Idaho couple dedicate life to find bodies of people who've drowned

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KUNA, Idaho (AP) — Gene Ralston and his wife left their home in southwestern Idaho less than a week after he had a coronary angioplasty, putting another 2,400 miles on their motorhome towing and aluminum boat.

Ralston’s doctor told him to take it easy, but the trip was just too important.

“We left to go find Ralph,” Ralston said.

Ralph Der, 59, drowned in early August while fishing at a lake in British Columbia.

Ralston and his wife have volunteered in body searches since the early 1980s.

They’ve recovered the remains of 80 people and participated in the high-profile searches for Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway.

They also helped locate a boy who drowned in Walla Walla County this summer.

Ralston acknowledges some people might think their life’s work is odd. They see it as needed public service.

The Ralstons initially worked with watercrafts, dogs and GPS coordinate systems, but their searches for drowning victims became more exact 12 years ago after they started using side-scanning sonar developed with technology similar to that used in medical ultrasounds.

Ralston learned about the technology in 1999 when he was helping with a body search in Oregon. He was horrified when the company leading the effort charged the grieving family around $30,000 for their services, he said.

Ralston and his wife bought their scanning sonar in 2000 and traveled later that year to Utah to help authorities recover a victim who drowned six week earlier.

The Ralstons found the body within a few hours.

Ralston estimates they’ve spent $100,000 on their equipment, though they don’t charge families, asking only for travel expenses.

In Walla Walla County, Sheriff John Turner met the couple this summer when they helped search for a 14-year-old boy drowned in the Snake River after a boat capsized.

Turner called the Ralstons a godsend. “They have expertise and equipment that we don’t have.”

A few days into the search, the Ralstons were asked to help find a 12-year-old boy who had also drowned.

The couple recovered the second drowning victim, and stayed until the following weekend when the first boy was found.

Turner oversees a search and rescue team that includes about 50 volunteers, he said.

“People volunteering to help other people is not a strange concept, the Ralstons just do it on a broader scale,” Turner said, “and they bring unique experience and tools.”

The Ralstons have driven twice to Alaska and have also taken their equipment to Mexico City and Aruba. Some years, they’ll have just two or three searchers, while during others they’ll spend more than 200 days on the road.

Among the seven bodies they’ve found so far this year was Gina Hoogendoorn’s father, who drowned in 1997 at Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming.

“You don’t really have that closure, it’s like you keep running into a wall, you don’t really get that full circle of grieving, you’re just stuck somewhere,” said Hoogendoorn, of Rock Springs, Wyo., who was 18 when her father died. She contacted the Ralstons in April after finding them online.

They found her father, Richard Herren, several minutes into their boat search later that month.

Hoogendoorn, who never expected to find closure, said she credits the Ralstons for giving her peace about her father, who has been cremated. The items recovered with his body were given to the family and included his wallet, pocket knife and wedding ring, she said.

The feeling of appreciation is what keeps the Ralstons going even as they reach an age when most couples start thinking about retirement. They know what it means for families to have their services available, and they’ve also seen tragedy firsthand.

The Ralstons were surveying the Snake River in 1996 for endangered snail species with a Bureau of Reclamation worker when the boat flipped and he drowned.

“We can’t say that we know what it would be like to lose a son or a daughter or a wife or a father or that type of thing, but we know pretty well what it means,” Ralston said.

They take pride in their commitment, which is why they didn’t hesitate to go search for Der in Canada, even as Ralston was recovering from his heart procedure. The day after they recovered the body, Ralston was back in the hospital with internal bleeding due to complications from his heart procedure.

He’s now doing better with changes to his medication and returned to Canada last week with his wife for Der’s funeral. Ralston has vowed to continue the searches as long as he’s physically able, but his wife is thinking more and more about passing the torch onto someone else, he said.

“We haven’t really found the right person yet,” he said. “It takes a bit of a special person who, in our opinion, will do more than just work on a weekend and then go home. It needs to be someone who has enough compassion to where they’ll stop everything and go on a search, for as long as it takes.”

Jessie L. Bonner can be reached at www.twitter.com/jessiebonner

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