The Searchers of G.I. Joe Search and Rescue

The OC group goes into the California wilderness to find the missing—and to honor a brother who was swept away

"Authorities think, 'Oh, it's just a body,'" says Victoria, a petite woman wearing cargo pants, black hiking boots and a button with Joe's picture on it. "But to a family, it's not just a body. It's a son, a daughter, a mother, a father. No one deserves to feel that pain."

At 8:30 a.m., someone announces over the walkie-talkies everyone is carrying that a team member has spotted a blue-and-yellow paddle wedged between a cluster of rocks in the river. It's a paddle that was used by Nguyen and Neacato. 

When Neacato's mother, Silvia, sees it, she cries. She squats down on a rock and gently touches the flowing water, staring out at the river that has no end in sight. The last time she saw her son was at his UCLA graduation ceremony, just a couple of days before the trip. "They didn't call me," she says, explaining that authorities didn't notify the Neacatos that Scott was missing until the day after the accident. "Nobody told me," she sobs.

The sun beams through the Sierra Nevadas and will pound down harder as the morning turns into noon. But the team still has a lot more ground to cover. 

When asked how long the group plans to be out there, Victoria responds without hesitation, "As long as it takes."

* * *

Joe Le was a quiet, easygoing 20-year-old who loved art, computers and the great outdoors. He had shaggy, side-swept hair, rectangular glasses and a sweet demeanor.

The son of Vietnamese immigrants, he was born in Northern California and grew up in Anaheim. He was studying art at Golden West College and planned on transferring to Cal State Fullerton. A class project required he paint a self-portrait; Le depicted himself as G.I. Joe, one of his favorite childhood characters.

Victoria says she and her brother were very close, despite the gap in age. "He loved to make others smile," she says. "I'm more go-go-go, while he could just sit back and enjoy life. His motto was 'Shut up and live.'" 

On April 1, Joe and one of his best friends, Brian Tran, planned to hike the east fork of the San Gabriel Mountains to Azusa's Bridge to Nowhere, a popular 9-mile river-chasing trip along an abandoned, flooded-out roadway. The wet winter caused the streams of water to swell to chest-deep levels, making the hike especially treacherous in the early spring. At around noon, Joe and Tran came to a rope strung across the icy rapids of the San Gabriel River. The river looked calm enough to cross. Le went first.

The current was deceptive. As he walked the line through the river, Joe struggled to hold on to the rope as rushing water knocked him off his feet and carried him downstream.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department launched a search, dispatching helicopters, firefighters and trained rescue teams, but scaled back the effort as the sun went down. "It's very, very difficult to search in the dark," explains Sergeant Joseph McDonald. "Unfortunately, if you don't find a person in a fast amount of time, it's going to be a body recovery, not a search for an alive person."

At 8:45 p.m., a Los Angeles County sheriff arrived at Victoria's doorstep in Anaheim and told her that Joe was missing. She went numb, and then became furious.

"I said, 'What do you mean he's missing?'" she recalls. "They told me he fell into the river. I said, 'He's not missing, then. He's in that river!'"

Victoria, who works as a forensic investigator with the Westminster Police Department, was appalled that she and her family weren't notified sooner. "I would assume that'd be the first thing they'd do," she says. "I asked, 'What have you been doing this whole time?'"

After the sheriff left, Victoria was overcome by a sense of determination. "I just kept thinking, 'I'm gonna find him. I'm gonna find my brother,'" she says.

She went to her computer and posted on Facebook: "I NEED YOUR HELP TO LOCATE JOE!" Victoria announced that she would be at the river at 5 the next morning. At 4 a.m., a group of strangers in hiking gear showed up at her house to join her.

The news of Joe's disappearance had exploded on the Internet during the night, with the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations (UVSA)—a national college organization with chapters at UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Long Beach—sending out Victoria's plea and people hosting virtual prayer events for those who couldn't make it out to the river. "It shows there are still people out there who are compassionate," Victoria says.

At the site, a group of 33 combed through 7 miles of steep, rocky terrain, flipping over rocks, looking under logs and branches, and eventually venturing into the river. Some were avid hikers, but few, if any, had rescue training. During the search, they noticed a helicopter hovering overhead and some authorities standing on cliffs and looking down at the scene with binoculars, but they did not see any official search teams on ground or in the water. Authorities said they considered dispatching rescue divers, but the currents were too strong.

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