Idaho couple hired to find missing Kitsilano man

A lone aluminum skiff slowly plies the waters off the shore of a remote campsite on Harrison Lake, near the small town of Agassiz.

Aboard are Gene and Sandy Ralston, a retired couple in their 60s from Idaho, who reached this inviting spot after a 50-minute boat ride from a marina at the south end of the lake.

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The area is known as Westwood Bay.

The surrounding terrain is a mix of dense forest and craggy outcrops that slope down to a rocky, windblown shoreline, which makes the campsite all the more unique in this setting.

Once a log-sorting area, the site links to a forestry service road that is best managed in a four-wheel drive for the one-and-a-half hour trip from the main highway.

It's the road 66-year-old outdoorsman Raymond Salmen travelled May 27 to get here in his Ford truck and camper. The retired millwright drove up with his two small dogs from his home in Kitsilano to fish and hike.

Thirteen days after Salmen arrived, he went missing and Agassiz RCMP believe he drowned in the very waters the Ralstons have come to search.

The couple was hired by Salmen's wife, Daniela, who was at the marina to wish the Ralstons good luck before they took their custom-made sonar equipment and expertise up the lake.

"I can't say enough about them and how they've given me some hope that they'll find Ray," she said, standing in the marina's parking lot last Saturday morning with her dogs, Elmer and Bandit, who were rescued from her husband's camper.

The fact the Ralstons are here is comforting to Daniela. But she is baffled why there isn't a police force, search and rescue team or some other agency in the province that could do the same job.

The RCMP says its dive team is restricted by regulations as to how deep it can dive and officers are still training to operate new sonar equipment.

Some organizations, such as Kent-Harrison Search and Rescue, have a sonar but its capabilities are limited and the teams volunteer members are not experts on how to use it.

Further hampering body recovery efforts for police and others is the absence of a crucial piece of equipment called a remote operated vehicle, or ROV, which the Ralstons have and is essential to their work.

The ROV is an underwater robot, equipped with lights and dual tilting cameras that can be dropped in deep water to search around rocks and debris on the bottom of a lake. It's also equipped with a mechanical arm that can grasp a body and bring it to the surface.

Daniela sought out the Ralstons and their equipment after learning the former environmental consultants recovered almost 90 bodies in 13 years from waters in North America, including two 17-year-old boys in May from Nicola Lake, near Merritt.

The couple only charges for expenses and travels in a custom-made motor home, which they use to tow their boat the Kathy G. It is named after a drowning victim in Alaska whose body the Ralstons recovered.

Their generosity has brought them much praise and media attention. And earlier this month, their reputation was noted in the B.C. Legislature by NDP Vancouver-Point Grey MLA David Eby as he challenged Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton on why Daniela and others in the province have to hire a retired couple from Idaho to recover their loved ones.

"The government should be embarrassed — incredibly embarrassed," said Daniela in an interview from her Kitsilano home before making the trip to Harrison Lake. "But nobody wants to take responsibility because then they're going to own that whole problem, not just for Ray but for all future victims."

The Mounties believe Salmen drowned sometime after going on a hike high up in the bush above his campsite and injuring himself.

Somehow, the mishap left him trapped on a small beach wedged along the shore's steep terrain. He was roughly 400 metres north of his campsite. Unable to climb out, he took off his boots, socks and pants and likely tried to swim around a rocky bluff to another clearing but slipped under the surface.

"Whether he fell off a cliff, or climbed down, we don't know," said RCMP Cpl. Len Van Nieuwenhuizen, the media relations officer for the Upper Fraser Valley Regional Detachment.

Before Salmen entered the water, police believe he was in such distress that he used his rifle to fire six shots. His younger brother Bob, a fellow hunter, said it was common for Salmen to carry a gun in the wilderness in case of a run-in with a bear or another wild animal. One of the bullets smashed the headlight of a Nissan Pathfinder, some 500 metres away and directly in sight of the small beach. Another two shots struck the side of a camper in a neighbouring campsite.

The number of shots was significant to his brother and friend, Dr. Tony Otto, who hunted with Salmen and is the Salmens' family doctor. It is common knowledge among hunters, they say, to fire a burst of three shots when in trouble.

"He probably put three [bullets] in the air and then another three in the vehicles," said Bob, who drove down from Cranbrook to observe the Ralstons' recovery efforts. "But most people up here wouldn't know what the shots mean."

