Katharhynn Heidelberg

OURAY - The remains of Richard Ford were located Sunday by a search and rescue dog, more than a month after his family's plane went down in the mountains near Ouray.

Ford, 36, died May 11 with his parents, Robert and Patricia, and his 4-year-old son, Matthew, when their Cessna 210 apparently broke apart at 20,000 feet near Whitehouse Mountain west of Ouray. The California residents had been en route to Elbert, Colo. when the craft went down. It was reported missing the following day, when the Fords failed to arrive in Elbert, and located May 13 by the Civil Air Patrol.

Extreme avalanche conditions delayed the recovery efforts, with Pat and Robert Ford being retrieved May 19 and Matthew, May 29.

Richard can now rest in peace with them, thanks to a dog named Tasha and her handler, Sue Purvis. The black Labrador had just come off a water mission in her hometown of Crested Butte, where she had located the body of a drowning victim, when Purvis put her work as a geologist on hold to accept the Ouray mission.

"I had to decide, 'Do I go to my job or do I try to help somebody out?'" Purvis, calling from the Dominican Republic, said Tuesday. "In my heart, I knew it was the right thing to do. ŠI'm so glad I did."

Purvis, her dog and volunteers from Olathe Mountain Rescue accessed the crash area in a helicopter flown by Devon Felix of Olathe.

Tasha found Richard Ford in a steep gully area by scenting the downdraft winds coming down from the peaks. Ouray County Sheriff Dominic "Junior" Mattivi said the remains were beneath one to two feet of snow, and a portion of Ford's heel was visible.

"We kind of thought that if he was up there, he would've moved with the movement of the snow, but apparently, he was covered with snow and ice," Mattivi said.

"We just started hiking up the debris field," said Purvis, an employee at Crested Butte Outdoors. "My whole job is to watch my dog. The scent from the missing victim traveled about 2,000 feet. She tells me the scent, but I need to keep working through it."

Purvis explained that 10-year-old Tasha communicates through body posture and behavioral changes, like whining or barking, when she's on the scent.

"I have to make decisions as to whether this is where the person is, or if it's further up," for example, Purvis said. Usually, she uses a flag to mark each location where Tasha picks up a scent, and other searchers begin probing.

"In this particular case, she brought me right to him," she said.

But it's not something she and Tasha could have done alone. Purvis praised the Ford family for its fortitude during a time of great loss, as well as Felix, Olathe Mountain Rescue and Mattivi, who approved the dog mission.

"There's a lot of risk and danger involved, and the conditions had to be just right," Purvis said. "The sheriff takes all responsibility for intense missions like these."

Tasha, certified through Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado in wilderness, water and avalanche work, had in effect trained for the Ouray mission her entire life. Guided by Purvis since the age of two months, the Lab, cross trained in necro-searching, has worked in many areas of the state, including Montrose County and three avalanche missions for Chaffee County.

"We're pretty much the only certified team within a three-hour radius of Crested Butte," Purvis said.

She only wishes emergency agencies would utilize professionally trained search dogs more often. "Don't be afraid to call a dog team," Purvis said. "They're a valuable resource that are always under-utilized. Dogs should be called immediately, because they can find out a lot of valuable information, and we usually get called last."

But Ouray did call Tasha, and even though it meant a lot of creative rearranging in terms of Purvis' work life, it did the trick.

"She was the perfect tool," said Purvis. "I knew she could go in there and figure it out soon."

Mattivi said Tasha, who went up in the chopper shortly before 6 a.m. Sunday, had located Ford by 7:22 a.m. and recovery teams exhumed him from his icy grave by 7:50 a.m.

Ford's body was reportedly taken to Crippin Funeral Home and will be returned to California with the remains of his parents and son.

"I was moved by it," Purvis said of the mission. "I didn't have time to think about it until last night (Monday), when I landed in the Dominican Republic, and I started crying. It's tough. To lose a family member like that-I can't even imagine."

Contact Katharhynn Heidelberg via e-mail at katharhynnh@montrosepress.com

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