“Sweep the area slowly,” Ken Le commands into a walkie talkie as he scans the yellow monitor screen before him. “No visual . . . no visual . . . Okay, I got eyes on something. Turn to your left.”
Down a steep dirt pathway, past a maze of boulders and brush, a young man in a wetsuit, life vest and red helmet strides waist-deep through frigid water, lunging over rocks and branches while dragging a metal pole attached to an underwater camera through the current. White circles drift across a small gray screen playing a live feed from the camera. Le, a husky, baby-faced 18-year-old wearing an outback vest over a fluorescent-yellow T-shirt, peers closer at the image as two men hover over him. He shakes his head and lifts up the two-way radio once again.
“It's getting blurry,” he says with disappointment. “All I see are bubbles.”
It's barely 8 a.m. on June 25, and the clock is already moving too fast for the 16 volunteers of G.I. Joe Search & Rescue, scattered in work groups along the upper Kern River in Sequoia National Park. One of the fastest-flowing rivers in the West, the Kern is a beast this season—an unusually heavy snowmelt has produced violent waters that even expert paddlers won't dip their toes into.
But the team members, fueled by adrenalin and Red Bull, have caravanned 204 miles from Huntington Beach for the day's mission, and they are committed. Some scout for calmer currents; others use their ankles to anchor ropes tied to those in the water. One man pokes and prods the edges of the river with a branch, searching for “soft spots.” A woman holds up binoculars to zoom in on the trees in the distance, scoping for “colors,” for objects that may have gotten tangled inside their branches.
As for what exactly they're looking for, Le calmly lists “articles of clothing, other clues.” He pauses, then utters the words that bring both hope and dread: “And the bodies.”
The bodies he's referring to are those of 25-year-old Minh Tu Nguyen of Westminster and 22-year-old Scott Neacato of Los Angeles, who both fell into the river 13 days prior, on June 13, and never resurfaced. The two were on an end-of-the-school-year camping trip with a group of friends in Ant Canyon near Johnsondale, and just for kicks, they decided to cross the river on a two-man inflatable raft tied to shore with a line. According to witnesses, other people had crossed the river, and despite wood signs warning, “Stay Out, Stay Alive,” the water seemed calm. But when Nguyen and Neacato began rowing, the rapids became aggressive and capsized the craft, throwing them overboard. Neacato didn't know how to swim, and Nguyen tried to hold him up, but the monstrous currents soon dragged the two under. Neither was wearing a life jacket.
Without cell-phone reception, Minh's girlfriend, Kelly Van Nguyen, and a friend drove to the nearest landline, located in a shop 10 miles away. They called 911, and authorities arrived about 20 minutes later, at around 7 p.m., the light engulfing the riverbank with a glow somewhere between golden-hour-soft and sunset-foreboding. They searched the area until midnight, then continued the next day. At 6 p.m., with no sign of either person, resources were scaled back, and the effort was reclassified from a “rescue” to a “recovery,” as chances of survival were slim.
Since the incident, Nguyen's and Neacato's families and friends have hiked up and down the 21-mile stretch of the upper Kern, their noses scorched by the unsympathetic sun.
“Each time we go, we have a lot of hope,” Kelly says. “But then we see how big everything is, and we suddenly feel so small and hopeless.”
Neacato's father, Edison, has been camping at the site for a week and a half and vows not to leave until his son is found. Wearing a blue-fleece pullover, his hair is disheveled, his eyes worn. He holds the hand of his daughter, Melissa. “I dreamt about him a couple of times,” he says. “That was nice.”
Some of the family members are handed life jackets and inserted into the G.I. Search & Joe Rescue teams, which have names like Alpha, Bravo and Charlie.
“I'll do anything they tell me to do,” says Nguyen's younger brother, Vince.
Neither Ken Le nor the 15 other members knew Nguyen or Neacato. But their motto is “Helping You Find Yours,” and the Orange County-based group, mostly made up of Vietnamese American twentysomethings, assists families whose loved ones have gone missing, traveling to search sites across California, from rapids to canyons, creeks to forests—no charge, no reimbursement, no nonsense. Nguyen's father heard about the self-taught, self-motivated rescuers through a friend, who knew of the months-old organization's sobering mission, and reached out to them; the group responded within the day and drove up to the Kern River within 24 hours.
The all-volunteer organization is altruistic but was born of tragedy. It was founded by 27-year-old Victoria Le (no relation to Ken) after her younger brother, Joe, fell into the San Gabriel River during a hike earlier this year and disappeared. Frustrated by what she felt was a lack of support from trained professionals, she relied on the help of more than 100 volunteers rallied together mostly through Facebook to find Joe and pull his body from the river on April 3. The outpouring of concern from strangers surprised her, comforted her in the Les' time of mourning—and made her realize her family wouldn't be the only one with a loved member missing, with little hope to locate a body and find peace.
"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.
Victoria approached county sheriffs, told them that she had a group of volunteers ready to help and asked for some guidance. "They said, 'You guys are on your own. We don't want to be liable,'” she recounts. Though they can't restrict civilian aid, officials never encourage untrained volunteers to help with rescue missions, as they can complicate efforts and even get into trouble themselves.
"It was very hazardous for them to do this,” McDonald says. "They were warned that the conditions were very dangerous, and they could slip and fall and become casualties.”
