Mission Valley runaways safe at home
RONAN — After more than 80 hours in the Mission Mountains, two runaway teens safely returned home last week.
According to a press release, 14-year-old Bailey Speagle and 15-year-old Justin Krahn ran away from home and headed into the Mission Mountain Wilderness the morning of Sept. 23.
Three and a half days later, the pair called home with one simple request; “Can you come get us?”
Unknown to the runaways, a major search and rescue operation involving off-duty search and rescue personel, private pilots, several local businesses and offers to help from hundreds of total strangers was well under way.
The pair packed camping gear, clothes, food and water and left in the middle of the night. Police officers later learned that Krahn had shared the plan with a few close friends, but none of them had taken him seriously.
The Lake County Sheriff’s Office was notified that morning and sent a search and rescue team into the Missions to confirm that the teens had, in fact, gone into the mountains. If so, they would try to ascertain their direction of travel.
Search and rescue located the teens tracks in the Mud Lake area near Pablo and confirmed they were headed east into the mountains. It was later learned the two had actually traveled north and were staying in the Turtle Lake area.
The search was called off due to darkness, and Lake County Undersheriff Dan Yonkin said he would not send search and rescue back into the field.
Bailey’s mother, Lacey Dibble, said Yonkin called using the search and rescue team to track and catch runaway kids “an inappropriate allocation of resources.”
“That really upset me,” Dibble said. “How can you call my 14-year-old daughter a waste of resources?”
After the teenagers were found, Yonkin said he stood by his decision not to involve search and rescue, and the fact that the teens had come back of their own volition, through no efforts of any volunteers, spoke volumes.
“If it’s a runaway 5-year-old, or if they’ve been abducted, or if it’s 20 degrees below 0, we would have sent (search and rescue)” Yonkin said. “If there was any evidence that they’d been taken against their will or were in danger, it would have been handled differently.”
Initially, Yonkin planned to take no action. The criminal justice system and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office treat the cases of runaways as a “parenting issue” as no criminal act has taken place. In Montana, and many other states, it is not against the law to run away from home.
Even so, the number of volunteers and offers to help stunned both families.
Seven Lake County Search and Rescue team members volunteered their time all three days, although the team wasn’t officially involved.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ helicopter made several passes over the area while checking on the Mission Mountain Wilderness wildfire near Ronan.
A Polson pilot took a search and rescue volunteer up in his private plane, and he paid for the fuel himself.
“I don’t remember his name, but I need to find out,” Bailey’s father said. “I need to shake his hand.”
Stageline Pizza delivered free pizza to feed the volunteers. The Outwest Grill sent free sandwiches.
A multitude of strangers called the house and offered to help in any way they could, including one woman who called and offered to put her baby in a pack so she could help search in the mountains.
“People were willing to drop whatever they had to come and help,” Dibble said. “If we’d have put a search party together, we’d have had hundreds of people in the mountains.”
As it was, Dibble said 30 volunteers actively searched for the two teens in the Missions every day for three days. If they’d had more people, tracks leading to where the runaways might be could have been destroyed.
When asked if the teens were punished, Dibble said the families were more concerned with reinforcing the fact that coming home was a good thing, but in the future, the kids may need to pay their dues in the form of volunteer hours at local businesses and organizations who tried to find them.
According to all parties involved, Bailey and Justin have never been in trouble with the law and get good grades. However, Bailey was recently the subject of bullying at her school, and Justin had broken his hand, making it difficult for him to take notes in class and participate in sports.
“They told us that they just needed a break,” Dibble said.
Throughout the ordeal, Dibble issued updates and requests for information via her Facebook page. Several individuals posted the names of missing persons, all of them under the age of 18 and residing in Lake County, onto the Valley Journal’s Facebook page. The names had reportedly come directly from Montana’s Department of Justice.
When asked if the Lake County Sheriff’s Office was actively looking for these runaways, Yonkin said according to his records, all but one had returned home of their own accord within five days of running away.
The one that hadn’t returned home, Wesley Joseph Finley of Arlee, was still listed as a missing person on both the DOJ’s website and Yonkin’s records. According to the reports, Finley had been missing for more than a month.
Yonkin followed up on the case and called Finley’s mother, who reported that he’d returned home of his own accord less than a week after he’d run away and she’d forgotten to notify the police.
Yonkin said Lake County has received 18 reports of runaways this year alone. Last year, there were 42. These statistics do not include runaway cases handled by Tribal Law and Order.
Yonkin said in his experience, nearly every case resolves with the children going home, through no outside intervention, within five days.
“I’ve been the parent trying to find my child who ran away,” Yonkin said. “It took me over a month to find out that all was well and she was safe. It’s not a pleasant experience, and I understand that. However, if you look at it from a public service standpoint, I think that sometimes no action is the best action.”
Dibble said she wanted to emphasize the amazing amount of help the families received.
“I would rather focus on the fact that everyone here is so wonderful; we’ve got a new family now. We have relationships now that are going to be lifelong,” she said.
“It was overwhelming, and I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life. We live in an amazing place with amazing people.”