Police pieced the scenario together after finding Salmen's backpack in the bush and his shoes, socks, pants, rifle and shell casings on the small beach — a discovery only made by an RCMP helicopter crew which spotted balloons caught up in trees where Salmen sought refuge. His knife and belt, which police speculate was used for a tourniquet, are still missing.

Police got involved after campers from the shot-up vehicles reported the gunfire in the late afternoon of Sunday June 9th. They thought someone was trying to kill them. At the outset, police didn't know exactly what type of situation they were dealing with. As they collected evidence, including the recovery of the couple's two dogs inside Salmen's camper, police realized the focus was a missing person. That led to a massive hunt for Salmen, with search and rescue teams on boats and foot, members of the RCMP's tactical troop, dog handlers and a dive team.

RCMP Cpl. Dwayne Farlin was one of the investigators on the search and travelled by boat to the campsite Saturday to be on standby for the Ralstons. "We have been emotionally involved from the get-go," said Farlin, standing on the shore. "Personally and professionally, we want to find him to give closure to Daniela and the rest of the family."

Though police ruled out foul play, Salmen's brother and Otto, who also visited the campsite Saturday, mulled over other scenarios when they received the news. "Ray has run into some strange people here," said Otto, before Bob picked up the story.

"Yeah," Bob said, "a few years ago people were shooting semi-automatic rifles up here and they threatened to take his boat and everything else. He ended staying up in the bush all night with his gun."

Added Otto: "He figured they were drug dealers or gang members. But Ray wouldnt get involved, wouldn't act aggressively, wouldn't confront them, wouldn't look them in the eye."

The Ralstons began their search Saturday by lowering a torpedo-shaped device off the bow of the boat into the water. The device conceals a sonar that is attached to a cable that sends images to a monitor inside the boat's wheelhouse. The custom-made sonar, which maps in 66-foot wide sections, is capable of working in depths of 850 feet.

The work on the water is methodical and tedious, with the couple running its boat in grid patterns over a search area of approximately 1,200-feet long by 400-feet wide. It's tough going, with the type of rugged terrain above the water much the same as the area below the surface.

The Ralstons began searching for bodies in the year 2000. Gene, a trained hydrologist, said he conned his wife into buying a sonar for their business, which included scanning under bridges for construction projects. Less than 30 days after buying it, the couple assisted a search and rescue crew and recovered a man's body from Bear Lake, Utah. On the drive back home, Gene asked Sandy if they could keep the sonar.

"She got a tear in her eye and said yes because she could see the importance of what it meant to that particular family to have their loved one back," he said by telephone prior to arriving at Harrison Lake.

A question they've answered many times is why the couple would drive all over North America searching for bodies.

Gene's answer: "It's just the right thing to do."

He and his wife have been to B.C. so many times over the years to recover bodies that Gene has lost count. Possibly close to 30 trips, he added.

Like Daniela, he doesn't understand why the province doesn't have a system, team or protocol in place to recover bodies from B.C. waters. He emphasized obtaining the right equipment is one thing, having the proper training is another skill needed desperately in this country.

"It's unfortunate," he said. "I've always said, if you need to get rid of somebody, take them on a fishing trip in Canada because it's the easiest way to get rid of somebody and there's no follow-up."

The Courier emailed questions to the RCMP media unit, which speaks for the force's dive team, and to Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton to ask whose responsibility body recovery is in B.C.

RCMP Sgt. Rob Vermeulen said the dive team can't go beyond 130 feet deep because of provisions set out in the Canada Labour Code and federal diving regulations. Additionally, the dive teams new sonar equipment is sophisticated technology that requires additional training and software integration, Vermeulen said in response to the Courier's email.

"Sonar does provide additional capacities during searches, but it has been used in a very limited capacity as training is ongoing."

All efforts, he said, were made within the RCMP's current capabilities to search Harrison Lake for Salmen, whose brother described as a strong swimmer in good health with industrial first-aid training. Unfortunately, he concluded, there are numerous challenges involved with trying to locate and recover bodies in water, particularly at significant depths that not many people understand outside of the diving community.

The B.C. Coroners Service doesn't get involved in a search until a body is found, although Ralston said he was met with resistance by a coroner in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories after discovering a body. Neither the coroner nor an RCMP member showed up, he said.