But the searchers kept going. A former Eagle Scout with training in first aid, 24-year-old Tim Nguyen of Huntington Beach (no relation to Minh or Kelly) wanted to help as soon as he saw the posting on Facebook. "I felt this is my calling,” he says. "Authorities wanted to just wait for a body to wash up while the family was wondering, 'Is he alive?' If someone wants to help, why deny them?”
The sun went down, and the search continued the next day with even more vigor. That Sunday, 120 supporters showed up to help look for a man whom most had never met. In the afternoon, someone spotted Joe's olive-colored backpack. Hours later, while tied to a tree and poking around in the rushing currents, a volunteer named Santos Avila Navarrete discovered Joe's body, pinned against a submerged tree stump and covered with branches and debris.
Santos, along with his wife, Leticia Trujillo, and other volunteers helped to pull the body ashore. Trujillo told the Weekly in April that though they were glad to help the family, they were not psychologically ready for the experience and had trouble sleeping in the days that followed. "Who's prepared to pull a dead person from a river and hold them in their arms?” she asked. "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.”
"I don't think anyone was prepared for it,” Tim adds. "I don't think it set in that we were looking for a body . . . maybe some pieces of clothing or clues.” But for him, the recovery wasn't as much traumatic as it was inspiring. "Mentally, it makes you stronger. I was just thinking, 'I gotta man up and do what I gotta do for the family.'”
Santos, a 39-year-old artist in Los Angeles, says humbly, "I just did what I did.”
When her brother's body surfaced, Victoria broke down. Though, this time, there was comfort in her sadness, she says. "He's found. He's not stuck in the river in the cold. We're gonna get him a good funeral and put him to rest,” she recalls thinking. In honor of Joe, Victoria felt it appropriate, even necessary to help other families receive the same sense of peace and closure she was able to get. Instead of giving flowers at his memorial, she asked friends and family, donate to her new organization, G.I. Joe Search & Rescue, so she could afford outdoor equipment for future expeditions.
California has numerous volunteer Search and Rescue (SAR) units activated by law enforcement when necessary. These rescue specialists are on call 24/7 and go through hours of intense training each year in areas such as emergency medical practices, rope rescues and man-tracking. Though members of G.I. Joe Search & Rescue plan to go through proper SAR training and become certified by the National Association for Search and Rescue (NASAR), they work independently of deputies at their own risk. In the meantime, they're publicizing themselves through social media and are hosting a benefit concert on Aug. 20 (the details for which will eventually be posted at www.gij411.org).
Last month, the group drove up to the Bay Area to participate in a three-day search for Michelle Le (no relation to Victoria), a 26-year-old female nursing student who was last seen leaving Kaiser Hospital in Hayward on May 27. They found out about the case the same way Victoria had put out the call for Joe's disappearance: Facebook. Her case has been classified as a homicide. Volunteers scoped remote canyons and glades in the East Bay hills, looking for anything out of the ordinary.
While Michelle has not yet been found, her father, Son Le, is grateful for the searchers. "They had open arms and didn't ask for anything in return,” he says.
* * *
"Watch out for sinkholes,” warns Khang Phi, as the group huddles around him. "If you step in one, you can get trapped.”
The former military man gives a safety rundown at the Kern River mission site: If you lose balance and get swept away, lift your feet up and sit in a "chair” position. Stay calm and don't try to fight the current. Swim parallel to the shoreline. Drink lots of water.
Phi was a friend of Joe's and felt he could use his U.S. Army experience to help the group. Before team members enter the water, he checks the knots on their harnesses.
Vincent Pham, the organization's director of operations, emphasizes that safety comes first in every mission. "The truth is, the bodies are dead,” he says. "That's not gonna change. We can't lose another person in the river.” Pham, an ultramarathon runner and former Eagle Scout, says he joined the group because "help is hard to come by.”
Team members began the search near Mountain 99, the Point Last Seen (PLS) of Minh and Scott. At about 10:30 a.m. on June 25, they saw a CHP helicopter hovering over the river. Authorities were searching for a 53-year-old man from Palmdale who had been reported missing the day before. They found his body in the water, caught on a tree. A swiftwater rescue team pulled him to shore.
Then, about 20 yards away from the recovery, authorities spotted another body caught on a tree in the river. It was Minh.
G.I. Joe Search & Rescue members watched the recovery from afar. It was bittersweet, they described. "We were just happy to see the family in a better state,” Vincent says.
Unable to find Neacato that day, they returned home and headed back to the river the following week. On July 2, at 11:30 a.m., Santos spotted Neacato. He and Vincent tied the body to a tree so it wouldn't float away, and then they alerted authorities. "It's a powerful surprise,” Vincent says of finding a body. "It hits you and brings you to your senses. It's tough, but it's a good feeling.”
"We know we're crazy,” says Victoria. "We know we're not equipped, not trained. But we're the ones who have the heart to go out there.”
For Edison Neacato, knowing his son's no longer out in the wild, alone in the elements, is enough to give him peace. "He's not out there no more,” he says. "We know where he is. It feels better to know.”
As for G.I. Joe Search & Rescue, he declares, "They are the heroes, in my opinion.”
At last, he can go home.
This article appeared in print as "The Searchers: G.I. Joe Search & Rescue goes into the California wilderness to find the missing—and to honor the brother who was swept away.”