Associated Press Writer
MITCHELL, Ill. (AP) - Computer programmer and avid diver Mark
Bowles got the page on his way home from work. A fisherman had
disappeared from the shores of Horseshoe Lake, and police had no
way to find his body.
Bowles called a colleague on his Bubblemasters Underwater
Recovery Team, picked up their gear from the team's headquarters in
this town near St. Louis, and headed for the lake.
His colleague, Keith Arnold, found the body of Milton Thomas of
East St. Louis in 10 feet of muddy water 15 feet from shore. He
carried it to nearby paramedics, who called the coroner. "We were
in (the water) at 6:33 p.m. and out by 6:38," Bowles said.
Like dozens of other volunteer dive teams across the state, the
Bubblemasters go where few police or other professional
public-safety officers ever go in Illinois - underwater - to
retrieve bodies, vehicles and evidence that helps solve crimes.
They work in sometimes treacherous waters and handle evidence in
criminal cases without pay and often without even being reimbursed
for their expenses.
And while all say they do it because they want to help others,
many spend more time trying to raise money than training or diving.
"It takes a certain breed and a certain heart, and these guys
got it," said Capt. Mike Pippin of the Secretary of State's Police
in Springfield.
Few professional emergency organizations in Illinois employ
recovery divers because they can't afford them, said Pippin, whose
eight officer-divers are the only divers on the state payroll.
The Chicago police and fire departments are big enough to staff
divers of their own to cover Lake Michigan and other bodies of
water there, said Lt. Earl Zuelke, who commands the CPD Marine
But departments in most of the rest of the state cannot afford
to maintain such squads, where divers' gear costs upward of $2,000
for each person. Divers who regularly go into the muddy and
debris-filled Mississippi River, like the Bubblemasters, use gear
that costs several times that.
"The economy and financial constraints on virtually all units
of government ... make it unapproachable by local governments
themselves," said Lt. Eric Decker of the Madison County Sheriff's
Office, which sent the Bubblemasters to Horseshoe Lake June 16 to
find Milton Thomas. "They're our only immediate resource," he
The system makes sense, Pippin said, because "often those guys
are a lot closer than we are" to where they're needed. It takes
time for Pippin to dispatch his divers, who are stationed around
the state. Like Pippin, each has other duties. "For us, it's a
sideline," he said.
The Bubblemasters, for example, keep shotguns and rifles they
retrieve wet - to prevent oxidation and preserve fingerprints - by
putting them in a long cylinder fashioned from a piece of pipe
before turning it over to police on shore.
One of Pippin's divers, Terry Trueblood of Effingham, believes
anyone handling evidence underwater should be a sworn officer - or
trained like one.
"If someone dropped dead in Wal-Mart, you wouldn't let some guy
go in there, put the body over his shoulder and walk away, would
you?" Trueblood said. It's the same thing when a diver encounters
a body underwater, he said.
Pippin said that while he sometimes prefers his sworn officers
rather than volunteers to handle evidence underwater, he knows of
no instance where a volunteer tainted evidence.
Some volunteer teams are highly organized networks of off-duty
police officers or firefighters, like the one in Lake County, said
Deputy Chief Steven Orusa of the Waukegan Fire Department.
Some have affiliations with local governments, like the one
organized by Trueblood in Effingham County, which gets $9,000 a
year from the county for equipment, training and maintenance. No
one gets paid.
But most are like the Bubblemasters, hooked up with no official
agency and on their own for money.
The group's 12 core divers take turns working at a local
firefighters group's Bingo games to earn money for the team, said
Tim Underhill, a boilermaker who leads the group. Still, he expects
to bring in $5,500 this year, about half of the group's expenses.
The rest is absorbed by team members.
A one-time $150,000 grant three years ago bought a few boats, a
truck and gear, but money is so tight these days, a command boat
sits in dry-dock awaiting a new engine. The team can't afford to
hire someone to install it, Underhill said.
Underhill wants the Bubblemasters to get reimbursed for their
expenses, but he doesn't want pay.
"We're here for the people, not to get paid," he said.
He's resisted teaming up with the Madison County Emergency
Services Agency because he doesn't want the group to be limited to
diving only in Madison County, a condition EMA Coordinator Jack
Quigley says would come with the deal, while regular funding would
not. About 30 percent of their dives are outside the area.
"But we're glad to know they're there," Quigley said. "They
do an important job."
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