When searchers said they’d found the body of Marine Capt. John Eaheart, who died in 1960 when his jet crashed into Flathead Lake, the story received heavy coverage from local and national media, even warranting a front-page feature in the Wall Street Journal.
But now the Lake County Sheriff’s office has cast doubt as to whether what was found May 19 was actually Eaheart’s body.
According to Bigfork resident Cheryl Richmond, one of Eaheart’s two nieces—his closest living relatives—Lake County Sheriff Bill Barron told her May 22 he was “99 percent sure” searchers had found her uncle.
Underwater video footage of the body, according to John Gisselbrecht, the pilot and employee of Missoula’s Museum of Mountain Flying who organized the search, revealed flight boots, a parachute and, nearby, the tail of a military jet.
When they learned Eaheart had apparently been found, Richmond says she and her sister asked that the body be recovered. But one week later, Richmond says, Barron told her “I’m not so sure it’s your uncle.”
The apparent parachute, Richmond says Barron told her, could be a sail, and the “plane” could be a piece of a sailboat.
Barron was not available for comment, but Lake County Undersheriff Michael Sargeant says that Richmond likely misunderstood Barron.
“The remains, if that’s what they are, have not been ID’d,” he says. “Outside of DNA testing, a video is not going to stand as a positive identification.”
Sargeant says the U.S. Marine Corps is reviewing the video. If the Corps feels there’s a likelihood the video reveals Eaheart’s body, then the Marines will recover it and perform a DNA test, Sargeant says.
If examination of the video suggests the body is not a body, or not Eaheart’s, then Sargeant says recovery is unlikely. The possible remains rest beneath 250 feet of water, and getting them, he says, could cost upward of $100,000—money Lake County can’t afford to spend on a single recovery mission.
Richmond finds the no-recovery option appalling.
“This is someone’s body, and they’re just going to leave it there?” she asks. “If it’s not my uncle, it’s somebody’s relative.”