feel that I was standing upon the rock of Jesus Christ, that He was real, that he helped me fight, that he helped Alma, that he helped all of these people and that he would help me. I would receive a witness, day-to-day, that was real. It was real, I cannot deny it. And for me, to leave the church, I would have to deny those things that I have felt from the Book of Mormon. And I could never do that and be true to who I am and myself. Because they are so real.

JA: Beautiful.

JS: We were talking about this as we were driving and the comparison that came to my mind is when I hear an artist, a musical artist, do something that makes me cry, that moves me to tears, I'm a fan. And I think about the Book of Mormon, and I've had that times hundreds, where something has moved me so deeply in my life, I can't even keep track of them all. But I would say that I am a-- if you can be a fan of the Book of Mormon, I am a huge fan. And I don't know how you could, like, reverse that regard that you feel when something has touched you so deeply, I don't know. But it would have to be reversed, it would have to be undone somehow. All of those hundreds of moments would have to be somehow discounted or forgotten. But my regard for the Book of Mormon is so deep and if somebody were to say to me, you have to, you know, the effect of the Book of Mormon or the strength of the Book of Mormon, or what you get from the Book of Mormon has to diminish. I would say I'm not okay. That's not gonna be okay. That's something that I rely on, that is something that is so real for me. And I just, maybe you can keep that regard for the Book of Mormon and leave the church. Maybe it's possible. But as I think about that question, I don't know how that's possible. Because I wouldn't want it, even want it to diminish at all. And it's such a power for me that it stands up to all of the tough questions.

JA: Thanks for listening to this episode of All In. We'll have a link to Michelle's book, Carried, in our show notes at LDSliving.com/allin. To listen to more episodes of this podcast, go to LDSliving.com/allin, or subscribe on Stitcher, iTunes, Desert Bookshelf PLUS+, or anywhere else, you get your podcasts.