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Body may be that of missing hiker

Joe Le fell into rushing waters while hiking with a friend Friday.

April 04, 2011|Jack Leonard

A body believed to be that of a hiker who went missing in the icy waters of the east fork of the San Gabriel River was found Sunday as scores of friends, relatives and other volunteers searched the area, authorities said.

Joe Le, 20, was crossing the river at a rope crossing with a friend on Friday afternoon when rushing water knocked him off his feet, carrying him downstream, L.A. County Sheriff's Department officials said.

Deputy Benjamin Grubb said that the body of a male adult was discovered about 3:20 p.m. near the Coyote Flats area of the Angeles National Forest, a popular destination for hikers, gold prospectors and other visitors.

Grubb said that the body is believed to be Le's but that coroner's officials have yet to make an official identification.

By Sunday, deputies had scaled back the rescue operation, concluding that the hiker's chance of surviving the frigid waters was slim, Deputy David Smail said.

Nevertheless, sheriff's deputies, aided by a department helicopter, continued to scan the area while the missing hiker's family and scores of volunteers combed the rocky river banks in the hopes of finding him alive.

Just after 1 p.m. Sunday, volunteers came across the green backpack Le had been carrying. It had been swept about half of a mile from the rope crossing.

About two hours later, another volunteer found the body entangled in tree branches about 500 feet downstream from where the backpack had been found, said Smail, the search-and-rescue coordinator for the San Dimas sheriff's station.

He said the river had subsided slightly since Friday, leaving the body visible.

The waters in the area are highly treacherous but have become even more dangerous in recent days, authorities said. The river has swelled with the recent rains and a spike in temperature over the last few days that melted mountain snows.

Sheriff's officials said the waters are roughly four to five feet deep in the area where Le went missing and flow at 15 to 20 mph. Under the surface, the river rushes even faster, making it difficult for anyone to keep a footing.

"It's a pretty heavy current," said Sheriff's Lt. Craig Boyett. "People don't recognize the danger and they get into the water or close to it."

The effects of hypothermia in the 45-degree river would begin within 10 minutes, Smail said.

In the hours before the body was found, families enjoying a warm Sunday afternoon climbed rocks on the water's banks while some children ran through a nearby creek that feeds into the river.

Sherri Seebert, a gold prospector who knows the area well, said few visitors realize the risks. Two other prospectors, she said, recently fell into the water in the same area but survived.

"The water is dangerous," she said. "Especially flat-landers, they don't understand that."

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jack.leonard@latimes.com

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