Over 160 km of river searched, still no sign of Sweetgrass Kennedy

Divers from the Saskatoon fire department search the NOrth Saskattchewan river for missing four-year-old Sweetgrass Kennedy. Photo courtesy Tina Pelletier

PAGC experts taking over search as it shifts to a recovery operation

It’s been a week since Sweetgrass Kennedy disappeared, and despite searching 160 kilometres of the North Saskatchewan River, police investigators and professional search teams have been unable to locate any sign of the missing four-year-old.

Prince Albert Police Service (PAPS) and other agencies involved in the search gave a detailed update into the case Thursday afternoon at police headquarters.

At this point, it’s no longer about search and rescue. Instead, it has become a recovery mission.

Sweetgrass was last seen by his family at 4 p.m. last Thursday, May 10. They noticed he was missing at 4:30 p.m. Police became involved at 9.

“Officers immediately added importance to the file, given the age of the subject,” said PAPS Insp. Jason Stonechild.

As the family and officers went door-to-door, more and more people joined the search. That continued throughout the night.

“At this point, it was uncoordinated,” Stonechild said. “It was unknown what was searched, and what wasn’t.”

Friday, hundreds more joined the search. The police decided to formalize a structure for searching for the boy. Many other organizations were also getting involved, and it became apparent a command system was needed to coordinate the efforts.

The city’s emergency response plan was initiated. That put Fire Chief Jason Everitt in charge of the search effort.

By Friday afternoon, the RCMP, several city departments the PAGC First Nation Emergency Management Branch, the province’s emergency management and fire safety branch, mobile crisis and at least three search and rescue organizations were involved with the search. A command centre was set up at the East End Community Hall to ensure the ground search was structured.

Some residents contacted the Herald with concerns that by waiting until a formal search could be organized, it caused unnecessary delays. Stonechild said the delays made the ground search more effective.

“The first night, when my officers went out with up to 100 civilians, the next morning, when I wanted to know exactly what doors they knocked on … nobody had that,” he said.

“That’s the value of professional search and rescue experts. They … (coordinate) and collect data so we know for certain we eliminate areas and we can do a comprehensive search everywhere. We had more confidence that a thorough search once we incorporated a structure.”

While that process was coming together, the police investigation continued. By midday, the police had received a tip from a witness that several small children had been playing along the riverbank in the 800 block of River Street East Thursday – only a few blocks from where Sweetgrass was last seen.

Police were able to determine Sweetgrass was among that group of children.

“He fell into the water,” Stonechild said, “from which he did not recover.”

Several first-hand witness accounts later, the police found physical evidence. At that point, the decision was made to end the civilian search effort and focus professional search and rescue resources on the river.

“The observation of Sweetgrass falling in was direct from kids, but there is physical evidence from the scene, and from clothing that supports the claim,” Stonechild said. He explained that forensic child interviewers were used to speak to the children.

“Our trained members believe without a shadow of a doubt they’re telling the truth.”

Insp. Jason Stonechild speaks at a press conference about the ongoing search for missing four-year-old Sweetgrass Kennedy on May 17, 2018. (Peter Lozinski/Dialy Herald)

Support staff has been brought in through victim services for witnesses and for the Sweetgrass’ family. Stonechild confirmed that the incident is not a criminal investigation, and wouldn’t be, regardless of the ages of those involved.

He also explained why the civilian search was called off.

“There are dangers associated with ground searches around rivers as powerful as the North Saskatchewan River, and along riverbanks,” Stonechild explained. “There was too much of a risk to continue to use civilian volunteers.”

At that point, the Saskatoon Air Support Unit was called in. They used heat-sensitive, motion-sensitive technology to search an area of 60 km.

Saturday, the search continued. Sonar was used, as were professionally-trained searchers provided by the Prince Albert Grand Council. Experienced search, rescue and recovery teams from Grandmother’s Bay and Stanley Mission became involved in the river search.

The Saskatoon fire department also got involved. They sent divers, who searched underwater within 300 metres of the point Sweetgrass entered the river. Their efforts continued for two days. The first day, they searched until midnight.

“I cannot say enough as to their efforts, as anyone who has any experience with diving, they recognize there are safety concerns with a river constructed as ours due to the volume of water, how fast it’s moving and (the fact that) there are obstacles and no visibility underneath,” Stonechild said.

“That did not stop them. They knew the importance to our community, and they did not hesitate to come out and answer the call.”

