Klamath Sheriff Hails High-tech Gear
By Barney Lerten, bend.com and the Bend (Oregon) Bugle

October 8 - High-tech gear that helped locate three drowning victims at the bottom of Crescent and Odell Lakes over the weekend is “an incredible resource,” Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evenger said Tuesday, vowing to make sure his colleagues around the state are aware of the tool’s availability and usefulness.

“I would say it’s an incredible resource, and for some of these families it’s a godsend to be able to put a closure to their loved one’s drowning,” Evenger said after the side-scan sonar-equipped boat brought in by Gene and Sandy Ralston of Kuna, Idaho, found the three victims in three days of looking.

“Quite frankly, it’s also brought a lot of piece of mind to residents who use the lake,” Evenger said. And the sheriff said while there’s closure for all involved, there’s a direct financial benefit as well to the families of some victims. When a body isn’t recovered, “the death investigation is left open, and a lot of times, families are not able to get benefits associated with the person until the death certificate is issued,” Evenger said.

Two of the bodies already have been recovered from the murky depths, and a third such operation is planned later this week with the aid of another high tech device: a remote-operated, camera-equipped underwater vehicle, being brought in from Colorado to better pinpoint where divers need to go.

On Friday, working on Odell Lake, Ralston and his sonar-equipped boat, the Sandy Jean, found the body of Gerald Peck, 38, of Riddle, on the lake’s floor, about 160 feet below the surface. Peck drowned on June 27 of this year, Evenger said, while out on the lake in his 16-foot fiberglass fishing boat with a modified transom, outriggers and other fishing gear. “He had the transom into the wind, started taking water out of the back and the boat sank,” the sheriff said.

Moving to Crescent Lake on Saturday, Ralston found the body of Harley Olsen, 20, of Eugene, one of three people in a canoe that capsized on the lake in June 2001. Ralston’s effort to narrow the search area was aided by John Kent of Bend, who was fishing on the lake that day and rescued two teenagers from the overturned canoe, but was unable to find Olsen despite hours of looking with his “fish finder” device.

Then, on Sunday, Ralston found the body of Robert Hunt, 19, also of Eugene, another canoeist who drowned on Crescent Lake in September 2000. Peck’s body was recovered by Klamath County Sheriff’s Dive Team members on Saturday and Olson’s body was recovered Sunday, but it was taking some extra time to work out the logistics for recovery of Hunt’s body from about 180 feet down, Evenger said.

Pressure on divers leaves ‘road-map scars’ for days

Add in the altitude, and the body is at an equivalent depth of 220 feet, the sheriff said. “The divers are going to use a special gas mix – three gases mixed together in their tank,” Evenger said. “We’re still assessing it.” The remote-operated vehicle (ROV) is likely to be put in the water Wednesday or Thursday to better define the body’s location, the sheriff said.

 “Until last year, we didn’t have at the sheriff’s office even a camera to look” for underwater objects, Evenger said. “We used a lot of resources to find them first. The problem with a diver, at that depth, is the pressure is so great, the diver receives such a squeeze … (they have) ‘road-mapping’ scars for several days. You need to be able to put the diver down on the place you know where they are at. You can’t send them down just to look around, only to recover (the body).”

Evenger said Ralston contacted him by e-mail in early July, offering his services later in the year.
“After we exhausted a couple more rounds camera searches, we abandoned that (and) contacted him,” scheduling the October visit, the sheriff said. “The divers, that’s what they do,” he said. “They would much rather be on a rescue mission than a recovery mission, but as a secondary duty, they do recover (bodies).”

Evenger said of Ralston’s services, “Absolutely, it’s money well spent. The unfortunate part is, we’ve had three … drownings in similar locations, a couple in similar circumstances. I don’t know if in the future I’d wait to have three” before calling in such a device for locating them.

