Finding Lucius 

Inside the search for a missing friend

Page 3 of 5

Finding Lucius

There are 360 miles between Horseshoe Bend and Missoula, Mont. Robbi planned to travel north up State Highway 55, turn east at Banks and take State Highway 21 to Stanley, turn north and follow U.S. 93 through Salmon, Lost Trail Pass and the Bitterroot Valley into Missoula. He told his friends he planned to camp somewhere along the way. The road is windy and remote, and takes about seven hours to traverse.

In those 360 miles, Robbi could have ended up just about anywhere. The area is so sprawling, his search drew in several county sheriff's departments, including Boise, Custer, Lemhi and Ravalli.

For Boise County Sheriff Ben Roeber, that search started in Horseshoe Bend and spiraled outward. He ordered flyovers of the area around Garden Valley and Highway 21 during the weekend of Aug. 23-24, and once more early in the week. He sent his officers to travel a web of backroads and conduct interviews in the small towns. He looked for credit card receipts and transactions. He found nothing.

"This week, 90 percent of what I have been doing since Monday [Aug. 25] has been involved with this case," Roeber told Boise Weekly during the search. "That's probably the same for at least three other people in my office, and I only have a staff of 11. We've gotten over 300 tips, so it's a lot of information to go through."

Because the search area was so wide, no search and rescue team was ever dispatched to look for Robbi.

"To call up a search and rescue team, we have to narrow it down," Roeber said. "For example, with hunting season coming up, someone could say they're going to the Stanley area. Well even that's a huge area. Where they could be is pretty overwhelming and you don't want to blindly search. It's hard for search and rescue to deploy a mission that encompasses all of Horseshoe Bend to Missoula."

Using the Finding Lucius Facebook page, Clare Bresnahan, a family friend in Madison, Wisc., urged anyone interested to travel to Stanley, where a private search party had set up in the Stanley Community Center. Of Cascade's 40 raft guides, more than half of them headed north in search of Robbi.

Nearly two dozen of those volunteers gathered in the community center on the afternoon of Tuesday, Aug. 26. Their voices echoed off the concrete floors and wood panelling. The countertops of the community center kitchen were piled high with boxes of apples, loafs of bread, family-sized jars of peanut butter, chips, popcorn, fruit trays, blocks of cheese, cookies and salami.

Jake Gillis spread a map across the table--pens, Sharpies and highlighters stuffed in his North Face windbreaker; a radio clipped to his EMS cargo pants. Gillis was working independently from any professional search and rescue crew on this operation. He's worked with Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue for five years, going on more than 100 search missions, and currently serves as wilderness program director for the Idaho Center of Emergency Medical Training. He saw news of Robbi's disappearance on Facebook and offered his expertise to the family, which took him up on it immediately.

In front of the group of volunteers--none with any search and rescue training--he laid out what he knew about Robbi's disappearance: the last cellphone tower Robbi's phone pinged off of was the Smith's Ferry/Lowman tower at 2:40 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 19.

Gillis also presented a screenshot from the security camera at Garden Valley's Chevron station, showing a dark-colored Subaru Outback passing by with an orange kayak on the roof. It was timestamped at 2:23 p.m., matching up with the timeline of his departure at 2 p.m. and his cellphone ping at 2:40 p.m.

"There's a lot of things that tied this vehicle to Lucius, but there are a lot of things that would not tie it to him," Gillis told the searchers.

"Lucius is one of those guys who kayaks. A few of you guys kayak," he said. "When you pack your gear, you usually do it the same way each time. With Lucius, it seems like he likes to have his cockpit facing outward."

In the footage of the car passing through Garden Valley, which Gillis said he analyzed for hours, the kayak was clearly facing inward.

"But, given that he is traveling from Banks all the way up to Missoula, he might have not had as much room as he wanted to in the car, and stuffed extra gear into the kayak and faced the cockpit inward over the roof to keep gear inside the cockpit."

Gillis also zoomed into the footage and measured the difference in spacing between the front wheel well and the wheel, and compared it to that of the back. The distance from wheel well to wheel in the back was smaller.

"Suggesting that this car was loaded down and it was going for a long-haul trip somewhere," Gillis said.

