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Tuesday, July 7, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Searchers Help Mourners Find Closure Lakes, Rivers Sometimes Slow To Give Up Bodies Of Drowning Victims

FOR THE RECORD: Tuesday, February 13, 1996 Mark Bondeson, who drowned last November in Priest Lake, was 35. His age was wrong in a Monday article.

Five weeks after her husband drowned, Dusty Brown finally got some peace of mind. Richard Brown’s body was found in the Clark Fork River in January.

Kathy Knox is less fortunate. The body of her boyfriend, Mark Bondeson, never has been found since he disappeared in Priest Lake last November.

In this region of lakes and rivers, drownings are all too frequent.

The business of looking for victims can be time-consuming, dangerous and expensive.

But a successful search can end nagging suspicions of police investigators and ease payment of insurance benefits. Perhaps most significantly, it relieves the minds of loved ones.

“It’s more of a closure than anything,” said Brown, widow of the Coeur d’Alene firefighter who drowned while duck hunting along the Clark Fork. “Emotionally, you still have hope they will come back if they don’t find a body - that they’re out there, walking around somewhere.”

Kootenai County divers and sheriff’s deputies who had worked with Rich Brown doggedly looked for his body. That kind of attitude prevails whether or not the victim is a friend, Dusty Brown said.

“They feel like they failed their job if they don’t bring someone home.”

Alan Key knows the feeling. He’s search and rescue coordinator for the Grant County Sheriff’s Department in central Washington.

“Probably the most difficult thing to do in law enforcement is to tell someone a person in their family has become a drowning victim,” he said. “You go through the grieving they go through.”

He recalled a father who stood on the banks of O’Sullivan Lake, anxiously watching search efforts after his son’s fishing boat had capsized. With the help of sonar and information from a surviving fishing buddy, volunteers found the body.

“It was just a huge relief when I talked to the dad,” Key said. “When they’re given their loved one back, they can finally get somewhat on with their lives.”

Sometimes, a “drowning” turns out to be an elaborate insurance scam.

Bonner County diver Bob Garrison, who looked for Bondeson, recalled the 1993 search for fisherman Kenneth Nelson. The Post Falls taxi driver had disappeared in the Pend Oreille River. Divers even looked in the turbine intakes at Albeni Falls Dam.

Nelson, who had money problems and four life insurance policies, later turned up out of state, very much alive.

That is rare. Most of the time, searchers say, people really do drown.

Their bodies occasionally show up on their own.

A fisherman drowned in the Columbia River the day after Thanksgiving last year. Fall flooding forced river operators to empty the reservoirs, Key recalled, making water levels 10 feet higher than usual. Search efforts, including flights above the shoreline, turned up nothing.

“Then a Benton County deputy got a call from someone who found him … 70 miles down river,” Key said.

In shallow lakes, bodies usually surface. The water gets warm enough to cause decomposition; the resulting gases make the bodies rise.

But deep, cold lakes such as Priest and Pend Oreille do not let go. Nor are they hospitable to divers.

Scuba gear, which is used by search and rescue units, restricts divers to 100 feet or so. When they go deeper, they risk lung damage.

A quick drop to 150 feet is possible, said Tom Michalski of the Kootenai County dive team - but only if an exact location is known.

Herbert Beuer fell into about 160 feet of water in 1993 while trying to untangle fishing line from his motor. His wife watched from the boat as he flailed. His body never was found.

“We spent 21 hours with a camera looking for him,” said Garrison.

But counties can’t afford the most sophisticated sonar and underwater cameras.

There are limits even to the equipment the U.S. Navy has at its Acoustic Research Center on Lake Pend Oreille.

The Navy chose the Bayview site for submarine-related work because the lake reaches depths of 1,100 feet. But the research involves low-frequency sound equipment, said Lt. Cmdr. Rick Schulz - not the high-frequency sonar needed to find bodies in deep lakes. And the Navy’s remote device is labor-intensive and requires a platform.

Still, Schulz was able to help the family of Pearlyene Gimeno, a Spokane woman who died last June in Loon Lake north of Spokane. He referred the family to United Marine Services, a Spokane company that specializes in deep-water industrial work.

Gimeno, 33, was alone in the family boat. She turned the engine off, placed her watch on her towel and apparently went for a swim in water that was 90 feet deep.

The Stevens County Sheriff’s Department couldn’t find her body. A diver hired by the family had no luck despite frequent searches.

“It’s the most devastating thing I’ve ever experienced,” said Gimeno’s mother, Joan Severson. “You sit here and wait three-and-a-half months. … It’s really hard.”

In October, United Marine Services accom plished in two hours what the diver could not do in 100 hours. The company found the body using sophisticated sonar.

Co-owner Roger Rouleau doesn’t seek out such jobs. They’re too difficult emotionally, he said. But his company will take the work if families have exhausted other possibilities.

United Marine Services divers rarely use scuba equipment. Instead, they use diving helmets with air lines, scuba tanks for backup and stay in communication with the surface. They use decompression chambers and, in extreme cases, a special atmospheric suit.

While a search of several hours would cost up to $2,000, Rouleau said he charged only a couple of hundred dollars in the Gimeno case.

“This gal up there had twins; I have twins.”

Bonner County detective Gary Johnston could use that kind of help. He’d like to close his thick case file on Mark Bondeson, a 26-year-old carpenter.

Bondeson apparently fell out of his disabled fishing boat when it was being towed by two friends from Papoose Island to Hill’s Resort at Priest Lake on Nov. 17.

Friends and volunteers scoured the shorelines. For two days after, searchers with a fish-finder tried to locate the body, to no avail.

Debbie Butler was among Priest Lake volunteers who looked for Bondeson. The search highlighted her own fear of water.

It helped her to attend Bondeson’s memorial service, even though she didn’t know him.

“I found out he loved fishing; he loved the lake. That was where he wanted to be,” Butler said. “That kind of gave me peace.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Washington and Idaho recreational fatalities

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