‘This Is a Human Being’: How Tech Rescue Volunteers Dropped Everything to Recover Body Found in the Eel River
“She had messaged us on Facebook about 12:45,” Norris, a Caltrans worker who volunteers his time with the team explained. Talia Rose, a wildlife photographer had seen what she initially thought was the carcass of a deer. She had even posted about the encounter on her local nature page. But then, a comment made her second guess what might have been lying dead in the water. She reached out to the SHCTR team who are well-known for their work locally.
The two met up and walked up the river. When they arrived, Norris said he could tell it was a body. “I tried to wade over but it was too deep,” he said.
Meanwhile, four other members of the SHCTR team were arriving. Diana Totten and Aurora Studebaker, both Southern Humboldt businesswomen, were there soon after Norris.
“We waited until Kai [Ostrow] and Shawn [Studebaker] brought the rescue rig on the trailer,” Norris explained.
As the team prepared to enter the water, husband and wife, Aurora and Shawn Studebaker, were making arrangements by cell phone for their children and their businesses. “They got to drop everything they do,” Norris said. “They are on the phone trying to get someone to take the kids home. Trying to conduct business. A lot of planning. They’ve got young kids so you can’t just leave them by themselves.”
Meanwhile, Norris said, Totten, who runs a cannabis consulting business and has long time local knowledge because she was born here was determining on which side of the county line the body had been located. Totten would stay on shore helping the team troubleshoot with the correct local law enforcement and landowners if necessary.
“The body was in a somewhat serious state of decomposition,” Norris explained. And the body was intertwined in a downed tree. “It took a long time to disentangle him,” he said. And all the while, Norris said, the team was holding in their mind, “This is a human being…We’re going to treat the body like it is our family and treat it with respect and dignity.”
Each step they took while immersed in chilly water, had to both preserve evidence in case the man’s death was a crime and honor the spirit of the person who had died, Norris explained.
Once the man’s body was freed, the team maneuvered him carefully into a body bag. “Then we secured him onto our raft,” Norris said. “And, rafted him downstream to Cooks Valley where we unloaded him and the coroner took custody.”
Norris confirmed that the equipment used was mostly purchased by the volunteers. “We raise money to buy equipment,” he explained. Some of it, like the pair of gloves he tore through in the frigid water, will probably be replaced at his own expense. Other equipment is purchased through fundraisers mostly run by the same group of volunteers who staff the team.
Once the man’s body had been transferred to the Mendocino County Coroner’s custody, the team wasn’t through working. “Afterwards, it takes two to three hours to clean all of our equipment,” Norris explained.
Now that the unknown man’s body was in the care of another team in charge of determining who he was, the SHCTR team must then go back to their busy lives. They needed to complete other obligations that they left undone while helping their community and giving closure to the family of the man that died.
In all probability, they’ll never meet the relatives of the dead but every time they recover a body, they will help heal the anguish of those left behind.
Earlier Chapter: Wildlife Photographer Discovers Body in the Eel River