An early-morning crash on May 21 in the mountains along the Idaho-Montana border has left the families of four missing hunters in heartbreaking limbo. At least one of those families has been critical of Idaho authorities' efforts to find them.
The four men who went missing when the Suburban they were in rolled into the Selway River were: Reece Rollins, 21, of Terrebonne, Oregon; Koby J. Clark, 21, of Bozeman, Montana, and brothers Raymond P. Ferrieri, 24 Jesse A. Ferrieri, 21, both of Mahapac Falls, New York.
"When people are in the river, it's very difficult to find them. In fact, it's almost impossible," Idaho County Sheriff Doug Giddings said Friday.
Two other men in the truck, Georgians Jesse Gunin and Jason Lewis, ages unknown, escaped the swift river. One ran back to their camp for help, according to the sheriff's office.
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The group of bear hunters, including two guides from Storm Creek Outfitters, were out in the middle of the night because they heard wolves and left camp to go hunt them, said Giddings and the father of Reece Rollins. Rollins said Gunin and Lewis gave him their first-hand accounts of what happened over the phone.
Giddings declined to say whether investigators believe alcohol or drugs were a factor in the crash.
The crash occurred in Idaho County, which is almost the size of New Jersey. The nearest emergency personnel were about two hours away in Darby, Montana. The Ravalli County Sheriff's Office in Darby was first to respond to the scene.
Albert Rollins, Reece's father, said his son had been working as a guide for about a month and a half.
"He's been hunting and fishing his entire life," Albert Rollins said. "He was having a ball. I just talked to him on Friday [May 18]. He absolutely loved what he was doing."
The group was staying at the Paradise Campground in the Bitterroot National Forest.
Albert Rollins said Idaho County Sheriff's officials discouraged him from coming to Idaho after they notified him of the crash.
"They said there was no reason for me to even come to Idaho because all I was going to see was a vehicle upside down in the water," he recalled. "They said, 'When your boy pops up in the river someday, we'll let you know.' It's a terrible feeling."
He and other family members were there within 12 hours of hearing about the crash.
When they arrived in the area, they were shocked that they didn't see any signs of a search-and-rescue operation, Rollins said. He said sheriff's officials impeded their efforts to put together a private search operation, though they persisted and were able to get to the other side of the river to search.
Albert Rollins and his wife, who returned home after eight days in Idaho, discuss the ordeal in a video posted on a Facebook support group called Finding Reece Rollins. The group has more than 3,900 members.
On Friday, Giddings said he isn't going to try to rebut the family's accusations of mishandling the rescue and recovery.
"The family, they want to find their son, I do too," Giddings said. "That's not going to solve their biggest issue: Their son is deceased."
He said that loss is the saddest thing a family can experience, and "the only way they can deal with that is through emotion."
The Rollinses believe their son — who they said was a very strong, health young man — could have survived the crash and been waiting for rescue downstream.
Giddings said a search by a Two Bear Air helicopter with high-tech equipment in the hours after the crash found no evidence of body heat of survivors in the area. A helicopter from Clearwater County was also part of the search.
When the Suburban was pulled out of the river on May 23 — two days after the crash — no one was found inside.
Giddings, who has been sheriff for 10 years, said people lost in Idaho County's rivers are usually found within weeks but it sometimes takes months.
It's been more than a year that the family of Randy French has been hoping to find him and his truck in the Salmon River. The 54-year-old Boise man disappeared last June while on a fishing trip; investigators believe he crashed into the river north of Riggins. A human arm bone was found in the river last week and was sent off for testing.
Frustrated with what they view as Idaho County's "wait-and-see" approach, the French family has sought assistance from the Jon Francis Foundation to conduct its own search. The foundation was created in 2007 to support families who need search advice, assistance and money to find loved ones lost in the wilderness. It was established by David Francis, the father of 24-year-old Minnesotan Jon Francis, who died while hiking in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains.
Supporters of the Rollins family urged people in the Facebook group to contact Idaho Gov. Butch Otter about the situation in Idaho County. Governor's spokesman Jon Hanian said Otter has received from 12 to 24 e-mails, but the state doesn't get involved in local search-and-rescue incidents.
"This is a very difficult situation, and we're certainly empathetic to the fact that there are people missing," Hanian said. "Decisions on how to handle search and rescue are handled at the local level."
How about the Idaho Office of Emergency Management?
"The Idaho County Sheriff’s office has not requested assistance for this search. That type of assistance is not within the scope of what we do," said Elizabeth Duncan, a spokeswoman for the agency. She said they are tasked with assisting counties, tribal governments and state agencies before, during and after man-made or natural disasters.
Giddings said he received mutual aid from other local agencies in this incident — Ravalli County and Clearwater County, for example. He hasn't seen a need to call for additional help or resources.
"What resources do you think that we don't have?" he asked.
He said searching the river itself is difficult.
"There's a stretch about 2 miles that you can look," he said. "Then there's 49 miles of wilderness ... There's no road. you can't just walk down and look at the river bank."
Katy Moeller: 208-377-6413