Standing on the shore of the Mississippi River, Dave Dady watched as divers came to the surface. Another day’s search was over and his son’s body was still lost in the dark waters.
Six anxious days had passed since Jesse, a 21-year-old St. Cloud State University student, most certainly fell 60 feet from a train trestle into the cold river moments after sending a Snapchat video to friends to capture the beauty of a March night under a crescent moon.
As the police tape came down and the divers’ markers came up, Dady’s heart sank. He feared they would call off the search and wait for the water to warm in hopes that his son’s body would float to the surface.
“I couldn’t breathe,” said Dady who drove 50 miles from his home in Oak Grove to the river’s edge every day of the search. “No one wants to find their child dead. But what’s worse than that is not knowing where they’re at. It wrecked me.”
He ached for a last goodbye. Desperate, he turned to a man in Minnesota no parent ever wants to have to meet. Tom Crossmon is a Minnesota man who travels the world recovering bodies underwater.
Crossmon, 51, of Hermantown, Minn., has recovered underwater bodies for 32 years, first as a longtime volunteer with the St. Louis County Rescue Squad and then as part of a business that he started in 2008. Retired two years ago from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Crossmon and his partner, Dave Phillips, travel the country and around the world to find those lost in the depths of lakes, rivers and oceans.
When a family calls, Crossmon evaluates the situations and contacts the local agencies involved in the search. He won’t insert himself into a criminal investigation or “step on any toes.” He’s honest and frank with the families.
“We don’t want to raise hope when there’s no chance of recovering them,” he said.
Finding bodies when the drowning isn’t witnessed can be difficult, he said. “It’s the biggest puzzle you ever have to put together.”
Five days earlier, Jesse Dady, a chemistry major, spent Friday night with friends at a couple bars before heading alone to the Red Carpet Nightclub. Not seeing anyone he knew, he had a couple of drinks then walked a quarter mile to the river.
“He had a little sway to his step but [was] not stumbling,” Dady said after he viewed the video caught by downtown street cameras. Minutes later, video cameras outside a nearby apartment building captured him walking onto the bridge about 1:30 a.m. Saturday, March 25.
It’s dark and the video is dim. “We only have two minutes on the bridge, and that’s when we lose sight of him” in the video, said St. Cloud Police Lt. Lori Ellering.
About the same time, four of Jesse’s friends received the Snapchat video, his father said. His friends saw the reflection of water and heard the river as Jesse said, “God, this is beautiful.”
The next day, Jesse didn’t show up for work delivering pizzas and phone calls to him went unanswered. Worried friends called the police and Jesse’s family.
Police canvassed the area near the bar and talked to Jesse’s friends. When downtown and apartment building videos pinpointed his location at the river, search teams searched the shore and water. Employees at the nearby hydro dam kept watch for his shoes, a wallet, a body. A drone flew above while search teams walked the riverbanks looking for clues like Jesse’s orange hat.
“You see orange and everyone runs down the cliff and it turns out to be nothing,” Dave Dady said. “You watch the [search] boats go and all of a sudden they stop and you think: ‘They have something.’ You chew your fingernails and hope.”
Then the boats move on.
“I just felt like I was about to have a heart attack,” Dady said. “Your body goes numb. Your chest hurts so bad.”
The last stop for help
Law enforcement officials often suspend a search when they’ve exhausted their leads, knowing most dead bodies in water less than 160 feet will eventually surface, Crossmon said. An underwater search is expensive and time-consuming for agencies that also have to patrol the streets and investigate crime, he said.
“We are the last stop for families,” said Crossmon, who finds eight to 10 bodies a year, some of whom have been missing for only days, others for weeks or months. He charges grieving families only the cost of his travel and lodging. To pay the bills for his 24-foot Lake Assault boat and sophisticated equipment, he recovers anchors lost by ore boats, documents shipwrecks for archaeologists and trains agencies around the country on how to use the high-tech sonar equipment.
