Family criticizes search response following death of Morgan County man

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MORGAN COUNTY, Ind. -- The death of a Morgan County man is under investigation as family members of the victim say emergency responders didn’t do enough to save him.

Friends and family of 39-year-old Rich Schmidt say Schmidt’s body remained at the bottom of Echo Lake a full day longer than it should have.

Members of Morgan County’s Monroe Township Fired Department were among multiple agencies who responded to Echo Lake around 9:00 p.m. Wednesday.  A 16-year old girl called 911 saying she had seen a car with lights on in the water as she was traveling down Greencastle Road.

Monroe Township Fire Chief Stefan Lathan said a search around the pond involved 12 to 14 firefighters, three members of the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department and himself.  He says the search team spent 30 minutes searching along the banks of the pond, using flashlights.  But no evidence of a vehicle going into the water was found.

“We found zero tire tracks, the moss (on the surface of the water) has not been disturbed, there’s no mud rising up from the bottom of the pond, which is pretty typical, there’s no air bubbles,” Lathan said.  “We searched the entire bank of this pond trying to find evidence of the car going into the pond.  There was nothing.”

The search was eventually called off without sending divers into the pond.  The 16-year old girl also changed some details of her account several times, according to Lathan.

“We had zero physical evidence, and we did not have enough probable cause to risk the lives of our firemen by putting them into the lake,” Lathan said.

But the next day, Lathan and other responders went back to the scene following reports of an oil slick on the surface of the pond.  During that return visit to Echo Lake, Lathan said Schmidt’s father reported his son had not been seen since the previous night.

At that point, Lathan says he had enough probable cause to send the dive team into the water.  After more than an hour of searching the pond, the divers located a dark blue Trans Am.  Rich Schmidt’s body was found in the car, still seat belted in the driver’s seat.

16-year old Carrie Spurlock, who made the initial 911 call said she was frustrated that Lathan and others didn’t seem to believe her report of a car in the water.

“Everything I said, he disputed me,” Spurlock said.  “It’s really frustrating.  I know what I saw.”

Several friends and family members of Schmidt say first responders didn’t do enough to find and possibly rescue Schmidt.  They question the reasoning behind the decision to hold the dive team back.

“If they had gone in the water and actually searched for the car that she said she saw sinking that night, my brother could actually still be alive today,” said Schmidt’s sister Jennifer Schmidt Schoolcraft.

That point has not been determined by investigators looking into how Schmidt died.

The Morgan County Coroner says Schmidt’s death has not been ruled a drowning as of Monday evening.  Autopsy results were inconclusive, pending toxicology tests that could take several weeks to come back.

Melissa Bryant, another one of Rich Schmidt’s sisters, admits her brother struggled with drug addiction over the years.  She admits it’s possible her brother overdosed behind the wheel, causing him to run his car into the pond. But, she argues that should not have mattered to to the first responders who didn’t know who they were potentially searching for at the pond Wednesday night.

“Even if it did, that didn’t mean that his life wasn’t worth trying to save,” Bryant said.  “Even if they couldn’t have saved him, it would have given us more closure,” Bryant said.  “We can’t have an open casket funeral.  We can’t hold his hand.  We can’t touch him and tell him goodbye.”

“When they respond out here, that could have been a mother and five kids in a minivan,” Schmidt Schoolcraft said.  “It could have been anybody.”

“Unfortunately, it was just a rare circumstance where the vehicle left no evidence when it went into the pond,” Lathan said.  “That’s almost unheard of.”

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources was assisting the Morgan County Sheriff’s Department in the investigation into the circumstances surrounding Schmidt’s death.  The Sheriff’s Department said no foul play was suspected in the case.