This past weekend, 20 volunteers, two search dogs, boats, all-terrain vehicles and personnel from three law enforcement agencies conducted the largest search to date for Emmilee Risling, scouring miles of rugged, remote landscape along the Klamath River near Pecwan.
The search came up empty, finding no signs of Risling, a mother of two who was last seen in the area and reported missing in October, part of a string of disappearances of Native women that prompted the Yurok Tribal Council to issue an emergency declaration in December. But the search itself, conducted over three consecutive days as the May 5 National Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls Awareness Day approached, offers some hope that additional attention and resources may help bring closures to the dozens of local Native families with missing loved ones.
The search came to be after the Associated Press ran a Feb. 21 article focused on Risling's case and the MMIG epidemic. A Yurok tribal member in San Francisco then sent the article to David Francis, co-founder of the Jon Francis Foundation, a Minnesota nonprofit dedicated to wilderness safety education and finding the missing. Francis said he then started learning about Risling's case, and became pulled into the layered tragedy of a missing young mother who is one of 10 people believed to be missing from the Yurok Reservation in the midst of growing awareness of the MMIG movement. Most of all, Francis said he came to believe he could help a family in need.
For Francis, the foundation's work is intensely personal. It's named after his late son, who went missing in July of 2006 while rock climbing in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. Authorities, Francis said, did two days of searches after Jon was reported missing but came up empty.
"They concluded our son was dead and came to us and said, 'It's time to give your son up to the mountains," Francis said, adding that he and his wife Linda were unwilling to accept that and began organizing volunteer searches of the jagged terrain. Ultimately, Francis said 70 searches were conducted for Jon over the course of 53 weeks before his body was found.
"We finally got resolution to our grief and laid Jon's remains to rest," Francis said, explaining that he learned a tremendous amount through the process.
Most importantly, he said he learned to try to get inside the mind of the person missing to predict their behavior and — hopefully — their location. In Jon's case, that meant interviewing his climbing partners, some of whom declined to go out with him that day, and pairing the information they provided with clues yielded from canine searches to retrace his footsteps until finally finding where he'd lost his footing and fallen 120 feet to his death.
"We were then encouraged by folks here in Minnesota to create a foundation in his memory and to bring some good from his loss, so we did and have been pursuing that mission for 15 years now," Francis said, adding that the foundation has now organized 28 searches, recovering remains of the missing in 10 of them.
The foundation provides its services at no cost to families of the missing or government agencies, instead relying on community donations to continue its work.
Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal said he's grateful for the foundation's resources, saying they allowed an "exhaustive search" over the area. While law enforcement managed and coordinated the search itself, Honsal said the foundation helped secure the search dogs and volunteers, put them up in hotels and fed them.
"This is not something we'd normally do but we do really want to do everything possible to find her," Honsal said.
While that effort came up short, Francis said some of the trained volunteers suggested redoubling efforts in August, when the river will be lower. Speaking to the Journal by phone from an airport during his trip back to Minnesota, Francis said he just feels for the Risling family, saying he knows from experience how much these searches build hope and how they can send people back into a state of "deep grief" when unsuccessful. As to whether the foundation would return in August, Francis said it's up to the family and the Hoopa Valley and Yurok tribes.
"If we're invited, we'll be involved," he said.
For more information on the Jon Francis Foundation, including how to make a tax deductible donation to aid the foundation's next search effort, visit www.jonfrancisfoundation.org.