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Diving for Treasure, And Dead Bodies, Too

The Loudoun County Underwater Search and Recovery Team uses touch to discover underwater crime scenes.

When precious jewels, murder weapons, cars or bodies are salvaged from underwater in Loudoun County, the river or quarry or pond is treated like any other crime scene.

Deputies meticulously record depth, length, distance and position of items. Their task is complicated not only by being underwater — the water's often "a glass of chocolate milk," as one deputy described it, meaning everything is done by feel.

The diving deputies also have to remember the dozens of hazards that can be found in the opaque water: lawn clippings that emit toxic gas; barbed wire or glass from discarded bottles; microscopic creatures that can be deadly; eardrums that explode from the water pressure, causing disorientation; the risk of drowning if equipment malfunctions; the risk of suffocating, if equipment malfunctions the other way.

"There's at least 20 ways to die, on top of being a cop," said Deputy Kelly Clark.

The county's six-member Underwater Search and Recovery Team is stocked with cops who love to dive. The team itself is called out as needed, generally every couple of months, so the deputies have day jobs within the department. Clark is a patrol officer.

CLARK IS one of the team's veteran members. Before the dive team was officially established in the late '90s, Clark and Sgt. Bruce Lecrone dove with thousands of dollars' worth of their own equipment.

The equipment consists of scuba gear and a dry suit. Not to be confused with a wet suit, which holds a thin layer of water against the diver's body, the dry suit keeps the deputy completely isolated from the water and, likewise, the water's potential toxins. By the time he's all suited up, a deputy can weigh more than 400 pounds.

"Almost all our diving is, you can imagine, not like the Bahamas," Lecrone said.

Because of the dark water and its hazardous environs, police diving is not for everyone. With no radios or vision, deputies communicate by touch, either via a rope held by an on-shore officer or another underwater officer — as Lecrone said, "It's the only time Sheriff's officers will hold hands."

The dive team trains once a month in quarries, ponds and rivers across the county. "We train in the environment we work in," said Capt. Charles Wyant.

Potential new divers are taken through a "tangle maze" of PVC pipes underwater, and, without warning, Clark turns off their air to "see if they freak out."

Some divers find out they don't want the job after being involved in their first body recovery — a rare but crucial part of the dive team's work.

"I've known people who get into this and their first body recovery, or black water, and they say, 'This is not for me,'" said Lecrone.

WITH ITS tough members, Loudoun's dive team has become well-respected in the area — respected enough to be invited to participate in what was possibly the largest dive recovery effort in American history.

In the winter of 2003-2004, the FBI undertook a massive exploration of Maryland ponds in search of anthrax equipment. Anthrax, a deadly bacteria that killed five people in 2001, is inert in water. The FBI suspected the envelopes used to send the anthrax to victims may have been assembled in an airtight, dry box underwater to protect the perpetrator from harming himself.

Besides the obvious danger of searching for anthrax, divers faced brutal winter weather. The Maryland ponds were encased in 10 inches of ice. When Lecrone took off his dry suit at home, it stood straight up, completely frozen.

Loudoun's participation in the anthrax dives is something the dive team members take obvious pride in — but they also have a laugh about some of their other, less nationally-important recoveries.

Once, they recovered a woman's purse from a pond in Ashburn. While they don't often take on private concerns like this, the team took the opportunity to use the recovery as a training opportunity. When they discovered the purse, it was stuffed with jewelry and money.

The thrill of the hunt is what keeps the divers underwater, feeling their way toward discovery.

"I don't see pretty fish or anything like that because we work in the dark, in the mud," Wyant said. "I just like finding what's down there."

More

In most jurisdictions, sheriff’s offices only have court and jail duty, while police departments handles patrols and investigations. Not so in Loudoun County. The Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office has 358 sworn officers and 79 civilian employees, making it the largest in Virginia. This story is the second in a series to look at some of the LCSO’s specialized departments.