Body pulled from Kaw
Victim's family say response by authorities inadequate
Onlookers cried, hugged and even scuffled with police Wednesday morning as rescue workers pulled a body from the Kansas River in North Lawrence.
For members of the rural Oskaloosa family who reported Monday their kin was missing and begged authorities to search the river for him, the discovery caused a mix of grief and anger.
They said the body was that of Robert Lathrom, a father of two who disappeared Monday night while fishing along the river.
Douglas County Sheriff’s officials wouldn’t confirm the identity of the body Wednesday because they were waiting on official word from the coroner. Lathrom’s family said they didn’t suspect foul play, but authorities said they hadn’t ruled it out.
A fisherman reported seeing the body wash up about 9:30 a.m. amid pieces of driftwood just east of the Bowersock Dam, and crews pulled it from the water shortly before 10 a.m.
‘This much heartache’
About 20 of Lathrom’s friends and family members gathered on the levee to watch the recovery, still angry at what they said was an inadequate official response to their report the 52-year-old man was missing and may have jumped or fallen into the river. Most had been there to continue their own search, which was beginning its second day.
A woman who family members said was Lathrom’s sister tried to run past two police officers to get closer to the scene, but officers grabbed her and held her back.
“It wouldn’t have had this much heartache” if there had been more of an effort to search the river, said Stacy Holl of Lawrence, the stepsister of Lathrom’s daughter.
“There just wasn’t enough response yesterday,” said Holl’s father, Dale Hamilton.
But police said they did look for Lathrom, just not in the river. Because there was no solid evidence — such as an eyewitness — saying he was in the river, they worked other leads starting Monday on the assumption he might still have been alive.
“It’s not like if we know there’s a person in the water, we don’t go get them,” said Sgt. Mike Pattrick, a police spokesman.
For example, Pattrick, said, officers on Monday and Tuesday canvassed the river banks, searched North Lawrence bars and businesses, and tried to contact acquaintances and “places where people with alcohol problems may go.”
Lathrom had been attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings but had a relapse Monday, his wife said.
Though she said it was not like Lathrom to be gone so long without calling, police continued their search along and away from the water. Family members conducted their own search and posted fliers around North Lawrence.
No one probed the river until about 5 p.m. Tuesday, when Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical workers went there at the order of City Manager Mike Wildgen, who had been contacted by Lathrom family friend Ted Boyle, president of the North Lawrence Improvement Assn.
The crews spent about an hour dipping poles into a driftwood-filled area under the Kansas River Bridge near where Lathrom’s father said he’d seen footprints he thought might have been his son’s. The prints were left by Nike shoes, which appeared entering the water.
A difficult spot
Fishing on Monday with his family, Lathrom had gone to seek the shade of the river bridge, said his father, Loman Lathrom, a North Lawrence resident. But when the rest of the fishermen retired for the evening, Robert Lathrom didn’t follow.
The area where the body washed up was about 50 yards east of the search area, just past the dam near a spot commonly used for fishing.
Wildgen said the spot crews searched Tuesday was closed off by gates from the rest of the river except for few inches at the bottom. If Lathrom had fallen there, Wildgen said, he couldn’t have ended up where the body was found.
And, Wildgen said, police and rescue workers responded appropriately, given limited resources, the dangers of the high water, and the lack of eyewitnesses.
Family members still questioned why more wasn’t done, such as searching with dogs, or dredging the river for a body.
The river falls under the jurisdiction of the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, Pattrick had said, and dredging would be done only after officials had exhausted all other search options.