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Hearn search must go on, mother says

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By Dave Taylor

The mother of a Worthville man who went missing during a tragic duck hunting trip last month has issued a plea for assistance in finding the remains of her son.

Justin Hearn was among three Carroll County men who were duck hunting from a boat on the Ohio River on Monday, Dec. 13.

“I want to get out the word to local hunters and fishermen to be on the lookout for Justin,” Denice Hearn said Thursday, Jan. 6, on what would have been her son’s 21st birthday. “I don’t want people to get the idea that we’ve given up. There have been rumors going around the community that Justin has been found and that’s just not true.”

Justin Hearn, 21-year-old Joseph McDermott and 20-year-old Jeremy Pence were wrapping up their hunt and retrieving some of fowl they had shot when the accident occurred, according to Gary Catron, public information officer for the Indiana Department of Fish & Wildlife District 9 based in Versailles, Ind. Their 16-ft johnboat caught a big wave and, according to the accounts of the two survivors, the boat filled with water instantly and came out from underneath them.

All three individuals were wearing neoprene chest waders and did not remove them while in the water. None were wearing life jackets, Catron said. McDermott and Pence were able to grasp personal flotation devices and swim to shore, making their way to a private residence for assistance.

Sixteen responding agencies participated without success in the search and recovery operation for the missing hunter over the next three days. With the forecast of severe weather approaching the operation was officially terminated at dusk on Wednesday, Dec. 15.

Hearn said searches for her son continue to be conducted periodically by Gallatin County Emergency Management personnel.

“Of course, I’m a mother and I wish they could be doing more,” she said. “I think they’ve been on the water only once this week. I feel helpless.”

“We’re doing periodic surface searches but it’s not something that’s happening on a daily basis,” Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Lt. Greg Davis acknowledged on Monday.

Hearn said several family members and friends have actively continued an ongoing search.

“We’ve had several friends who have gone on land searches and looking in the (river) debris fields. Not me so much,” she said, “because it tears me up to get anywhere near that river.”

Officials encourage those near the river remain alert.

“Our main concern is that if anyone is anywhere along the river between Warsaw and Louisville keep your eyes open,” Davis said. “Hunters, fishermen or anyone along the shore might have a chance of spotting him” when the body surfaces.

Should anyone locate the remains they are to “absolutely not” to attempt to recover the body themselves, Davis said. “They should mark the location, keep somebody there at the scene with the body if possible and contact law enforcement.”

Davis said any of the law enforcement agencies could be notified. Agency numbers include the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office, (502) 732-7010; Kentucky State Police, 1-800-222-5555; Kentucky Dept of Fish and Wildlife Frankfort Dispatch office, (502) 564-3400. If someone spots the body and doesn’t have the above numbers available they can call 911, Davis said.

“Normally a body will stay close to where it entered the river,” Davis said. “Justin was wearing neoprene chest waders so that might give some buoyancy enough to where he might come up off the river bottom. If that happens then he would be moving with the current.”

If the body were to surface the current “normally would take him toward shore with other drift,” Davis said. “We’re asking everyone to keep their eyes open. He’s wearing chest waders. He won’t have any ID on him because that has already been recovered.”

Justin Hearn’s companions told conservation officers later that they saw the victim only briefly after the three were swept into the water.

When they saw him, “Justin was holding onto a bag of decoys, the bag opened and lost buoyancy so that didn’t do him any good,” Catron said. “Shortly after this began all of a sudden they saw him no longer.”

“Justin was an outdoorsman,” his mother said. “What we can’t understand about this whole thing is he was an excellent swimmer. He swam like a fish. He was in excellent health. He had played football since the fourth grade.”

McDermott and Pence told rescuers that immediately after entering the rapid current of the icy cold river their fine motor skills were gone, Catron said.

“Their gross motor skills were starting to be affected in very short order,” he said. “It was all they could do to hold onto their flotation devices, point their head in one direction, lie on their back and kick toward shore. They were lucky to get up and leave the bank when they did.”

Hearn continues to be listed in the National Crime Information Center as a missing person, his mother said. Conservation officers told her at the time of the accident that it could take “anywhere from two weeks to April” for the body to be found.