Heck seeks to cut red tape on desert, lake searches

WASHINGTON — Rep. Joe Heck on Tuesday urged Congress to cut red tape for search missions on public land, a call spurred by cases where bureaucracy hindered Southern Nevada recoveries for months.

At a House hearing, Heck said it took 15 months for professionally trained volunteers to obtain required permits and liability insurance before they could start hunting the Lake Mead National Recreation Area for Keith Goldberg, a taxi driver and suspected murder victim who went missing on Jan. 31, 2012.

Once the paperwork finally was signed, it took the team from the nonprofit Red Rock Search and Rescue two hours on April 14 to find Goldberg’s body in the desert.

Likewise, it took 10 months for divers with Earth Resource Group to gain permission to search the lake for Air Force Staff Sgt. Antonio Tucker, missing since June 23 and presumed drowned.

Better equipped than government divers, the group of volunteers found Tucker’s body on April 16 after less than two days of searching.

Heck told lawmakers on the public lands subcommittee he is preparing a good Samaritan bill to be introduced next week that would direct public land managers to waive insurance requirements and speed permits for accredited nonprofit search outfits helping find missing family members.

Groups such as the Red Rock Search and Rescue “try to bring closure to a family by searching for their lost family member for free and at no expense to the taxpayer,” said Heck, R-Nev., who once served on the Las Vegas police search and rescue team. “They provide a valuable public service and they need to be able to get into the public park and make their search.”

Jodi Goldberg of Alexandria, Va., Keith’s sister, attended the session and spoke briefly with Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, chairman of the subcommittee that would consider the bill. She said that “one good thing that can come out of this is if we can help other families. That is the whole point right now.”

Bishop called the search and rescue delays “an astonishing failure on the part of the land managers,” and encouraged Heck to come up with a fix.

“We hope to be able to move that forward and do whatever we can,” Bishop said.

Steve Schafer hopes so too.

The longtime dive instructor and owner of Earth Resource Group led the mission to find Tucker’s remains at the bottom of Lake Mead, but only after enduring months of frustration and red tape.

Schafer called Heck’s proposed bill a “positive step” toward clearing away some of the bureaucracy that keeps qualified volunteers from assisting in searches.

Lake Mead spokeswoman Christie Vanover said park officials are simply following federal regulations and National Park Service directives.

“It’s not Lake Mead specific,” she said. “They are policies at the national level.”

Vanover said no procedural changes have been made at the 1.5 million-acre park since the two bodies were recovered there by the volunteer search groups within days of each other, but both cases are under review at Park Service headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Schafer’s team plans to conduct another search in the fall, this time for Vincent Petrilena, who drowned near Temple Bar at the eastern end of Lake Mead in 2004.

The man’s death — and the testimony of his widow, Delores, who watched him drown — led to a new state law in 2005 requiring boaters to wear life jackets and keep certain safety equipment on their boats.

Schafer said he filed a permit application to search for Petrilena on April 26 and followed it up on April 29 with a letter authorizing the search from the missing man’s widow. He also is seeking permission to practice at the lake with sonar and remote-controlled submarines, both of which are restricted within the park.

Schafer said he asked for someone from the Park Service to send him confirmation once they received his application and other documents.

As of Tuesday, he hadn’t heard thing.

Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC. Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.