Friday, July 15, 2011

Father mourns son 5 years later

Climber disappeared in Sawtooths July 15, 2006

Express Staff Writer

Jon Francis, above, died five years ago from a fall while climbing Grand Mogul in the Sawtooth Mountains. Courtesy photo

Five years after his son disappeared in the Sawtooth Mountains, David Francis says his anger at Custer County officials who he believes gave up the search has changed.

"It's evolved into action," he said. "We unfortunately came face to face with injustice. We learned that county sheriffs are in charge of finding the missing, and they are not well-trained or well-funded. There was a lack of commitment there, clearly."

Jon Francis, a 24-year-old youth minister from Ogden, Utah, went missing in the Sawtooths on Saturday, July 15, 2006. Jon, an experienced climber, did not return as scheduled from a planned climb up Grand Mogul, near Redfish Lake south of Stanley.

Custer County authorities searched for three days before calling off the efforts, leaving the family to organize its own search with the help of Erik Leidecker and Sawtooth Mountain Guides.

Leidecker eventually found Jon Francis' remains in a rock crevice on Grand Mogul's north face more than a year later.

"Clearly [Custer County] assumed that Jon was dead and they weren't going to do a recovery," Francis said. "How could a parent not feel abandoned?"

Though the discovery brought some closure and relief for the family, Francis said anger lingered and spawned action on behalf of other missing adults.

Through the Jon Francis Foundation, Francis worked with the state legislature in his native Minnesota to enact Brandon's Law in 2009. The law is named after Brandon Swanson, a 19-year-old man who disappeared in Minnesota in 2008. After only a few days of searching, county authorities gave up, telling Swanson's mother that as an adult, her son had "the right to go missing."

The law requires law enforcement to take a missing person's report without delay after notification of someone missing under dangerous circumstances, no matter what the age of the missing person is.

Francis said the difficulty with many county search operations is that counties simply don't have the proper resources.

"We have county sheriffs who are not trained [in search and rescue]," Francis said, noting that the search for his son was the first time the Custer County team had assembled and worked together. Brandon's Law only passed after the Jon Francis Foundation pledged $5,000 in funding for a training conference to educate authorities about search-and-rescue techniques.


The story of Jon Francis has inspired others such as 17-year-old Micah Drew. Drew had met Jon Francis at Luther Bible Camp near Alturas Lake, where Jon was working as a counselor when he disappeared. When Drew heard of the death, he began an effort to raise money for camp scholarships in his counselor's name.

"He admired and loved and missed Jon, so he decided to organize a race in Jon's honor," Francis said.

The Jon Francis Race to Alturas will be held for its third year on Aug. 13 at Luther Heights Bible Camp.

Francis authored a memoir of the search after his son's remains were found, titled "Bringing Jon Home: The Wilderness Search for Jon Francis."

He describes the book as a "cautionary tale" for hikers and climbers and a commemoration of Jon Francis' life and ministry.

"There are things I wish I had written differently," he said, and added that he should have interviewed the head of the search operations in order to understand the reasoning behind his ending the efforts.

Still, with the help of what Francis calls an excellent editor, his book earned awards from the Midwest Publishers' Association and the Indie Excellence Book Awards for inspirational memoir writing.

Francis will honor the fifth anniversary of his son's disappearance this year with book signings and readings across Idaho. He said he wants to thank the community that had worked to help his family during the search.

"We feel so grateful to so many people in Idaho for the outpouring of support and help," he said.

As for future political efforts, Francis said he would not run for public office. He was a candidate for House of Representatives in 2006, running against sitting Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), but now said he's "too old and too angry" to run again.

Instead, he'll fight for federal legislation to ensure that cases of missing adults receive proper investigation. Francis said there are currently more than 1,000 adults missing in the United States, many of whom will remain missing.

"Their cases weren't investigated and there wasn't an organized search," he said. "That's the purpose we're trying to pull out of our pain."

Book signings

David Francis will visit the Wood River Valley in August on a book-signing tour. He will be at the Hailey Public Library on Croy Street at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4, and at The Community Library on Spruce Avenue in Ketchum at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 10.

Katherine Wutz:

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