{child_flags:special_report}{child_flags:popular}{child_flags:featured}{child_flags:enterprise}{child_flags:centerpiece}{child_flags:watchdog}{child_flags:topical}‘Bring Lee Home’

{child_byline}By STEPHEN LEE

UPDATE: Wednesday evening, authorities said the large search for Lee Weber conducted since July 3 will be scaled back “after discussions with his family.” This is a revised version of the earlier online story.

Only half an hour after the sun rose into smoke-like clouds hanging low over the Missouri River on Wednesday, the searchers began to gather again in the Fort Pierre parking lot between the Silver Spur and the Bad River. It seemed the day’s weather could go either way.

Dozens of the searchers were starting another day of covering miles of the Missouri looking for the body of Lee Weber, the National Guard soldier, Hughes County chief deputy sheriff, father and husband who went missing in the river Friday, July 3.

The loss of the Riggs High graduate who served tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq with the South Dakota Army National Guard disarming roadside explosives saddened not only his hometown of Pierre but people across the state where he was known and liked for his service and work in law enforcement and the Guard.

It drew many to join the search for his body, led by about 20 law enforcement agencies.

Cans of Red Bull and Copenhagen and large cups of coffee seemed to be common fuels Wednesday morning as many began their sixth day of searching for miles for hours for a law enforcement comrade who officials said jumped in to the Missouri to save his 8-year-old son.

On Tuesday evening after a long day of looking, one search leader on his way home said, “I”m fried.”

But by 7 a.m., CDT, Wednesday, they all were back, about 50 in a wide circle to get briefed by Pierre Fire Chief Ian Paul. He said they would be using about 16 boats. It ended up being more like 22, they said later.

“We know why we’re here,” Paul told them. “Our goal is to bring Lee home.”

It has been like that since Friday: a lot of searchers, many of them law enforcement professionals.

After another long day, the search again came up empty and was called off for the night about 6:30 p.m., Wednesday. About 7 p.m., a news release from the Stanley County Sheriff’s Office said things will change.

“After discussions with his family, officials plan to reduce the size of the search efforts for a missing Pierre man who is presumed to have drowned Friday afternoon on the Missouri River south of the Oahe Dam,” according to the Sheriff’s Office statement. “The search has been ongoing daily since Friday afternoon. Wednesday’s effort included an estimated 22 boats, and estimated 50 participants and use of drones and the state Highway Patrol airplane. The search area went from “Diver’s Point,” south to Antelope Creek, a total of 15 miles. Following Wednesday’s search, officials decided to reduce the search to the use of Pierre Rescue boats and drones when available.”

It had been a big effort.

They had come from law enforcement agencies across the region: county sheriff’s deputies, city police officers, state Highway Patrol troopers, including the woman who flies the Patrol’s small plane, federal law officers from the U.S. Marshals Service.

Retired Pierre Police Chief Dave Panzer brought his own rig Wednesday: a big pickup truck pulling a sleek boat.

It’s been on since about 2:51 p.m., Friday, July 3, when Weber, 37, jumped into the river from a boat off Diver’s Point, about a mile below Oahe Dam, to rescue his 8-year-old son who had fallen from a moving boat, according to Stanley County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Greg Swanson.

Weber apparently was pulled under by the fast-moving current around Diver’s Point at the end of a long jetty on the southeast corner of the Oahe Downstream Recreation Area. Weber was not wearing a life jacket, probably because he was intent on being able to go as deep as needed to reach his son, Swanson said.

Another boat pulled Weber’s son out of the river, but Weber sank out of sight.

The search has gone on since, with trained emergency responders using sophisticated equipment and civilian volunteers taking their own boats up and down the river or walking the shorelines.

But Wednesday had the potential for a different result, Paul told the searchers. Because after three, four and now five days of temperatures around 90 degrees, “today and yesterday would be good days for surfacing for Lee,” Paul said Wednesday morning, matter-of-factly referring to what brings drowned bodies up from waters’ depths.

“So, we want you to scan for surfacing,” he told the searchers, most of whom would be using side-scan sonar on their boats.

Paul gave them details.

“Lee was wearing a black T-shirt and gray shorts. No shoes. So, you know what to look for.”

Paul told the searchers it was important to secure the body as soon as it is found, because it could quickly sink again and move away.

“Tie a rope on it. Around the torso is best,” he said.

And then wait for help from boats with people experienced in recoveries, he said.

Paul made sure everyone was attached to a team, using sign up sheets and encouraging everyone to share cell phone numbers to stay in touch.

“We hope this is a short day,” he said.

The organized searchers were given a team to be part of with a specific area to search, aimed at covering nearly 16 river miles from the Oahe Downstream Recreation Area south and east to the Antelope Creek Recreation Area, which is about 11.5 miles downriver and southeast from the Waldron Bridge between Fort Pierre and Pierre.