"We put the body on an airplane and flew him into town."

To the question of whose responsibility it is to recover bodies, Anton said in an email that police and search and rescue teams make operational decisions around recovery efforts, searches and investigations. Recovery efforts, she added, whether they be RCMP or search and rescue volunteers, need to be weighed carefully against safety of the responders and the likelihood of successful recovery.

Earlier this month, David Eby, the NDP MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey, pressed Anton during question period in the Legislature, saying she needed to take leadership on the issue. Anton took Eby's challenge as him criticizing the RCMP, which he told the Courier he wasn't. He simply wanted Anton to take action on the matter. He believes it's the government's responsibility to coordinate all agencies, including reaching out to B.C. Hydro that has a remote operated vehicle, to develop a comprehensive approach to body recovery.

"I would expect government to roll up its sleeves and say, 'How can we solve this problem?'" Eby said by telephone this week.

Anton's response in the Legislature: "I am not going to tell individual RCMP detachment's or search and rescue people how to manage their affairs. They are the experts. They make the operational decisions. They take things to heart."

At just before 11 a.m. Saturday, the Ralstons guide their boat into the shore where Salmen's brother and Otto anxiously await news of the morning's work. They climb aboard to view the scans and Otto reports an interesting figure was spotted near the beach where police found Salmen's belongings.

The discovery prompts the Ralstons to request the RCMP's Farlin to go out for a second look with the underwater robot. After more than an hour working the shore near the beach, the interesting figure turns out to be a triangular rock with smaller ones around it. When the couple returns to the shore, they look frustrated and Gene tells Farlin and the others that he's open to suggestions.

They return to the water. This time, Otto joins the Ralstons. Again, they drop the sonar in the bay and scan the bottom for Salmen's body. The work becomes more frustrating with young beer-drinking campers hooting and hollering from the shore and drifting by the search site in inflatable boats.

At one point, Farlin tells the campers, who were informed of the reason for the search, to quiet down. He requests one camper to yell out to his friends to make way for the Ralstons' boat. Salmen's brother wanders down the shore to escape the noise. He steps out to a few large rocks protruding at the water's edge. He stands with his hands in his back pockets and looks out to the Ralstons' boat.

He stays in that position for a while. Then he turns back, his head down and steps on the shore.

"I sure hope they find him. Then it can bring us some closure and we can bury him. He never wanted to be cremated. He wanted a marker so he said people could come and visit him."

In the late afternoon, the Ralstons return to the shore and conclude they have done all they can, despite the challenging topography of the lake's bottom. They call it a day and begin the long trip back in rough water that requires Sandy to hold down a computer monitor while Gene manages the three-foot swells.

"We're going to review our images tonight to see if there's anything that jumps out at us," said Gene over the noise of the boat's motor and crashing waves. "If we don't see anything, I think we've done about everything we can, unfortunately. It's going to be difficult telling [Daniela] that we haven't been able to find him."

Daniela married Raymond Salmen 30 years ago at Nitobe Gardens on the grounds of the University of B.C.

Next month was to be the couple's 31st wedding anniversary.

They met on a blind date in February 1981, which began with dinner at the Keg and dancing afterwards. Raymond proposed to her a few months later at the Commodore, mumbling and stumbling over his words.

He was a millwright at Rogers Sugar, she was a tax auditor at the Canada Revenue Agency. She liked camping, too, but stayed home this time to prepare for a trip to Slovenia.

"Ray was never alone for too long up there, always meeting people and running into someone he knew," she said in an interview earlier this month.

When the Ralstons pulled up to the dock late Saturday afternoon, Daniela already heard from a search and rescue crew that her husband's body wasn't found. The Ralstons met her at the top of the dock and welcomed her into their motorhome. A few minutes later, Daniela emerged and sat on a rock in the marina's parking lot.

Gene walked over from his motorhome, sat next to her and held her in his arms. It was all he could do for her that day.

The day after Daniela returned from Harrison Lake, she sent the Courier an email.

She said she is considering hiring a dive team from Las Vegas. The divers come with Gene's recommendation.

But right now, she wrote, she needs a break.

"I really don't know what I'm going to do."

The Ralstons, meanwhile, left Harrison Lake for northern B.C. They're on Francois Lake this week, searching for the body of 35-year-old Sid Neville, who drowned in the lake last month.

mhowell@vancourier.com

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