IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Everyone knows the Snake River is a wonderful place to boat, play, take a walk and enjoy the beauty of eastern Idaho.
But hidden beneath the surface of calm water and the incredible falls is a different world full of unusual items.
“There are just so many things that have been different,” says Bonneville County Sheriff Sgt. Karl Casperson.
Casperson has been on the BCSO Aquatic Rescue and Recovery Team since 1985, and he’s seen a lot come of out the river over the past 33 years.
“Old pay phones, a lot of construction debris — I’ve found big metal tractor wheels from old tractors. At one point we kept finding a bunch of tools that were pretty new and shiny looking,” Casperson says.
Investigators usually have no idea how long items have been in the water. It could be weeks, months, years or even decades. For example, slot machines were pulled from the river a few years ago, but nobody knows how or when they ended up there.
“My understanding is there were some old slot machines underneath the Johns’ Hole Bridge that were thrown here during Prohibition when suddenly those kind of things were not legal,” Casperson recalls. “We have had guys recovering old coins and stuff from those.”
It’s possible more slot machines are still in the river but it’s hard to know. The water is so dark and murky under the surface that when divers are searching for items, they have to rely on touch rather than sight.
“It’s hand-over-hand searching. We’re not able to see anything underwater,” says Casperson. “It’s like diving in chocolate milk. There’s no visibility.”
While some sections of the river are 10 to 15 feet deep, others can have depths of 100 feet or more. And any time a diver gets in the water, it can be hazardous, as items can get caught on their gear.
Over the years, unique things have been found with no identifying marks – like an old steam boiler that may have been from a power plant or an actual steam engine.
Other items are traceable and help solve crimes.
“We had a car that was found down between the Broadway Bridge and the Pancheri Bridge,” Casperson tells EastIdahoNews.com. “It had been deliberately put in there – the steering wheel was wired, ignition was still on and it had been stolen out in the Osgood area probably 15 years prior to that. We were able to recover it and eventually put it in the scrap heap, and it closed that case.”
Some of the most horrific findings in the Snake River can take a toll on divers.
In 1993, Jeralee Underwood was abducted near her Pocatello home. The man behind the brutal crime dismembered her body and threw it in the river north of Idaho Falls.
“Our divers had to go in there and recover as much as they could, and that was a very trying experience for many of even the seasoned divers,” Casperson says.
Ten years later, a mentally ill woman drove from Utah with her 19-month-old granddaughter and jumped into the river. Kelly Lodmell got back out of the water without little Acacia Bishop.
The baby’s body was never found, and Lodmell remains in a mental facility.
Other bodies could be hidden in the waters, but it’s likely we’ll never know.
“The only way we could ever find out is if it was drained. If the water stopped running, that would be the only way to find out for sure,” Casperson says.
While that may sound crazy, it could happen – but likely never will.
“It could be done, (but) the fisheries and other biological interests don’t really want to see a completely dry river,” says Lyle Swank, the District 1 water master.
Swank says trillions of gallons of water flow through eastern Idaho every year and, although it’s not possible now, he believes one day searchers will be able to see things buried deep in the river.
“There may be additional technologies that could be developed to determine if there are any objects that might be below the surface,” Swank says. “Right now it’s probably not developed to that level of sophistication.”
In the meantime, next time you’re out walking along the river, waterskiing or swimming, remember there is another world beneath the surface, one of history and tragedy that has yet to be fully discovered.