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‘Saints on Earth’: Idaho couple has recovered the bodies of 113 people who couldn’t be found

Gene Ralston spends the majority of his days with a boat named Kathy G. — but that wasn’t always its name.

Gene, 73, acquired the boat in 1997. Along with his wife, Sandy, the trio have traveled around North America to places like Newfoundland, Labrador and Mexico.

But the couple doesn’t travel for fun. Instead, Gene and Sandy are on a mission to bring peace to families with loved ones who can’t be found.

Gene is a renowned underwater search and discovery professional, though he dislikes being called an expert. He searches deep bodies of water for missing persons, often helping with cases that are several months or years old.

He’s been involved in high-profile cases, including the Laci Peterson case back in 2003. He also flew to Aruba to help find Natalee Holloway.

Recently, Gene helped the Ada County Sheriff’s Office locate and recover the body of Christian Vernon Dale at the bottom of the Lucky Peak Reservoir in early August. Dale’s body was more than 100 feet below the surface.

Kathy G. doesn’t have time for joyrides.

“Until March of this year, we had not taken a real vacation since 1999 because we do this so much,” Gene said.

Gene has 10 to 15 pages worth of single-lined notebook paper filled with the names and information behind each and every search he’s undertaken. Each entry tells a different story. And while he hasn’t found every body he’s set out for, Gene and Sandy have found 113 bodies at most recent count.

Each recovery changed a family’s life.

The story of Kathy G.

Kathy G.’s name is proudly emblazoned in pink, cursive script on the boat’s cabin; it’s a stark contrast with the metallic hue of the boat itself.

Sandy drives the boat on most occasions, following carefully mapped out grid lines that Gene has created. The boat is used for as many searches as possible, usually towed by the couple’s motorhome.

The trio has driven as far as Deer Lake in the northeast corner of Canada, more than 3,700 miles one-way from their home in Kuna.

“This is the other woman in my life,” Gene said with a chuckle.

Boats are often named after women for good luck. Gene’s boat, however, is named after tragedy. Kathy Garrigan is the name of a recovered victim.

Garrigan, 24, was riding in a canoe with two of her fellow AmeriCorps volunteers on Alaska’s Harding Lake on May 27, 2007. The canoe flipped and all three volunteers went missing in the freezing water. The first body was found quickly by volunteers and local authorities; the other two, including Garrigan’s, could not be found.

Garrigan’s mother, Marian, heard of the Ralstons’ services from a nephew. Marian had already come to grips with the fact that Kathy was likely dead; at this point, she wanted to close the darkest chapter of her life.

The Ralstons are often a family’s last hope to recover the body of a loved one.

Gene arrived at the lake on July 1. He recovered the remaining bodies, including Kathy’s, by July 3.

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Gene Ralston’s boat, Kathy G., is named after a recovered victim. Kelsey Grey kgrey@idahostatesman.com

“Words can’t express how hard it is when your child is missing,” Marian said. “But when they’re found, this whole thing about closure, it sounds so trite. (But) it’s so true.”

Cases like Kathy’s are why Gene has dedicated almost two decades to helping families recover loved ones. Delivering the news of a discovered body isn’t morbid, he said. In fact, it is the opposite.

“(People ask), isn’t it ugly and stinky and gory? And yeah, it’s all of that,” Gene said. “But we look beyond that. We look at what it means to the family. Because if we didn’t, there are very few people (who would).”

‘The way we want to do it’

Gene is a Fruitland native who attended the College of Idaho and the University of Nevada-Reno. He bought Kathy G. , then known as Sandy Jean after his wife, in 1997. He added its accompanying search equipment in 1999. In 2000, he and his wife dedicated their lives to searches full time.

“We decided that if we’re going to do it the way we want to do it, we just have to do it ourselves,” Gene said. “So we jumped in with both feet.”

Before his agency Ralston & Associates existed, though, there were a pair of boating expeditions that molded his perspective.

When he was about 24-years-old, Gene was in a boating accident where he nearly drowned, he said. Another boating accident a few years later that almost cost him his life put things into perspective: What would it be like if no one could figure out what happened to him? What if there were no visible traces?

“I just can’t imagine what my parents would have gone through when I was that age and I had drowned, especially if they couldn’t find me,” he said.