Visibility, day or night, is nil in the river. The depth varies from three to 11 feet, and underwater rocks make things dangerous. So does the river’s flow. At 800 cubic metres per second, Stonechild said, it’s double the safety recommendation of any dive team. Sonar indicated some areas where there might be some evidence. The divers were kept on the line and fished back and forth, covering as big of an area as possible. They didn’t find anything.

On Monday, May 14, the dive effort was called off. Since then, a search effort has covered “every square inch” of the river all the way to Trappers Lake, a distance, including river bends, of an estimated 160 km. That’s more than double the distance experts estimated Sweetgrass could have gone.

From here on out, the PAGC expert searchers will lead the recovery efforts.

“We’re still going to continue in this area,” Stonechild said.

“We’re looking forward to re-receiving PAGC’s search and rescue individuals who are trained and experienced with underwater recovery. They have technology we don’t have, and they have years of experience we don’t have. We are going to reconvene with them and support them however we can. We are going to continue from the entry point and move down the river, likely 100 km.”

Richard Kent speaks to media in Prince Albert about the search for Sweetgrass Kennedy on May 17, 2018. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Richard Kent, the commissioner for Saskatchewan First Nations Emergency Management, said he got the call from PAGC Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte to assist in the search.

“We brought the teams in,” he said. “They have been involved in many, many searches. They’ve been called upon by other organizations to perform searches, they have equipment not many people in Saskatchewan have to do underwater searches.”

The teams have special remote operating vehicles that locate objects with bursts of sonar. They also have side scan sonar that can be used to locate objects underwater.

“It doesn’t matter how murky the water is,” Kent said, “The sonar can identify objects … for a dive team to go and check.”

The teams also have experience with nearby river and lake systems, which may guide them in their search for Sweetgrass. One of the searchers is Randy Bear. He’s been a part of search and rescue for 40 years.

“We’ve exhausted the search down the river, but we’re not going to give up,” he said.
We’ve still got air support that we’re going to turn to, and we’re expecting the mountain waters to come.”

As those waters flow from mountain runoff as the spring melt continues, they will increase the flow of the river. That may dislodge any evidence stuck behind a rock on the riverbed.

Stonechild appreciative of support

With all the agencies and volunteers coming together, Stonechild took several opportunities to express his gratitude for all that had been done to aid in the search for the missing boy.

“It was amazing to see several hundred civilians from our community who were very emotional, and very invested in the efforts,” Stonechild said.

“I very much appreciate our community response in that effort.”

He also thanked a handful of local businesses that stepped up to support the volunteers by providing food and water for the volunteers.

“Prince Albert is a community that shows up when it’s needed,” he said. It’s very noted and appreciated by our service and all the individuals who had a combined effort.”

Stonechild also spoke about the support from professional agencies, who not only helped coordinate the search, but also helped calm less-experienced searchers.

He thanked members of Prince Albert North, Saskatoon, Big River, Buckland, Highway 55 and North Corman Park Search and Rescues, who led ground searches last Friday.

“Their people took people in panic, went out and searched everywhere and said ‘no, no, settle down, take a deep breath, this is what you have to check, this is what you’re prepared for,’” he said.

“They have expertise and had a calming effect and an appropriate affect.”

Then, there was the group of PAGC searchers, who pointed PAPS in the right direction.

“It didn’t take us long to realize we had to sit down and relax because these guys knew what they were doing,” Stonechild said.

“That was appreciated. I really appreciate (those) individuals.”

Hardlotte also passed along his thanks.

“Grand Chief Brian Hardlotte couldn’t be here today, but he wanted me to express his thanks and appreciation to the PAPS and all other agencies involved, and there were many,” Kent said.

“Everybody stepped up to the plate. It was a combined effort in the search, and we’re thankful. It’s also important to him to share his sentiments on how we’ve all been able to come together and work with one another toward this common goal.”

Thoughts with Kennedy family

Everyone attending Thursday’s press conference had one thing in common — they wanted to help provide some closure for the family and friends of Sweetgrass Kennedy.

“On behalf of all Saskatchewan First Nations communities, I want to acknowledge the difficult times the family of Sweetgrass Kennedy, friends and family are going through, and our thoughts and prayers are with them all,” Kent said.

“(Search teams) have told us they would like to continue on to try to bring some closure to the family. That’s our hope as well.”