(Posted initially at 5:30 p.m., Thursday; updated since.)
The body of Lee Weber was found Thursday afternoon, July 9, near the railroad bridge across the Missouri River between Pierre and Fort Pierre, 4 miles from where he went missing upstream and six days after he jumped out of a boat trying to save his son.
Weber, 37, the Hughes County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy in Pierre, jumped in the river out of a boat about 3 p.m., Friday, July 3, to rescue his 8-year-old son who had fallen out of the moving boat just off Diver’s Point on the Oahe Downstream Recreation Area, according to the Stanley County Sheriff’s Office in Fort Pierre.
That’s perhaps a little less than 4 miles north of where a volunteer searcher first spotted his body about 3 p.m., Thursday, floating on the surface, moving with the current; and a little more than 4 miles from where his body was recovered from the river about 4 p.m. Thursday, on the Fort Pierre side.
Weber’s son was rescued by another boat shortly after Weber leaped in July 3, just off the point of a jetty that strings out from the Oahe Downstream Recreation Area, a little more than a mile south of Oahe dam.
Weber was not wearing a life jacket when he jumped in after his son and was swept away by the strong current that curls around Diver’s Point, searchers said.
Stanley County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Greg Swanson told the Capital Journal that likely it was intentional on Weber’s part not to wear a life jacket because he wanted to be able to dive down to reach his son, if necessary.
Searchers were told Wednesday morning before beginning the sixth day of searching that Weber was wearing a black T-shirt and gray shorts and no shoes when he jumped into the river.
On Thursday afternoon, Weber’s body had floated to the surface toward the middle of the river, some yards north of the railroad bridge. This was according to one of the principal searchers who was not at the scene, but was in touch with search leaders.
The river there is about 15 feet deep, the searcher said.
According to the Stanley County Sheriff’s Office posting on its Facebook page, Weber’s body was recovered from the river near the railroad bridge on the west side of the river at about 4 p.m., Thursday, July 9.
Two men from Rapid City cleaning their fish at the Bad River Landing in Fort Pierre about 5:30 p.m., Thursday, said they were fishing north of the railroad bridge Thursday afternoon. About 3-3:30 p.m., they were near a man in a boat who they could hear calling law enforcement authorities to report he had found the body floating, they told the Capital Journal. That was perhaps 200 to 400 yards north of the railroad bridge, the fishermen said.
The man was a volunteer searcher, according to the Stanley County Sheriff’s Office.
The two fishermen said they watched the man “follow” the body downstream as it was moving with the current, waiting for boats connected with the official search to show up to retrieve the body from the river.
That happened about at the railroad bridge, perhaps on the south side of it, said the men, who said by that time they were some distance away.
“They had a drone up,” one of the fishermen said of the scene where Weber’s body was found.
The two fishermen asked that their names not be published.
Weber’s family members came down to the river’s edge where his body was taken out of the water.
“The body was placed in a body bag and taken to the bike path where family members and colleagues spent time paying their respects,” according to the statement Thursday night from the sheriff’s office. “The body eventually was covered by an American flag and carried by law enforcement officers to a waiting funeral vehicle. A procession of law enforcement vehicles escorted Mr. Weber’s body to the funeral home.”
Hughes County Sheriff Darin Johnson said in the news release: “This is a very sad moment, but we also are very relieved that Lee’s body was found. It is important that the family and his friends have closure. Lee deserves this tribute.”
Weber was Hughes County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy and a veteran of the war on terror with tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq with the South Dakota Army National Guard.
The search for his body was extensive, covering 15 miles or more of the river from the point where he went in, which is about a mile south of Oahe Dam, to Antelope Creek Recreation Area about 11.5 miles southeast of Waldron Bridge.
Weber’s family quickly were notified and soon were at the scene of the recovery, according to the Stanley County Sheriff’s Office.
The search that began Friday, July 3, involved about 18 agencies, including city, county, state and federal law enforcement groups using boats, aircraft, drones, cadaver dogs, jet skis and other resources used during the all-day searches.
Steamboat’s Inc., of Pierre, owned and operated by commercial diver Caleb Gilkerson and his family, put its big diving boat in the river each day and had a diver wearing a helmet searching the bottom of the river.
Many people searched on their own, walking river banks and island shorelines and patrolling the river in their boats.
After about 50 searchers organized by the Stanley County Sheriff’s Office and ramrodded by Pierre Fire Chief Ian Paul used 22 boats and other resources on Wednesday for about 10 hours over the 16-mile stretch, they announced the search would be scaled back, after discussions with the family.
The scaled-down search on Thursday would include the Pierre Fire Department’s two rescue boats which can deploy the volunteer dive team, and drones operated by the Pierre Police Department, according to the news release Wednesday evening from the Stanley County Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office also asked members of the public to continue to be vigilant in watching the river from boats and along the shore.
There are no plans for an autopsy, according to the sheriff’s office.
“The Stanley County Sheriff’s Office thanks all of the agencies and volunteers who helped with the search,” according to the news release Thursday evening. “Funeral services are pending. We ask for prayers for the family and respect for the family’s privacy during this time.”
The Hughes County Sheriff’s Office in Pierre, Weber’s hometown, had posted this shortly after he went missing in the Missouri River on July 3:
“Lee had been a member of the Hughes County Sheriff’s Office since 2015 and was promoted to chief deputy in 2019. Lee was a co-worker, friend, and mentor to all. He will be greatly missed by his law enforcement family and those whom he was sworn to serve.”
“In addition to his service to the citizens of Hughes County, Lee was a decorated veteran of the South Dakota National Guard, serving tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
“A memorial fund has been established for Chief Deputy Lee Weber’s family at BankWest. Donations can be directed to the Lee Weber Memorial Account at any BankWest location in South Dakota.”
“’Rest easy 361W, we’ll hold the line from here.’”