Gene began work as an environmental consultant. In 1983, he and his associates were building 14-foot whitewater jet boats. The boats were especially maneuverable in swift currents, such as the Boise River. The Boise River served as a problematic spot for finding missing persons because Idaho Fish and Game’s boats and equipment aren’t designed for such tasks, instead intended for tasks like fishery surveys.

“We’re obviously not a search and rescue agency,” Fish and Game spokesman Roger Phillips said. “We’re ... not buying (equipment) with that in mind.”

So, when he overheard dispatch discussing a missing person in the Boise River, Gene volunteered his assistance.

“That’s kind of where it started,” he said. “We volunteered to help with drowning victim searches mostly along the Boise River, but other places (too).”

While on a search in Oregon in 1999, Gene said he discovered sonar and other types of technology that would prove helpful.

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A digital sonar image of a man who Gene Ralston said had been missing for 29 years. Side scan sonar uses sound to create images such as this. Ralston’s equipment can recover bodies from more than 500 feet below the water surface. Courtesy of Gene Ralston

From there, searches became full-time. In one year alone, Gene and Sandy spent 200 days on searches.

“We’ll spend as long as 30 days or more if we have to,” Gene said.

The technology needed

Gene’s most valuable piece of equipment looks part George Foreman grill, part fluorescent light bulb and part robot from a 1950s sci-fi film. While he admits his Remotely Operated Vehicle “won’t win any beauty contests,” it has a purpose beyond measure, as does all of his gear.

Between Kathy G. and his equipment, Gene estimates his search gear is worth roughly $300,000. The searches themselves don’t pay the bills; Gene only charges for travel expenses and not the service itself. Other than donations, all of the equipment was paid for out of pocket, he said.

Though he doesn’t use the term “retired,” Ralston said the advantage he has over other agencies is availability.

“(Other agencies) don’t have the time to spend on search, and that’s just kind of a little side part of what they do,” Gene said. “But we are retired and don’t have a lot of obligations other than taking care of stuff at home. We have the time to do it.”

The main tools Gene uses are side scan sonar and the Remotely Operated Vehicle. Side scan sonar technology uses sound to create an image. The sonar, towed behind the boat, sends out a signal that gathers information based on how strong the returning signal is. A strong signal back signifies rocks or other solid ground; a softer signal could possibly mean sand. When something is above sea level, it creates a visible shadow on the image. From there, Gene can determine whether that shadow is worth checking out. Both Gene and Sandy read the sonar screens.

The sonar itself is not difficult to use, Gene said: it’s reading the images that is the tall task. A body can look different depending on what angle it is positioned in. The shadows can be inconclusive, requiring imaging from multiple sides rather than just one. Even then, it can be hard to tell if it’s a body.

If a shadow is deemed worthy of investigation, a diver with a local agency will check out the area. If it is too deep, there is no diver on hand or imaging cannot conclusively determine if it is a body, the Remotely Operated Vehicle comes into play.

The vehicle has a camera, four thrusters and a hand-like add-on that can grab a human wrist and bring a body to the surface. When it locates a body, Sandy carefully grabs the ROV and brings it to the surface.

Gene’s gear can recover bodies upwards of 550 feet underwater, he said, far beyond the reaches of what most authorities are capable of.

“Gene is one of the most best equipped and experienced underwater search and recovery experts in the United States,” Ada County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Patrick Orr said. “We are so very grateful for (the Ralstons’) help, and so fortunate that they live in Ada County.”

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A Remotely Operative Vehicle (ROV) has a camera, four thrusters and a hand-like add-on that can grab a human wrist and bring a body to the surface. Kelsey Grey kgrey@idahostatesman.com

Details lead to people

What can seem like an irrelevant question, such as what type of footwear a victim was wearing at the time of an accident, can make a world of difference in a recovery mission. For instance, if the victim’s shoes have air in the heel, the shoes will float and create a specific image; it will resemble a tree stump, Gene said.

Before ever setting Kathy G. in the water, Gene will sometimes spend days speaking with those involved with the missing person. He wants to know as many facts as can before embarking on a search. He asks family and witnesses to call him if they remember any minute details, even if it takes days to come to mind.

Thorough questioning and preparation were what led Gene to the body of Kathy Garrigan.

Marian Garrigan said countless volunteers in the Harding Lake area assisted authorities and search crews in the search for her daughter. For that, she is thankful. But Gene was the one to get to the heart of the case.

