A three-day search in the Angeles National Forest by Los Angeles County Sheriff's officials for the 20-year-old Anaheim hiker, Joe Le, ended last Sunday when his body was pulled from the icy waters of the San Gabriel River by a handful of volunteers, approximately 500 feet from the point he slipped in.
Representatives from the sheriff's headquarters insist they did everything within their means to aid in the search, but resources were scaled back once, according to Sgt. Diane Hecht, the effort was reclassified from "rescue" to "recovery," which occurred at the end of the first day.
Le's older sister, Victoria Le, 27, has expressed frustration with what she felt to be a lack of sufficient support from trained LASD officials, whom she and others state they observed concentrating on scouting from the air and cliff trails. She says that when asked why officials did not enter the river, deputies cited "liability reasons," including frigid temperature and rushing waters.
"At one point I talked with the [deputy] and asked what they did that day," recounts Victoria Le, who works as a forensic technician with the Westminster Police Department. "He said they sent out a helicopter, but where do you look when a person drowns? They're going to be in the water. You can't just drive around on the cliffs and look down."
Lt. Craig Boyett, who was on duty during the search, says, "It was disappointing to everyone that we couldn't find him the day he fell into the river. ... [There were] 15 to 20 fire trucks stationed along the river with two to three airships patrolling up and down the area just in case they saw him, but there was no sign. We considered taking divers in, but the currents were so treacherous. We had an inkling [Joe Le] was trapped underwater, but it was just too strong. If it were my family, I would have felt the same as them [the volunteers], but the frustrating thing is that Mother Nature wouldn't allow us to do more than what we did."
When asked whether the sheriff's department was involved in any way with the volunteer rescue efforts, Boyett responded negatively, adding that there was no way for the LASD to give assignments or dispatch civilians. Because the Angeles National Forest is public land, the most officials could do was caution the public to say away from the water.
Despite the environmental factors that deterred officials from searching the river, Le's friends and family members were able to mobilize more than 100 volunteers to do just that via social networking tools such as Facebook. Many were members of the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations (UVSA). They combed the entire area, even venturing into the riverbed.
"They basically told us we were on our own when it came to searching the river," Victoria Le continues, "I don't understand why they [the officials] couldn't even advise us on what to do. We didn't need them to babysit us, but we expected them to at least assist or guide us.
"I want to give thanks to the proper people. Our family and the UVSA had never done this before. If it weren't for the UVSA, I wouldn't have known what to do. They brought walkie-talkies and divided into search groups despite having zero experience. It was the volunteers who found his backpack. Volunteers pulled Joe from the river."
Santos Avila Navarrete
, his wife, Leticia Trujillo
, Raymond Lee
and David Gunshore
were among the handful of volunteers to recover Le's body from a river bend near Coyote Flats at 3:20 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.
Avila, 40, who entered the water with a rope tied around his waist, was the first to discover Le's body among debris, pinned against a submerged tree stump by rushing currents.
The Los Angeles-based artist and Trujillo, 39, had been conducting searches independent of the organized rescue since last Friday, after hearing about Le's accident while hiking nearby Iron Mountain. After a couple days of searching land, the couple was inspired to search the river after both had dreamed about seeing Le's body underwater on Saturday night, they say.
The couple was incensed by what they also perceived to be insufficient action on the part of the LASD, believing that Joe could have been rescued had they a more efficient system in place for reacting to river accidents.
"It's not fair for Joe to die like this if they [the LASD] don't change things," Trujillo states. "It's our honor to help the family, but we didn't have the training to handle this situation like they did. The officials are supposed to be the experts and provide the necessary resources.
"We were not prepared psychologically for what happened and have had trouble sleeping ever since. They were looking at us through binoculars while we dragged the river. Who's prepared to pull a dead person from a river and hold them in their arms? Our feelings have nothing to do with Joe or fear of the dead, but with having your own mortality stare you straight in the face."
Despite their grieving and memorial preparations, the Le family has already begun building the nonprofit G.I. Joe Foundation. Christened after one of Le's nicknames, the foundation intends to provide timely rescue assistance for river accidents and recoveries when authorities are slow to react.
All proceeds from donations made to the Joe Le funeral services will go directly to the G.I. Joe Foundation, which will be overseen by the UVSA
members who were responsible for organizing Le's volunteer search.
"Through this foundation, anyone can call and depend on us to help them in their search. We essentially want to do for others what volunteers helped do for us."