Willits woman found dead days after apparently fleeing Highway 101 crash

A woman who abandoned her crashed car over the weekend on Highway 101 north of Willits was found dead Thursday morning in a nearby marsh area, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office said.

The body of Maria Shelley Young-Falkenberg, 35, of Willits,was found by search and rescue workers under about 3 feet of water about 1,000 feet from the Saturday night crash site, Capt. Greg Van Patten said.

The exact cause of her death has not been determined but initial indications are she died of exposure to freezing weather, Van Patten said.

“It was snowing in that area yesterday,” Van Patten said.

An autopsy was planned for early next week.

According to the California Highway Patrol, a northbound silver Subaru Impreza on Highway 101 near milepost 50 drove into the southbound lane about 9:50 p.m., hit a dirt embankment on the shoulder of the road and was disabled in the southbound lane. About five minutes later, a white Dodge Dart driving southbound crashed into the Subaru, said CHP Officer William Wunderlich.

The driver of the Subaru - Young-Falkenberg - fled on foot before officers arrived, but the Dodge driver described her as apparently uninjured, Wunderlich said. Deputies learned Young-Falkenberg told another motorist she did not want law enforcement to contact her, Van Patten said.

Despite help from a hand-held heat detection device and assistance from the Little Lake Fire Department, deputies were not able to find the woman that night, Van Patten said. The CHP also searched the area and could not find her.

Three nights later, deputies began hearing community reports that Young-Falkenberg might be a missing person in connection with the Saturday crash.

Deputies began investigating whether she had gone to Humboldt County, where she had family, Van Patten said. They determined Wednesday afternoon that Young-Falkenberg was not in Humboldt County and none of her known family or friends had heard from her.

The Sheriff’s Office began a search near the crash site at 7 a.m. Thursday. Young-Falkenberg’s body was found at about 9:30 a.m.

Young-Falkenberg was arrested in September on suspicion of drunken driving, driving with a suspended license and giving false identification to an officer, Van Patten said. She was released on bail, he said.

Van Patten said there was no evidence to suggest Young-Falkenberg was under the influence Saturday night, but more information would be revealed through toxicology testing. Test results would take up to six weeks, he said.

An autopsy was planned for Monday or Tuesday, Van Patten said.

He said there was no evidence of foul play.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or

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