Using photos taken earlier that day on Kathy’s recovered cellphone, which was stashed in a cooler, Gene matched up background features and horizon lines from the photos. Then he positioned himself precisely where the subject in the picture would have been. Using weather reports and data such as wind speed and water currents, Gene can narrow down miles of water into a smaller search area.

Prior search crews had been agonizingly close to discovering Kathy’s body; there were marks of rescue nets found just next to the body, Marian said. In the report authored by Gene afterward, it was deduced that, when the boat overturned, one member of the party was trapped; another member of the party attempted to rescue that person. Kathy was told to swim to shore; she made it approximately 300 yards before succumbing to the cold water, her mother said.

The Garrigans were so thankful to the Ralstons that they donated money for expenses. Their donation helps Gene provide his services to those who can’t afford them.

“He gathers information in a very scientific manner. ... He pinpoints a section of the lake,” Marian said. “Gene pieced it all together and was able to say, ‘This is where we are going to find them’ ... he eliminated 3/4 of the lake.”

It’s part of what makes Gene’s efforts different.

“You don’t just show up and say, ‘I’m going to start here,’” he said. “Those kinds of things have led to our higher rate of success.”

“Stick-to-itiveness.”

David Gavin, 26, and his girlfriend of 10 years received a two-year visa to move from Ireland to Canada in February 2017. David ultimately settled in Vancouver. He became heavily involved with Irish Gaelic Football, according to his father, Mick, and took a road trip to Calgary with teammates for a competition.

On June 30, 2017, David and his friends stopped at a resort near Beaver Creek, waiting for another car full of teammates to catch up. David and friends decided to go for a swim. With playful intentions in mind, David jumped from a nearby bridge, nearly 60-feet from the ground, straight into the cold water.

It was the last time he was seen alive.

Back in Ireland, Mick received a call at 2 a.m.

“I knew straight away there was no chance of finding him alive,” he said. “(I was) completely numb. When your kids go away ... you always, I suppose, have a concern that something might happen. But you put it to the back of your mind.”

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The inside of Gene Ralston’s boat, Kathy G. Kelsey Grey kgrey@idahostatesman.com

Local search teams spent four days searching for David’s body, but the teams lacked resources and were unsuccessful, Mick said. The Gavin family refused to give up, though, and reached out to dive teams who were unable to see past 15-feet of visibility.

The only news worse than not finding David’s body was receiving the call that he had drowned.

“He’s our kid. You do everything that we can. You go to the ends of the earth to help them when they’re alive,” Mick said. “We had to leave no stone unturned to bring him home ... your own flesh and blood should be near you, should be buried beside you.”

By word of mouth, the Gavins heard about the Ralstons. On their own dime, the Ralstons drove up to Calgary to search for his son’s body, Mick said.

For a total of nearly six weeks spread out over two separate searches, the Ralstons looked for David’s body. Because of the depth of the water and currents, however, the search was unsuccessful. Despite the odds being against them, the Ralstons persisted.

It’s a quality Gene calls “stick-to-itiveness.”

“I suppose he didn’t want to give up,” Mick said. “He saw how reliant we were on him. He knew once he left, we didn’t have anything after that.”

In April, nearly 10 months after the accident, David’s body was discovered by dogs in the Canadian Canine Search Corps when the water level in the area eventually lowered. The Gavins donated money to the organization to thank them for their work.

Despite being unsuccessful in the search for their son, the Gavins still communicate with the Ralstons via Facebook at least once a week. Mick can’t imagine going any longer than that without knowing what adventures Gene is on to next.

Mick affectionately refers to the Ralstons as “saints on earth” without a hint of irony or sarcasm.

“I consider them a father and a mother figure to us because we spent so long with them ... They cried with us, they laughed with us. They kept us going through all that time,” Mick said. “They never forget the people they have worked with. They are their family at the end of the day. That’s what I feel.”

Marian said she sends the family a note once a year to check in, too.

Why? Because the Ralstons become family. They are intimately connected to the people involved with their cases.

Gene admits sometimes the damage done to some of the recovered individuals he’s found keeps him up at night. He also said he doesn’t get much sleep the few nights before a search.

But the ultimate satisfaction in Gene’s job overtakes those sleepless nights. The moment when he can look a person in the eyes and tell them their loved one can be put to rest is all the self-help he needs.

“There’s nothing like walking up the boat ramp ... to greet mom and dad and tell them we’re bringing their kids home,” he said.

Contact reporter Michael Katz at 208-377-6444 or follow him on Twitter @MichaelLKatz.

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