N.Y. snowmobilers add to toll in deadly winter

file0001408183111Conesus Lake is the westernmost of the Finger Lakes; and one of the smallest — it’s about a mile across, and eight miles long. Cameron Copeland looks out over the water, reminiscing about his brother, Chris.

“He was always outside,” Cameron says. “Between scuba diving, skiing, wakeboarding, snow skiing, snowboarding, riding dirt bikes, riding four wheelers.”

Chris was 40 years old. He had shaggy brown hair and a wide smile, and he lived in a house right near the shore of Conesus Lake. One of his favorite winter activities was snowmobiling across the flat, frozen surface.

Which brings us to February 11 of this year. Chris and his friend Jason Fluet got a ride home from a local bar around 3 a.m.
The next day, Chris didn’t show up to his job as a taxi driver.

His brother wasn’t too worried at first.

“Knowing Chris,” Cameron says, “he could have been off in Florida or could have been off on vacation somewhere. Chris would randomly go somewhere.”

But 24 hours after he was last seen, Cameron still hadn’t heard from his brother, and his friend Jason was missing too. Cameron contacted the police.

Livingston County Sheriff Tom Dougherty says they immediately filed a missing person report. He says when they checked the house, they did not find Chris, but they did find a clue to where he had gone.

One of Chris’ snowmobiles was missing.

By morning, a police drone had picked up snowmobile tracks going out on to the lake. A few hours later, they recovered two helmets from the ice. A neighbor told police he heard a snowmobile engine start up around 3 a.m., take off, and never return.
By then, Doughterty says, “all the pieces were lining up, really putting them in the lake.”

That night would have been a dangerous one to snowmobile on the lake. The north end was frozen, but the ice started to break up near mid-lake. It was dark, and there was a light snow falling, making it harder to see soft spots and thin ice.

“We figured that their plan was to do a quick loop and come right back, but they got off course and went too far south,” says Doughtery, which would have put them on thin, mushy ice or even open water.

The sheriff’s office launched a massive search with dozens of law enforcement – police officers and firefighters on the ice and in boats, divers combing the frigid lake. Copeland’s family hunkered down in a house nearby, with a big window looking out over the water.

Cameron says the waiting was hard. “We just kind of kept each other’s minds busy, kind of hoping that he wasn’t in there.”

Jason’s family was in Phoenix, Ariz., when they heard what was happening. His mother, Sandy, says she heard the news from a member of their church.

“After I got off the phone with him,” she says, “I just kept screaming and screaming and screaming.”

Like Chris, Sandy’s son Jason was 40, had a daughter, and loved being outdoors.

Both men were finally recovered from the lake on Feb. 22 — 11 days after they went missing. Their families and the
Sheriff’s Office say the biggest contributor to this tragedy was likely an incredibly warm winter.