Based on those observations, Gillis decided Robbi stuck to his plan of traveling along Highway 21, and didn't take a different route to Missoula.

After discussing more possible Forest Service roads Robbi might have decided to travel, Gillis assigned the pairs of volunteers to new areas to search. The vast majority of those looking for Robbi hadn't yet turned 21, so he set out a careful reminder before they left.

"Your safety is most important in this whole thing. It's not our emergency, it's Lucius'," Gillis said. "Keep your safety in mind 24/7. If you locate him and he's down an embankment, somewhere that's not safe, don't go. Call 911 if you locate anything. If you don't have cellphone service, go to the highest point. Stick to your search area. Don't go off that plan and get hurt. That makes it very tough for me to locate you guys. A search within a search is not the most fun thing to try to do."

He told the young searchers to look around tight corners, straightaways that lead to corners, washouts, registry boxes, trailheads, campsites, broken branches, skid marks on the road and "basically anywhere you can fit a Subaru."

The teams parted in the Tuesday afternoon sun, with the promise of returning to Stanley before dark.

So Many Places

The teams took hours to pour over the Seafoam area, Redfish Lake, Stanley Lake, Dagger Falls, the Deadwood Reservoir and along Highway 21 from Lowman to Stanley. Not everyone looking for Robbi had actually met him. Drew Nienstedt, a longtime Boise area kayaker, took up the search to gain experience for becoming a firefighter.

He and his partner tackled the area around Deadwood Reservoir. They started down the dirt road at 4:23 p.m. and turned back onto Highway 21 at 8:06 p.m.

"You feel like you're the one that's going to find him," Nienstedt said. "At first, you spend more time looking at every nook and cranny, then you start realizing you have a lot of ground to cover so you get more analytical. As we started going up this extensive dirt road, I thought, 'Would he have gone down this road?' My Subaru doesn't like it. He was cautious about his car from what I hear."

Even though Nienstedt wasn't trained in search and rescue techniques, he didn't think his efforts were a waste of time.

"Even the best search and rescue person can't think of all the scenarios at every inch and every point," he said during the search. "Could we be missing something? Absolutely. But I think we're doing the best we can for the resources we have. For our ragtag crew."

Part of that crew included E.J. Duarte, who owns Thrust-UAV, a Boise-based company that makes quadcopters that can be fitted with cameras. The machine is then controlled via remote, and Duarte can watch the footage in real-time from the ground. He brought two of the drones to help gather more viewpoints of the area.

Duarte flew his camera five times along Highway 21, coming up empty each time. But he said it was useful when a cliff was too steep to safely peer down.

click to enlarge Footage of the rugged Payette River taken by a drone used in the search for Robbi. - E.J. DUARTE
  • E.J. Duarte
  • Footage of the rugged Payette River taken by a drone used in the search for Robbi.

"I took some video along a trail that would have taken us 20 minutes to hike up. We could just buzz up it real quick," he said. "In this situation, these are useful. It could take you two or three hours to hike down a canyon, but you can take this thing and buzz down and be back in less than 10 minutes."

The irony didn't escape Duarte--his product is popular with kayakers to gather footage of themselves while they run rivers like the North Fork of the Payette. In this instance, it could have been helping to locate one of the paddling community's own, too.

To help in the search efforts, a Gofundme campaign was started online. It raised more than $18,500 in three days. Korell, the raft guide who ditched her first days of college to look for Robbi, yelped in excitement.

"When we find Lucius alive, we are buying a ton of kegs," she said at the time, laughing.

But after returning again from a day full of searching, the group seemed deflated and tired. They kept running into the same feeling: There are only so many places he could be, right? Right, there are so many places he could be.

"Too many green Subarus with too many kayaks," said Jeremy Shoemaker, another guide skipping class to search for his buddy. The guides told their professors this is where they would be, and if they were going to be dropped for missing the classes, so be it.

"Priorities," Shoemaker said. "Our friend is missing."

Boise County Sheriff Roeber wasn't on the ground with these young adults, but he understood how they felt.

"Everywhere you are searching that he is not, frustration mounts," he said. "But the more areas we can cross off our list, it is still deemed a success."

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