“Certainly, it’s a tool we’re going to share with other sheriff’s offices across the state, let them know it’s available, and what the capabilities are,” the sheriff said. “I believe there are only three similar devices in the Northwest. Obviously, the operator is the most key component, and Mr. Ralston sure has a knack for reading the data off the (computer) screen.”

Evenger said a black and white infrared camera would be dropped down the anchor and marker lines to look for Hunt’s remains, but Monday’s try was unsuccessful due to high winds. The sheriff said he’s also “pretty excited about” use of the remote-operated submersible to help in future efforts, and that Ralston will help train a dive team member how to operate that device, as he has some knowledge about it.

On Saturday, Olsen’s body was found 166 feet below the surface of Crescent Lake. Kent was pleased to be able to help once again by recounting where he had been on the lake, thus narrowing the field of search for the body.

“We’re three for three (on the weekend),” Ralston said. “John (Kent) got us within 150 feet” of where Olson’s body was found. “The other (earlier drowning) was at night, with no witnesses other than the survivor” - coincidentally, with a last name of Harley.

Kent, a school bus driver, had been fishing for kokanee when he set off across the choppy, windswept lake that June day last year. After the 16-foot canoe overturned about 500 yards offshore, near the Crescent Lake Campground, he was able to get Chris Conklin, 15, and Mariah Schneider, 17, into his boat. But despite spending several hours using his boat’s sonar “fish finder,” crisscrossing the water, he wasn’t able to find the missing man in the cold, deep lake, nor could divers or marine patrols in the days that followed.

Ralston, an environmental consultant, offers law enforcement and search and rescue personnel the assistance of his side-scan sonar system (http://gralston1.home.mindspring.com/), for expenses. He explains on his Website how traditional searches with divers, underwater cameras and even remote operated vehicles (ROVs) can be made more difficult, even dangerous, by a lack of exact location and the water’s visibility, current and underwater obstructions. He helped retrieve a drowning victim for the first time in early 1999 and has been working across the West since, with more finds each year.

The sonar system uses the same sort of medical ultrasound technology that expectant parents are familiar with, in their first view of babies, still inside the womb. Recent dramatic increases in the technology have led to much higher resolution, making it possible to use the sonar gear to find drowning victims, Ralston said.

Ralston’s sonar “transducer” is housed in a towfish, towed through the water, 10 to 20 feet above the bottom. The reflected acoustic returns are processed into an image, similar to an aerial photo, that is viewed real-time on a computer monitor on the boat. Typically, it can search a swath 60 to 120 feet wide, at about 2 miles per hour. A global positioning system (GPS) is used to guide the boat along a predetermined grid and to mark any found objects.

Ralston learned of the Crescent Lake drowning from bend.com and offered his services, if and when desired. Ralston said of Kent, “He’s a cool guy. That’s why we were so happy he could come along.” “Here on Crescent (Lake), it’s been gorgeous, awesome,” Ralston said Sunday. “We had some windy days on Odell (Lake).”

This year’s 12 retrievals included four homicide victims in California, located at the request of the FBI at the bottom of New Melones Lake, northwest of Yosemite National Park, Ralston said. “It was a Russian Mafia kidnapping scheme,” he recalled. “Two (victims) were in 325 feet of water and the other two were at 220 feet.”

Also on the boat over the weekend was Capt. Conrad Caillouette of the Klamath County Sheriff’s Dive Rescue Team, who was quite impressed with the system employed by Ralston. “This technology that he uses is just fantastic,” Cailluette said. “It’s a step in things. He locates it, we use surface-supplied air to go down and bring these people to the surface. His finding technology is far superior to whatever’s around here, and I like to think our diving technology is superior. The one he dropped us on this morning was 4 ½ to 5 feet away from the bottom line – that’s how close.”

The divers now use lights and their own high-tech gear, but at the depths they work at, it’s still a challenge to do the job, he explained. “There’s a big helmet that goes over our head, and an infrared camera that goes on top of that,” linked to the boat above, Caillouette explained, noting that sometimes, the boat operators see the object on the camera’s image before the divers do.

