Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Sheriff calls off search for hiker

Express Staff Writer

Jon Francis

More than a week of searching has failed to find any trace of a Utah minister, missing in the Sawtooth Mountains near Redfish Lake since July 15.

The fate of Jon Francis, 24, remained a mystery as friends and family ended their search Sunday evening. A more formal search coordinated by the Custer County Sheriff's Office had been discontinued on Tuesday, July 18.

The family's additional efforts had prompted the dispatch of a Civil Air Patrol plane and a U.S. Air Force helicopter.

The search was started on Sunday, July 16, after Francis failed to return from a climb of the nearly 10,000-foot-tall Grand Mogul, just southwest of Redfish Lake. Climbing the mountain involves a scramble, using both feet and hands, but requires no technical climbing skills or equipment.

Family members and other searchers made a "mutual decision" to end the search Sunday, said Erik Leidecker, co-owner of Sawtooth Mountain Guides, which was hired by Francis' family to continue looking after the formal search was ended.

"We didn't feel like there was a whole lot more we could do," Leidecker said. "I think the family was starting to accept that he was probably dead."

Searchers knew Francis had reached the top of the mountain because he entered his name in a logbook there. However, they had no idea which route he descended. Leidecker said searchers considered it possible that Francis had reached the summit early and had decided to head for another peak, but focused most of their efforts on the most direct route down.

"We identified terrain where he might have gotten into where a slip or fall could have resulted in injury," Leidecker said.

Leidecker said about 40 relatives and friends participated in the search each day between Thursday and Saturday. He said up to four Sawtooth Mountain Guides employees searched the more difficult areas, which required technical climbing skills, while volunteers searched the easier areas.

Leidecker estimated searchers covered about 30 percent of the mountain.

"Even the portions of the mountain that were covered on foot, we still couldn't say with 100 percent certainty that he's not where we looked," he said, "just because of the terrain, with all the niches and alcoves."

Leidecker said searchers found no trace of the missing man.

"We had no leads, just nothing to work with," he said.

Leidecker said that if Francis had fallen and been injured, the likelihood of his survival after a week was remote.

"I think the family did just about everything they could do to find their son," he said.

Francis, originally from Stillwater, Minn., had been a youth minister at Ascension Lutheran Church near Ogden, Utah. He worked as a counselor the past several summers at Luther Heights Bible Camp, some 40 miles north of Ketchum near Alturas Lake.

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