The site where Weber went in the river is about 4 miles north of the bridge, according to estimates provided by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office in Pierre.

Fellow law enforcement officers shake their heads at what happened.

Weber was a tall, strongly built man, who served two tours of duty overseas in the war on terror with the South Dakota Army National Guard. He has been with the sheriff’s office in Pierre for five years.

Those who know him said he is just the kind of person to not think twice about jumping in to rescue someone and of course, even more so his own child. And not someone they would expect would have trouble dealing with the river, especially not so instantly on Friday afternoon.

But the Missouri River is treacherous in its stretches from Oahe Dam south to Pierre and Fort Pierre and beyond, said those who know it well.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers points out that around Pierre and Fort Pierre, the river is especially dangerous, even in winter time.

The site where Weber went in on Friday is just off “diver’s point” on the Downstream Oahe Recreational Area, off the tip of a peninsula jutting out into the river that speeds with a rippling current to get around that point.

It can be 15 to 20 feet deep, or more in certain locations, some called “holes,” say those familiar with it.

The river’s surface showed a temperature of 66 degrees in the shallows near the east shore at one site on Tuesday, according to thermal imaging camera on the drone operated by Pierre Police Capt. Derald Gross.

However, the river’s water can be as cold as 42 degrees or so down deep, even when the air temperature is in the 90s on July days, says Caleb Gilkerson, who teaches diving and operates Steamboats, Inc., and is a commercial diver.

Paul made a point during his Wednesday briefing to mention that Gilkerson has had his diving boat out every day since Weber went under and that the river boat captain has special expertise, knowing the river as few do, as well as how to recover people who go in. Assigned as a main team leader, Wilkerson talked to a group of searchers about how and what to look for in such a search and how floating things will appear, on side-scan sonar and to the eyes watching the river’s surface.

Paul said the search Wednesday would cover about 15.5 miles of the river, from where Weber went in near Oahe Dam to Antelope Creek Recreation Area, which is about 11.5 miles southeast of the Waldron Bridge between Pierre and Fort Pierre.

Paul said a lot of people are helping out, spending hours using their own boats to patrol the river, or walking shorelines on either bank and around islands.

Weber’s family members are staying close to the river, some on it, others near the screens showing images from the drone’s cameras and hearing reports from the airplane over head and possible sighting coming in to search officials.

The Hughes County Commission made a quick decision Monday to help in the search in a key way, said Rob Fines, emergency manager for Hughes and Stanley counties.

Hughes County Commission members more than a year ago had approved buying a $30,000 drone, using a $20,000 private grant and making it available for the cities of Fort Pierre and Pierre and the two counties.

Pierre Police Capt. Derald Gross is the main operator. As Hughes County’s chief sheriff’s deputy, Lee Weber was one of the people Gross had trained to operate the drone.

For the past five days, the drone piloted by Gross patrolling the river using a video camera and an infrared camera attached to its dragonfly-like body looking for Weber.

The infrared camera provides thermal imaging. From a large screen set up in a picnic shelter at Campground No. 3 on the Oahe Downstream Recreation Area, Fines and others can monitor what the drone reveals.

The main practical limit of the drone is battery power: It can fly usually only 20 to 25 minutes before needing a re-charge or a battery swap.

At Fines’ suggestion, the Hughes County Commission on Monday quickly authorized $4,300 to buy a new battery charging station and more batteries so the drone would be more useful in the search for Weber.

Fines said as soon as the Commission voted for it Monday evening, he ordered the battery package and the New York company involved shipped it overnight.

“It was here Tuesday,” Fines said.

It means there’s no need to park the drone for an hour or three after each 25-minute flight. The charging now can be done in an hour and meanwhile the new extra batteries mean the drone can be kept up in the air searching, Gross said.

Among the searchers on the ground and in the river, the sense Wednesday was, it was time to find Weber.

When that happens, it’s good news, said Randy McFarling, a member of the Pierre Volunteer Fire Department and the regional dive and rescue team that the department coordinates out of the main fire station.

“The good news (would be) he’s out of the water,” McFarling said. “I’ve been doing this for 11 years and I’ve found that the family can’t grieve until the body is found. Today, he should be up.”

By Wednesday evening, Weber’s family was in favor of cutting back on the search effort and asked the sheriff’s office to ask the public for “respect for the family’s privacy.”

The Stanley County Sheriff’s Office, which had primary jurisdiction on the incident, thanked all the agencies and volunteers who helped in the search and said: “Citizens are asked to remain alert for possible sightings of Mr. Weber while on the river or along the shorelines. Please call Pierre Police Dispatch at (605) 773-4710.”

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