‘It’s up to us to find it’: When evidence hides underwater, this first responder dive team suits up

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Lawrence Police Officer Jeremiah Risner surfaces after a dive during a training exercise with the Underwater Search and Recovery Team on Sept. 12, 2023, at Lone star Lake.

From the dock at Lone Star Lake, it looks like a cleanup project.

Divers in skintight black suits, with bulky oxygen tanks and bright yellow masks, plunge under the water. They feel around at the bottom, guided only by their sense of touch and the tenders on the surface who adjust their cables. And they fill up a mesh bag with beer bottles, soda cans and sunglasses abandoned by summer beachgoers.

But these divers aren’t just here to pick up trash — they’re with the Douglas County Underwater Search and Recovery Team, and they’re here to practice skills that will help them find evidence in crimes, locate the bodies of people who’ve drowned and maybe even solve mysteries that have gone cold for years.

“We do something that no one else can do or even wants to do,” one of the divers, Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Captain Earl Barnes, told the Journal-World. “We take a certain level of pride in that. Knowing that there is something unseen that needs to come up and it’s up to us to find it.”

At this training exercise last week, they’re under the command of Administrative Training Officer Scott Chamberlain with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. He said working underwater is completely different from what these first responders do on land.

“It is a different arena when you go from … doing the jobs like firefighter, police officer, deputy, to being in an environment where you’re being provided an air source,” Chamberlain said. “You now can’t see anything. It may be cold, it may be dark, you may run into something, but as long as you stay relaxed and calm and you communicate with the topside what’s going on, you should be perfectly fine.”

Chamberlain is no stranger to this kind of work, of course. Before he started his current role overseeing the team of eight divers and their support personnel, he spent 29 years with the Lawrence Police Department and was on the recovery team. After he retired from LPD in 2020, he was thrilled when Sheriff Jay Armbrister invited him to return to lead and train the team just a year later.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Colton Bonner with the Underwater Search and Recovery Team hops into the water during a training exercise and lake clean-up on Sept. 12, 2023, at Lone star Lake.

• • •

Today, that means getting divers in the water and drilling them on some fundamentals — and there’s plenty of stuff at the bottom that they can practice with.

“We’re using today, in conjunction with maintaining the integrity of our patterns, as well as giving the divers an opportunity to also participate in collecting items off the bottom,” Chamberlain said.

Collecting trash off the bottom of the lake gives the divers practice in picking up objects and trying to identify them. That’s vital when searching for potential evidence related to a crime. As the water gets deeper, the visibility drops, and the only way divers know what is right in front of them is their sense of touch. Sometimes, it might be tough to even feel things at the bottom, because the divers work in all conditions — even in freezing winter temperatures.

“As the weather gets colder, and the thicker gloves we use, our dexterity goes way down,” Chamberlain said. “So, you’ve got to be real careful about what you’re feeling and making sure that you’re hitting everything.”

Fortunately, the divers aren’t just fumbling around in the dark. They have a set of eyes up above: a fellow team member on the shore who’s in charge of their tether, and who can give them instructions.

“We’ve got a (communication) line that goes from our tender, which is the gentleman on the shore, to our diver who’s out there in the water. And so they can actually talk to each other,” Chamberlain said.

The line between the tender and the diver not only allows the two to communicate, but also serves as a guide to create a search pattern in the water, Chamberlain said. The tender keeps the line tight, letting out more line as the diver completes a pass in the search area, and that helps give the diver a point of reference for where they’re at.

“The diver can’t see anything. Our tender is actually going to have be a fixed point,” Chamberlain said. “We keep the line as tight as we can and we’re going to just kind of do a sweep pattern.”

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Trash collected by the Douglas County Underwater Search and Recovery Team on Sept. 12, 2023, at Lone star Lake.

The pattern the tender guides the diver along depends on the size of the object the diver is looking for, Chamberlain said. Some objects are small, like a cell phone — similar to the bottles and cans the team is finding during the training. For these, the pattern will be smaller. If the team is looking for a submerged vehicle or a body, the pattern will be much larger.

Not every search operation ends with something being discovered under the water, and Chamberlain said that’s OK. The team is often called to assist law enforcement with criminal investigations when there is a body of water near where a crime has occurred and police suspect a piece of evidence might have been disposed of in the water, he said. If the team can verify that there’s no evidence at the bottom, that’s not a loss, because that knowledge helps the investigation, too.

• • •

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Colton Bonner with the Underwater Search and Recovery Team prepares for a dive during a training exercise and lake clean-up on Sept. 12, 2023, at Lone star Lake.

For the divers, however, it’s often a thrill to go underwater and return with a key piece of evidence that might help solve a mystery.

The team is overseen by the sheriff’s office, but its members come from agencies all over the county, including Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical and the Lawrence and Eudora police departments. Barnes, one of its longtime members, will soon be retiring, and he said finding evidence in crimes — including decades-old cold cases — is what he’ll miss the most about his 23 years on the team.

“I’m going to miss just being here, going down and finding things underwater,” he said. When you dive down and find something unusual, he said, you naturally want to find out more, and his job is to do just that.

“Finding cars, the first thought is, well, ‘It’s fine, leave it there,’ but then take that step back and think ‘That could be a cold case from the ’70s that’s never been solved,'” he said. “And we get the chance to pull that out and figure out what happened.”

Even divers who haven’t been on the team long have fallen in love with the work. Sheriff’s Deputy Colton Bonner has been a part of the recovery team for about two years and is one of three divers who come from the sheriff’s office. He said that while he’s still early in his law enforcement career, he feels like he’s already joined an elite team.

“It’s one of the more interesting things that the sheriff’s office has to offer,” Bonner said.

Part of the reason he joined the team is that he’s loved being in the water all his life, and diving fulfills a sort of childhood fantasy — “Being able to breathe underwater. Being able to be 40 feet under the water and being able to breathe calmly and just relaxing is amazing,” Bonner said.

Keeping calm is one of the most important skills for a diver to have, and you can’t have that sense of calm without working closely with your team — letting others guide you when you can’t see, or being someone’s eyes and ears on the surface.

Those types of relationships make the work even more satisfying, Barnes said.

“I’m going to miss the camaraderie,” Barnes said. “We’re doing an inherently dangerous business, so we rely on each other. That’s built over time. I’ll miss those connections with the people, which is what we’re ultimately here for — to take care of each other, to make sure we’re safe and to go home alive.”

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Members of the Douglas County Underwater Search and Recovery Team conduct a training exercise and lake clean-up on Sept. 12, 2023, at Lone star Lake.

Dive equipment used by the Douglas County Underwater Search and Recovery Team.


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