JETTY ISLAND — It was a tide similar to the day a Tulalip tribal officer went missing at sea half a year ago.
On the west side of Jetty Island, the mud flats on May 28 stretched seemingly for miles. The low tides were some of the lowest of the year, presenting the best conditions for searching since Tulalip fish and wildlife officer Charlie Cortez’s boat capsized in November.
Unlike the night Cortez was lost, this low tide took place during the daytime. The waves, while somewhat active, didn’t have any surprises for boaters. And the sun peeked through an overcast sky, offering a gentle sunburn to anyone who didn’t bother to put on protection.
Out toward the edge of the sandbar, a crew of eight Tulalip officers and volunteers jumped out of a shrimping boat and into the waist-high water, wearing waders from Walmart and Cabela’s. They spread about 10 feet apart from one another and trudged through the muck, their boots being sucked beneath the sand with each step.
With the water so low, at least one boater got stranded during the retreating tide. Birds bobbed nearby, and a seal peeked its head out to take a look at the strangers. Eagles hovered overhead.
The water on this day was brown and cloudy and impossible to see through as the tide and wind stirred up the sediment. All the searchers could hope for was to hit something with their feet — maybe a boot or a piece of clothing. Anything, at this point, would be helpful.
Usually, though, the officers and volunteers found crabs and clam shells. A flounder slithered through officer Robert McCracken’s legs, causing him to jump and yelp — and making a Herald reporter suddenly concerned for his safety.
At one point, Shawn Edge stepped into a soft spot and sank waist deep. He wriggled his way out and decided it was a good time to take a break.
Shawn Edge was on the boat with Cortez. He pointed south, where he said he and Cortez had fallen off on Nov. 17, 2020.
They were on a routine visit to the Everett Marina, he said. The water hadn’t been bad that day, and they had no trouble getting there. But after making a quick stop to talk to someone, Puget Sound became ferocious.
Very large waves battered their 24-foot fisheries boat, capsizing it and throwing the pair overboard.
Edge, wearing a life jacket, was picked up by fishermen near Hat Island, about 3½ miles west of Jetty Island. He said it took three of them to haul him on board. He was hypothermic but conscious.
Cortez was never found, despite an extensive search that included the U.S. Coast Guard, several police agencies, fishermen, helicopters, underwater drones and specially trained search dogs.
Hundreds of square miles of water were scoured.
Since then, Tulalip officers and volunteers have searched those same hundreds of square miles again and again, hoping for any sign of Cortez.
His gear, including a bulletproof vest and his duty belt, could have been heavy enough to weigh down Cortez and keep him from floating to the surface. Search volunteers have been trying to figure out how far he drifted from his vessel before he went under.
So far, searchers have found nothing. A couple of potential items — like a set of work keys that looked similar to the ones used for Tulalip buildings, and a pair of boots — ended up being unrelated to Cortez.
It was no different on May 28, the day Cortez would have turned 30. After an hour or so of wading through the water, the officers and volunteers once again came back to the boat empty-handed.
Bernie Edge then drove the boat over to Hat Island, where locals hang anything that washes ashore on a large stump. Officer Beau Jess got out to take a look. Mostly flip-flops, he said, and a few boots, but nothing Cortez would’ve worn while on duty.
As the group headed back to shore, Tulalip officer Bernie Edge — Shawn Edge’s father — weaved through a flotilla of logs and debris that had been picked up by the tide.
This wasn’t the last day these officers would look for Cortez. They have no plans of quitting until he’s found, and until they can offer some kind of closure for the family.
“He was like one of my kids,” Bernie Edge said.
He said he was the one who pushed hard to recruit Cortez, while the young man was still working at the marina. With a background in hunting, fishing and diving, Cortez was a natural fit for the job.
Bernie Edge recalled asking him, “Hey, have you done anything stupid?”
Cortez said he hadn’t.
Sure enough, he had clean record.
Cortez’s mother said she never had any issues with him, either — even as a teen, when some parents might have trouble with their kids. They kept him busy, she said.
“Charlie was someone I was proud of as a parent,” Paula Grenier-Cortez said.
Cortez picked up dirt-biking as a kid and became an accomplished motocross racer in his teenage years.
Then he got into hunting and would often go to the mountains. He didn’t like to say where his favorite spots were.
“He would tell me it was ‘No Tell ’Em Ridge,” Grenier-Cortez said.
Cortez also was a clam digger, a crabber and a geoduck diver. As an officer, he was the only Tulalip fish and wildlife officer trained for diving. Had it been anyone else who was lost in the water, Cortez would have been the one to go after them.
He shared his love of the outdoors with his son and daughter, 8-year-old Dominic and 5-year-old Peyton. He had recently bought a travel trailer so he could take them on more adventures, and he was thinking of buying a boat, his mother said.
“He was an awesome dad,” Grenier-Cortez said.
Cortez was planning for the upcoming Christmas, too. After he was lost at sea, he still had Amazon packages showing up to his porch.
“He never thought that anything like this was going to happen, and you can tell that by the way he lived,” Grenier-Cortez said.
June is bringing some more of the lowest daytime tides of the year, and more opportunities to search for clues of Cortez’s whereabouts. People have been asked to keep an eye out and report any clothing that may have belonged to Cortez.
He was wearing a department-issued uniform, including a black stocking cap, a black zip-up bulletproof vest, a dark-blue shirt, a dark-blue coat, dark-blue pants, black boots and a black UnderArmour T-shirt. His name and a gold star is embroidered in some of the clothing.
A memorial for Cortez has been scheduled for 1 p.m. Aug. 17 at Angel of the Winds Arena in Everett. The public is invited.
Grenier-Cortez said she is trying to keep her hopes up, that her son will one day be found. She struggles to think what went through his mind in his final moments.
“We definitely look at the water in a different way,” Grenier-Cortez said. “Not like I hate the water. It’s just different, because we know he’s out there.”
Report anything that may aid the search for Charlie Cortez to the Tulalip Police Department at 360-716-4608, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.