“It’s just incredible,” the SAR captain said, as the device and what it can find brings closure – not just for friends and family of the victims, but the searchers as well. “We’ve spent weeks and weeks and weeks looking – and now we’re getting answers,” he said.  “One body took an hour or two, the second even less. … It’s picked up the morale of everybody. There’s hours and hours of getting out there and looking and looking – it’s tough.”

Ralston admitted that while he’s typically paid just for expenses, “It’d be nice to make a little money at it.” He said he has two more bodies to look for in California and Nevada, once the visit to Oregon is over.

Kent, a bend.com member, shared his recollections of Saturday’s trip on the lake with bend.com. Here are some excerpts:

“Using grid coordinates provided by Klamath County SAR, we headed out to what was supposed to be the drowning location. A bit of confusion ensued because there are two drowning victims out in the lake.”

“After convincing the SAR deputies that ... Harley was closer to the campground than where we were headed, we searched for the cabin where the survivors from my rescue were taken to recover,” he wrote.

“The lake is down 38 feet from June 2001, and the shoreline without docks looked different to me, (so) I had a difficult time locating the cabin,” Kent wrote. “(Caillouette) radioed shore to have other SAR members walk out from the cabin. First it was cabin No. 42, then they decided it was No. 28, and then they concluded it was #8 after reading their incident reports. … They wanted to bring me ashore and look for the cabin, but since I had never driven to the cabin from the road, I told them I didn’t have a clue as to which driveway to go down. Finally, a SAR member walked out from the correct cabin on the shoreline and we began our search.”

“Gene has two computers on board, one a laptop used for sophisticated mapping and GPS location and one in a topless cooler under his steering wheel,” Kent said. “He also has a separate GPS unit and the biggest fish finder I have ever seen. Radios, sensors, wires, LCD displays, winch control, leg strap-on mouse pad, stored keyboard, power converter, power strips fill his two-person cabin. … A generator sits up front with its cable winch and ‘fish’. The winch spool holds 1000 feet of Kevlar-reinforced cable and Gene’s wife states they don’t think they will ever use it all.”

“We begin the search by defining the outer limits, the points that I think are well outside the rescue location. (It) turns out this is a rectangle 2,000 feet long and 1,000 feet wide. His laptop records all of this information and sets up a grid search with a series of 21 points on each side of the center starting point. The job of the first mate is to keep the boat online to the same point on the other side of the rectangle while Gene fiddles with the ‘gain’ and elevation controls of the side-scan (sonar) receiver ‘fish’.”

“On the first pass down the middle, Gene says this lake is very ‘sterile,’ meaning not too many objects on the lake floor. His display looks much like looking at black and white photos of the moon, except his display colors are shades of orange and yellow, depending on his ‘gain’ settings. Pointing out things like where possibly a boat anchor was drug along the lake bottom and pockets where items have dropped into the lake, Gene states that the bottom is quite possibly muddy. Since he is using sound beams, he can’t determine the clarity of the water down there, but his side-scan (sonar) can see very clearly.”

“On the first pass, Gene records a couple of possible hits by hitting F5 on his laptop. These can then be studied at a later time and precisely located again if needed,” Kent wrote. ‘Turing around for the second pass, Gene is using the other channel of his (sonar) and explains he likes to work uphill, toward the shore. Gene settles in and takes a big sigh, gets comfortable and says, ‘This can be quite boring.’ Approaching the midpoint of the search pattern, suddenly Gene cries out: ‘We found Harley!’ Excitement, jubilation and congratulations are passed all around.”

“Not sensing the gravity of the moment, I am a casual bystander who does my best to share the incredible find,” Kent added. “Second pass and less than 30 minutes into the search, Gene and machine find a body that has been interned 166 feet down in the lake for (16) months. A body that was lost in a canoe accident that happened on a day when the lake should have been left alone to its high, white-capped waves.”

Reprinted with permission from the author

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