KUNA, Idaho — Gene Ralston and his wife left their home in southwestern Idaho less than a week after he had a coronary angioplasty, putting another 2,400 miles on their motorhome while traveling to and from Canada with their aluminum boat.
Ralston’s doctor told him to take it easy, but the trip was just too important.
“We left to go find Ralph,” Ralston said.
Ralph Der, 59, drowned in early August while fishing at a lake in British Columbia. Although he had never met the Ralstons, they would become intimately involved with the man’s family while working to recover his body from the lake floor.
“We know practically everything about him, his favorite fish, and all kinds of things,” said Ralston, who has volunteered with his wife in body searches since the early 1980s.
They’ve recovered the remains of 80 people and participated in the high-profile searches for Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway. Ralston acknowledges not everyone may understand their life’s work — he chuckled at a recent headline in the Canadian newspaper that read: “Idaho couple with odd hobby bring drowning victim home.”
“We don’t think it’s odd,” said his wife, Sandy.
The Ralstons initially worked with watercrafts, dogs and GPS coordinate systems, but their searches for drowning victims became more exact 12 years ago after they started using side-scanning sonar developed with technology similar to that used in medical ultrasounds.
Ralston first learned about the technology in 1999 when he was assisting with a body search in Oregon. He was horrified when the company leading the effort charged the grieving family around $30,000 for their time and use of the equipment, he said.
Ralston and his wife purchased their own scanning sonar in 2000 and traveled later that year to Utah’s Bear Lake, where authorities sought help in recovering a young man who drowned six week earlier. The Ralstons found the body within a few hours, under more than 100 feet of water.
“It was just such an awesome experience,” Sandy Ralston said, her voice choking up at the memory. “To actually find somebody when everybody else had just totally given up.”
The torpedo-shaped sonar device is 6 feet long and drags behind the boat, mapping the area and recording images in real time for the Ralstons to read on a computer screen. The Ralstons later acquired a remote-operated vehicle, called an ROV, which has a grabbing device that allows them to retrieve bodies.
Ralston estimates they’ve spent $100,000 on their equipment, though they don’t charge families for their time or for the use of their technology, asking only for travel expenses. There are other companies that offer similar services, but they typically seek payment, sometimes thousands of dollars for a day’s work, Ralston said.
Some law enforcement agencies also have the technology but most don’t take it outside their jurisdictions nor use it as frequently, Ralston said. He and his wife, who are in their 60s and mostly retired from their business as environmental consultants specializing in water issues, don’t have children and are mostly unencumbered when it comes to travel.
“Typically law enforcement agencies will spend a few days on a search,” Ralston said. “They don’t have the resources that we do, they don’t have the luxury of having two or three weeks or more to search for someone.”
In eastern Washington, Walla Walla County Sheriff John Turner met the couple this summer when they helped search for a 14-year-old boy who fell in the Snake River after a boat capsized. Turner’s agency deployed all their resources in a rescue effort, he said, but at some point it turned into mission to recover the boy’s body.
“You cannot, especially for an agency our size, you cannot sustain that level of commitment toward that mission just because you don’t have the resources,” said Turner, who called the Ralstons a godsend. “They have expertise and equipment that we don’t have.”
A few days into the search, the Ralstons were asked to help find a 12-year-old boy who had also drowned, Turner said. The couple recovered the second drowning victim, and stayed until the following weekend when the first boy was found.
While some might find the couple’s work weird — maybe even morbid — Turner doesn’t see it that way.
His agency oversees a search and rescue team that includes about 50 volunteers, he said.
“People volunteering to help other people is not a strange concept, the Ralstons just do it on a broader scale,” Turner said, “and they bring unique experience and tools.”
The Ralstons have driven twice to Alaska and have also taken their equipment to Mexico City and Aruba. Some years, they’ll have just two or three searchers, while during others they’ll spend more than 200 days on the road.
Among the seven bodies they’ve found so far this year was Gina Hoogendoorn’s father, who drowned in 1997 at Flaming Gorge Reservoir in Wyoming.
“You don’t really have that closure, it’s like you keep running into a wall, you don’t really get that full circle of grieving, you’re just stuck somewhere,” said Hoogendoorn, of Rock Springs, Wyo., who was 18 when her father died. She contacted the Ralstons in April after finding them online.
They found her father, Richard Herren, several minutes into their boat search later that month.
Hoogendoorn, who never expected to find closure, said she credits the Ralstons for giving her peace about her father, who has been cremated. The items recovered with his body were given to the family and included his wallet, pocket knife and wedding ring, she said.
The feeling of appreciation is what keeps the Ralstons going even as they reach an age when most couples start thinking about retirement. They know what it means for families to have their services available, and they’ve also seen tragedy firsthand.
The Ralstons were surveying the Snake River in 1996 for endangered snail species with a Bureau of Reclamation worker when the boat flipped and he drowned.
“We can’t say that we know what it would be like to lose a son or a daughter or a wife or a father or that type of thing, but we know pretty well what it means,” Ralston said.
They take pride in their commitment, which is why they didn’t hesitate to go search for Der in Canada, even as Ralston was recovering from his heart procedure. The day after they recovered the body, Ralston was back in the hospital with internal bleeding due to complications from his heart procedure.
He’s now doing better with changes to his medication and returned to Canada last week with his wife for Der’s funeral. Ralston has vowed to continue the searches as long as he’s physically able, but his wife is thinking more and more about passing the torch onto someone else, he said.
“We haven’t really found the right person yet,” he said. “It takes a bit of a special person who, in our opinion, will do more than just work on a weekend and then go home. It needs to be someone who has enough compassion to where they’ll stop everything and go on a search, for as long as it takes.”