With cameras, sophisticated side-scan sonar equipment, a remotely operated underwater vehicle and multi-beam sonar, Crossmon and his partner “see” into the depths of lakes and rivers — even the muddy Mississippi that leaves divers in the dark.
The sonar images — acoustic shadows — that pop up onto monitors look like nondescript lines and blobs to an untrained eye. But Crossmon examines images nearly every day.
As his partner drives the boat, Crossmon monitors the images, capturing them from multiple angles and measuring to determine if the size matches a body. Despite his high-tech equipment and experience, even Crossmon has missed finding victims.
When he succeeds, families find closure and sometimes answers.
‘Lake Superior doesn’t give up her dead’
The Coast Guard spent four days last fall searching for two men and a 9-year-old boy who went fishing on Lake Superior.
Keith Karvonen, a 61-year-old retired ore boat worker, loved the lake and fishing, said his sister, Gloria Luttinen. He slipped his 16-foot boat into the lake on Sept. 17 near Chassell in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His friend, Steve Chartre, 43, of Ishpeming, and his friend’s son, Ethan, joined him.
About 12:40 p.m. Karvonen, on the phone with another friend, remarked that the lake was getting rough. Twenty minutes later, his phone sent its last data ping. By nightfall, his family worried something was wrong.
“Time is limited when people are on cold water,” said Commander Carolyn Moberley, of Coast Guard Sector Sault Ste. Marie. “You put every asset out there — fixed-wing [aircraft], helicopters, boats.”
The Coast Guard, which is restricted to surface searches, scoured water and land for 144 hours.
“You always pray for a miracle.” Luttinen said. “You just never imagine that he’s on the bottom of the lake.”
Luttinen and her family turned to Crossmon, who eventually found the upside-down boat 280 feet below Lake Superior’s surface. Nearby were three bodies.
The father of the 9-year-old was tangled in the anchor rope, Crossmon said. He likely was pulled over. When the other two likely went to his rescue, the boat capsized, he surmised.
If not for Crossmon, the three likely would have remained on the lake’s bottom, Luttinen said, adding. “Lake Superior doesn’t give up her dead,” she said.
On the hunt for Dady
A day after Stearns County divers searched the Mississippi River and nearly a week after Jesse Dady went missing, Crossmon put his boat on the river.
“Having a resource like Tom is invaluable to us,” said Police Lt. Ellering, who worked with Crossmon when he found the body of another St. Cloud State University student in 2006 who apparently walked onto the ice-covered river and fell into open water.
Crossmon has warned his own son, a student at St. Cloud State, to stay away from the river.
“The reason men from 18 to 25 die is because they do very dumb things,” Crossmon said. “I’ve seen this for 30 years. It’s generally alcohol related. During that time in my life I should have died a hundred times over.”
As he searched the river bottom for Dady, the remains of an old bridge sometimes made it difficult to distinguish a body from debris. After about five hours, Crossmon pulled his boat out of the water.
Police cars converged, a tent went up and divers pulled on compressed air tanks.
“I knew then that he found my son,” Dady said. “We ran down to the river, crying and just wanting to see Jesse.”
Weeks after burying his son, Dady has returned several times to the bridge.
Glancing at the train trestle, he wonders aloud about what caused his son to fall into the water or whether he could have been saved if someone had been with him that night. Dady’s lips quiver slightly but he chokes back the heartache. A train whistle sounds off in the distance.
“I still haven’t accepted that he died,” he said. “I’ll always be hopeful to see him pull up in his car.”
Dady wraps himself in memories — hunting ducks on a slough at sunrise, shooting his first buck, pulling in a fish on an ice-covered lake, watching an eagle in the sky. But raw grief is never far away.
“Those six days were the worst feelings I’ve ever felt in my entire life,” Dady said, his voice cracking. “If it wasn’t for Tom [Crossmon], I wouldn’t have my boy back. It’s not the way I wanted him back, but at least I got to see him again and say my goodbyes. Even though your chest is still hurting, it made it a little easier to breathe.”