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New documents detail how Yellowstone determined the identity of a missing man with just a foot

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Abyss Pool on a winter afternoon. PHOTO BY JACOB W. FRANK / NPS

By Darrell Ehrlick DAILY MONTANAN

Before Yellowstone National Park officials found a shoe with a human foot floating in Abyss Pool, an employee had found two shoe soles floating in the thermal spring a week earlier.

That began a weeks-long journey to find out what happened to Il Hun Ro, 70, whose foot was identified from DNA that matched a relative.

Authorities determined he died, and Ro’s death has been ruled accidental, although how and why some of his remains were found there will likely remain unsolved. No one saw him go into the thermal hot springs, and besides the shoes, nothing has been recovered.

The Abyss Pool, a hot spring, remains one of the deepest at more than 50 feet and has a temperature that averages more than 140 degrees Farenheit.

“We’ll likely never know the exact course of events. However, there are no signs of foul play or circumstances that would lead us to believe this involved more than just Mr. Ro,” said a Yellowstone spokeswoman on Tuesday.

Ro, who was living in California but is not a U.S. resident, was added to a list of people who have been injured or died because of veering too close or getting into the park’s superheated thermal pools.

A batch of documents based on a Freedom of Information request has been released through the U.S. Department of the Interior. Those reports offer some explanation about Ro’s visit to Yellowstone National Park and what may have happened.

An investigation by Yellowstone Park Rangers, Wyoming law enforcement officials, and a coroner have confirmed the foot is Ro’s, but were able to help determine his identity because his car was left abandoned after the area in West Thumb Geyser Basin had been cleared. 

Authorities believe that Ro fell into the pool on July 31, 2022. However, the shoe and foot weren’t found until Aug. 18, when a park employee noticed a shoe floating in the water and was able to reach just beyond the boardwalk with a tool to fish it out. From there, the employee noticed what appeared to be part of a human foot in the shoe, and called authorities, which triggered the investigation.

The law enforcement report chronicles an investigation that involved geologists, law enforcement officials, drone operators and rangers who were able to help close in on Ro’s identity because of his 2018 Kia that was left in a nearby parking lot.

Conducting a search of the area with drones and employees yielded no other physical clues to Ro’s disappearance or other signs of foul play. But why and how Ro entered the pool remains unsolved because authorities have never found a witness.

Ro’s car contained clothing, a laptop, notebooks, maps of the United States and Yellowstone Park maps. Ro had also spent the night of July 30 in Canyon Lodges, before checking out on July 31. When authorities tried to contact Ro through vehicle ownership records, the call went to voicemail.

Park law enforcement also tracked down Ro’s family, and one member consented to a DNA screening to positively identify the foot. According to testing done by the Wyoming State Laboratory, the DNA from the foot showed a very strong association to the family DNA, with the chances of error greater than one in 15 million.

However, since the time Ro’s shoe surfaced, no other identifying clothing or remains have been found. But the investigation notes that geologists noted a sheen of fat-like substance floating near the edges of the thermal pool and took samples for analysis. The results of those tests were not part of the documents released by the Department of the Interior.

Authorities searched files on Ro’s computer as well as had a translator read through his notebooks, concerned that there might be a suicide note. Authorities found none, according to the documents released by the Department of the Interior.

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