Decatur County Sheriff’s deputies teamed up with officers from other agencies to help rescue three men who became stranded in the wilderness overnight after their canoe capsized on Mosquito Creek in the remote southwestern part of the county.
The three men were later identified as 39-year-old Michael Bishop, 21-year-old Jonathan White and 17-year-old Joshua White, all of whom live in the area of where they went missing, according to Undersheriff Wendell Cofer, who was part of the large team of officers who looked for the men.
The three men put their canoe into Mosquito Creek, which loops across the Georgia-Florida line, at a landing off Georgia 97 South at around 1 p.m. Monday. Their plan was to canoe a stretch of the river and come out at a point off 7 Bridges Road at around 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., just before dark, according to Cofer.
However, something went wrong and their canoe capsized before they reached their intended destination. Around 10 p.m., when the canoers hadn’t shown up to be picked up, one of the men’s relatives called 911 to report them as missing.
The men were not reachable by cell phone because they had turned their phones off at around 1 p.m. to conserve battery. Some phones, smartphones in particular, can burn through a lot of juice searching for a cellular signal, and in the extreme southwest corner of the county, there is essentially no service, Cofer said.
Cofer was one of the first deputies notified, and he called upon the Sheriff’s Office Rescue team, led by Captain Tommy Rentz. Soon after, Georgia Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement rangers Sgt. Rick Sellars and Steve Thomas joined the search. The DNR has a patrol boat, but it couldn’t be put into Mosquito Creek because it has a number of logs and shallow spots, Cofer said.
State troopers from the Georgia State Patrol’s Colquitt post called for assistance from a GSP helicopter in Perry, Ga. It took off but had to turn back because of fog at around 1 a.m. Another GSP helicopter attempted to launch from Reidsville in southeast Georgia but had to cancel because of weather.
“At this point, they had been missing for several hours and it was unknown what had happened to them,” Cofer said. “You can’t assume that they’re alright and not treat the situation with urgency, especially because of the remote area they were in.”
The missing men reached the shore after capsizing and attempted to walk out of the woods, but when it became dark outside, they decided to camp out for the night before walking further. They turned their cell phone back on, but were unable to call anyone.
Sheriff’s deputies contacted Verizon Wireless and requested the company do an emergency “ping” of the men’s cell phones from nearby cell towers; a successful ping can help triangulate where a cell phone is physically located.However, the pings were done three times during the night with no result, Cofer said.
Sheriff’s deputies and other officers on the ground used spot lights, flashing blue lights, sirens and patrol cars’ PA systems to try and make contact with the men. The hope was that the missing men might hear or see the deputies from a distance and call out.
In another attempt to find the missing men, Decatur County Sheriff Wiley Griffin contacted Jackson County (Fla.) Sheriff Lou Roberts in Marianna, Fla. and asked for help. Sheriff Roberts sent his chief deputy, Donnie Branch, and two pilots to man a helicopter operated by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. The helicopter reached the area just before daylight.
As the sun rose, Decatur County Sheriff’s Deputy Tommy Rentz and Sgt. Rick Sellars of the Georgia DNR hopped on ATVs and began looking for the men in the woods, near the creek bed. They didn’t have to look too long, and were relieved to find the missing men unharmed at approximately 8 a.m. Tuesday, Cofer said.
Our take: Decatur County is the tenth-largest county in terms of area in the state of Georgia, and also one of the state’s most rural counties. Because the county is a prime spot for hunting, fishing and boating, it’s not uncommon that people find themselves lost due to a variety of circumstances. Often times, the outcome is tragic. However, it’s reassuring to know that the Decatur County Sheriff’s Office, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and their partner law enforcement agencies have equipment and trained personnel in place to help search for missing persons, when needed.