WELLSTON — Joe and Barb LaSota were in their living room Wednesday when they had some visitors they weren't expecting.
It is not uncommon for the Sterling Heights transplants to see snowmobiles come through their yard or the occasional lost dog in their secluded Northern Michigan yard, but when three teenage boys showed up it raised an eyebrow for the couple. Considering their home is 1.5 miles from the banks of Pine River and the boys were wearing shorts, T-shirts, and holding paddles, the LaSotas knew something wasn't right.
On Wednesday as the couple was settling down to watch a movie, Joe said his wife noticed the three teens in their backyard. The three teens were waving to get their attention. Once they went out to see what they were doing, Joe said they looked cold, frightened, and were barefoot.
"They were safe and they ended up calling their parents," Joe said Thursday afternoon. "The police were looking for them and everyone congregated here. It was a little excitement for us."
Details about the search for three missing Oakland County teens who were found safe after a river trip went awry were released Thursday by police.
The Wexford County Sheriff's Office reported the three Rochester Hills teens were rafting the Pine River, entering at Dobson Bridge at about 2 p.m. Wednesday. They were supposed to exit the river at Peterson Bridge by about 5 p.m. but did not leave the river.
The teens were unfamiliar with the river and Wexford County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Nate Edwards said the teens were in the area on vacation. He also said they were believed to be with family and friends. It was not known, however, if the three teens were related in some way or just friends.
Edwards said the teens dropped in the river left before the rest of the group from Oakland County. When the rest of the group floated to Peterson Bridge, they realized the teens had not arrived. They waited roughly two hours before calling the police, Edwards said.
"We started the information gathering process with the complainant at Peterson Bridge. We had assistance from both the Cadillac (Michigan State Police) Post and the DNR," he said.
Given certain things such as the direction of the river and estimated float times, Edwards said law enforcement was posted at areas along the river up to Low Bridge.
Edwards said many private citizens including campers along the river and a livery business in the area also were contacted. Law enforcement asked them if they had seen the three teens and Edwards said Pine River Paddlesports Center assisted police by directing them to certain trails off the river. He also said they kept a lookout for the teens.
Pine River Paddlesports Center Co-owner Jacob Miltner said they offered to help search for the teens and would have paddled the river at night if needed. Instead, he said they offered police information about different roads they could use to access the river.
Miltner said the three teens were shown the Peterson Bridge area so they would know that was where they needed to get out of the water before their river trip began. He also said the three teens exited the river at the Peterson Bridge area, looked around but didn't think it was the right place. So they returned to the water and continued to paddle on the river.
"We have seen this before and will see it again. It happens every once in a while and everyone has always been found safe," Miltner said.
Eventually, Edwards said a raft and three life vests were found just before Low Bridge and foot tracks were seen going up a nearby trail. About the same time, Edwards said the Michigan State Police received a call from a private landowner in Manistee County reporting that three teens had shown up on his property who were lost. The LaSotas were those landowners.
A trooper went out to investigate and when it was believed those were the same three teens missing on the river, Edwards said a deputy went out to confirm it was the three Oakland County youth.
The teens were located at the LaSotas residence about 2.5 hours after the initial report of them missing. They were found in good condition and reunited with family and friends. Joe said it is his understanding that the three teens, being unfamiliar with the river and the area and once it started to get dark they became concerned. That is when they pulled off the river and went up the trail looking for help, Joe said.
If they had stayed on the river instead of getting off when they did, Joe said it was likely another 45 minutes on the river before they would have reached the Low Bridge from what he was told.
Edwards said he didn't have an exact location of where the teens were found other than it was between the Manistee County line and Low Bridge. He also indicated it was closer to Low Bridge than the county line.
"That was all going on at the same time. We found the raft, three life jackets that we thought belonged to the boys. Then we got the information from the troopers that said he had three boys," he said. "I don't know what came first. it all happened at the same time."
On Wednesday, MSP Spl. Lt. Derrick Carroll said the raft was found at 9:15 p.m. Wednesday and three teens were found safe about 40 minutes later.
Edwards said during the investigation, many people assisted police in the search and while he didn't get names he wanted to recognize their impact on the investigation.