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Family of dead hiker says L.A. Sheriff's Department failed to aid in two-day search

April 6, 2011 |  7:01 pm

Hiker search

The sister of a hiker who died after going missing near the east fork of the San Gabriel River is faulting the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for not doing enough to find him.

Joe Le, 20, of Anaheim was hiking with a friend across the river at a rope crossing on Friday afternoon when rushing water knocked him off his feet and carried him downstream. A volunteer found his body two days later, less than a mile from the crossing.

Victoria Le, 27, said in an interview Wednesday that she believes her brother could have been saved if Sheriff’s Department officials had put more effort into the search and rescue operation immediately after the accident.

Fearing that authorities weren’t doing enough, Victoria Le took to Facebook and amassed dozens of friends, family members and volunteers to scour the area.

Starting Saturday morning, they began sweeping a 7-mile stretch of the river, looking under rocks, bridges and logs and scanning with binoculars. They saw a helicopter in the sky but didn’t encounter any official search crews on the ground. “We thought that we would be assisting them,” she said, but a deputy told her that for liability reasons, they were on their own.

Le, who works as a forensic technician for the Westminster Police Department, said she expected authorities to use ropes, rescue dogs or special tools to probe the river for her brother. “I’m disappointed because I was expecting more from the people in uniform,” she said.

Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said that starting Friday afternoon, more than 100 people, including three Sheriff’s Department search-and-rescue teams, firefighters and three sheriff’s helicopters were dispatched to search for Joe Le.

“Staffing was at a premium until they decided to turn it into a recovery operation” on Friday evening, Whitmore said. At that point the effort had to be scaled back, sheriff’s officials said, because the hiker’s chances of surviving the icy waters were slim.

A group of volunteers found Joe Le’s green backpack in the water about 1 p.m. Sunday after two days of searching steep, rocky terrain and swift river currents. Inside were his hat, identification card and other gear sealed in ziplock bags so it wouldn’t get wet, his sister said.

A ranger then came to recover the backpack, Victoria Le said, but law enforcement officials did not send anyone to aid with the search.

A few hours later, Santos Avila Navarrete, a hiker familiar with the area who was searching for Le by tying himself to trees and poking through the swift-moving water, found his body underwater, lodged under a log and some branches near the Coyote Flats area of the Angeles National Forest. The coroner’s office later identified the body as Joe Le.

Avila’s wife Leticia Trujillo, who watched her husband discover the body, said deputies appeared to watch through binoculars from above.

"Not one man in uniform said ‘Can we help you? Let me get you this better equipment,’” she said. “They didn't do one thing. I don't think this was handled the way it should have been.”

Whitmore expressed condolences to Le’s family and said procedures would be reviewed to see how the department could have done better.

Le’s family is holding a viewing and visitation Saturday through Monday at Hilgenfeld Mortuary in Anaheim and is planning a memorial for him April 16 at the spot where his body was found.

The family plans to start a foundation in Joe Le’s honor to help people with missing family members stage search and rescue operations.


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Photo: Joe Davis, his dog and other volunteers search the east fork of the San Gabriel River, where 20-year-old Joe Le fell at a rope crossing Friday afternoon. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times