DANVILLE - More than two years since Ryan Katcher disappeared, Vermilion County officials are utilizing new sonar equipment to search specific bodies of water where investigators believe it's possible for a vehicle to be submerged.
Gary Miller, chief investigator with the Vermilion County Sheriff's office, said the searches they started Friday along Henning Road, south of the main entrance to Kickapoo State Park, represent only one direction of the entire Katcher investigation.
"With the time that has passed, it is certainly logical to believe that the vehicle could be somewhere where it's not visible, and underwater is certainly a legitimate possibility," Miller said. "But the fact that we're looking in water does not mean that we're not investigating any other leads that might send us in another direction."
The 5-foot-6-inch, 160 pound, 19-year-old Katcher disappeared about 2 a.m. Nov. 5, 2000, after being driven by a friend to his rural Oakwood home from a party. When his mother, Linda Katcher Griffith woke up the next morning, Katcher and his black Ford F-150 truck were missing.
Searches and the ensuing investigation turned up no leads, but one possibility is that Katcher may have tried to drive his truck to the Kickapoo area after being dropped off at home, which raises the possibility that he may have, for whatever reason, driven off a roadway into a body of water.
Waterways were searched initially, but since then, the Danville/Vermilion County Emergency Management Agency has obtained sonar equipment and an underwater camera that can more carefully search underwater areas. The equipment is better than that used when Katcher first disappeared, so sheriff's investigators and ESDA officials have teamed up to canvass some specific bodies of water close to roadways where Katcher may have driven.
As they searched the first two Friday morning along Henning Road, Griffith joined county officials on the boat to see the search process.
"I wanted to see how well (the equipment) works," she said just after climbing out of the boat following a grid search of the first body of water. "It was impressive. I know they'll never stop looking, but this just gives me a little more closure."
It's been more than two years, but it's still a constant mix of emotions for Griffith, who stood at the edge of the water with tears in her eyes. She wants her son to be found, and even if this search of area waters doesn't accomplish that for her, it will give her more peace of mind that one small possibility has been eliminated.
"I don't want to be the one to find him," she said as officials pulled the boat and equipment out of the water, and prepared to put it in a smaller waterway closer to Henning Road.
"I never did want to be the one to find him. I just wanted to see how well the equipment worked. It's the biggest bag of tricks you can imagine. You don't look for him for two years and hope you don't find him, but ... I just hope they find something."
Led by Vermilion County computer technician Ted Fisher, who operates the sonar equipment on the boat, four other ESDA officials worked together to complete a grid search of the area, lowering the underwater camera to search specific spots where the sonar indicates large objects.
The onboard sonar emits sound waves from the back of the boat into the water in a cone shape, spreading wider as the sound waves descend. The equipment reads those waves and projects an image onto a screen telling Fisher the depth and showing the lay of the land at the bottom of the water.
Fisher said he looks for any unusual shapes, especially anything more square and large that could resemble a vehicle. If such shapes do appear, volunteer Jim Pate, who pilots the boat, stops and ESDA Assistant Director Phil Summerford lowers the camera into the water to identify the unknown mass.
The boat passes back and forth across the surface of the water in a uniform grid pattern with two people on opposite banks marking their path, so they're sure to cover every inch.
ESDA Director Ed Miller said the agency obtained this new equipment about a year ago, and it has taken until now for Fisher and the others to train with the equipment and become adept at using it. They've trained on Sportsman's Lake in Kickapoo State Park, where there are already man-made objects submerged.
Ed Miller said they've been able to find items as small as tackle boxes and even sunglasses on the bottom of Sportsman's during their training runs.
"It takes practice and working with it to know what you're doing," said Miller, who added that the sonar images and camera images also are recorded on board the boat. Fisher can download the sonar data into a computer for further analysis, and the camera images can be played back in a regular video player for a closer look.
If they happen to find something worth checking out again, they can easily get back in the boat and seek out a specific spot to search again.
Ed Miller said they can use this equipment for many things besides the Katcher case, but this is the first time they've officially used it outside of training runs.
Watching the sonar closely Friday morning, Fisher was hopeful to find something in the second body of water they searched, since it's so near Henning Road, but their efforts turned up nothing.
Although they have no specific schedule, they plan to search other bodies of water in the area in the near future. They're hopeful that those searches might turn up something, but it's only one of many possible directions the search for Katcher could lead.
The searchers remarked that it's like looking for a needle in a haystack.
But, Gary Miller said, in this case, investigators don't even know in which haystack to look.
"Really we have not been able to eliminate anything in this case," he said. "We feel like foul play is unlikely, but we have not been able to rule it out completely, and we are all but positive he is not just gone and doesn't want to be found; there's absolutely nothing we have uncovered that leads us to believe that was the situation."
Griffith said she knows the search continues, not only for her, but for the investigators, emergency management officials, friends and family.
"People haven't given up," Griffith said.
She added that she hopes no one would ever come across a New Balance tennis shoe and not stop and think of the case, because Ryan was wearing that brand the night he disappeared. "People are still trying to think where they could find Ryan. These aren't people who will ever quit. People are still looking."
Griffith said she appreciates Vermilion County officials for sticking with it, because she knows they must and do take care of other business, but they keep the search going.
"I've never tried to play cop," she said. "If I have questions, I go to them and they listen to me. I'm just trying to be mom."
You can reach Tracy Moss at (217) 443-8946 or via e-mail at email@example.com.