Lost hunter saves food, phone battery to survive

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DECATUR, Ala. (AP) — The nights — especially Monday night — were cold in the Bankhead National Forest, and a Madison man kept his cool after being separated Saturday from friends during a weekend deer hunting trip.

Before his rescue about 8:30 Tuesday morning, John LaPietra, 46, attired in hunting gear, stayed in a cave to keep warm, Lawrence County Sheriff Gene Mitchell said.

LaPietra, a Lockheed Martin Information Technology employee, conserved food, water and his cellphone battery. He periodically texted friends and rescuers in an effort to tell them his location.

But before the search in the Sipsey Wilderness was over, numerous agencies and volunteers combed the woods to bring LaPietra to safety.

"I saw his buddies Saturday afternoon after they reported he was lost," Mitchell said. "We told them everybody walks out on Sunday morning, as a rule, after getting caught in the darkness."

But by 8:30 a.m. Sunday, as Mitchell and several others waited at Gum Pond Cemetery, where the hunters had gone in. LaPietra didn't show.

"But one of the hunters made contact with him by text," Mitchell said. "He asked LaPietra, 'What do you see?' The reply came, 'A high peak and a creek nearby and caves.' That gave us a good idea where he was."

The search was on. Mitchell said horsemen went in and couldn't find LaPietra. On Sunday evening, the Limestone County Sheriff's Department sent in its helicopter and located him, Limestone Chief Investigator Stanley McNatt said, but they could not reach him and found no place to land.

They sent in a crew on foot, using coordinates identified by helicopter, "but it was after dark Sunday night," Mitchell said. "They reached the coordinates, but LaPietra wasn't there."

On Sunday, Mitchell contacted Elrand Denson in Double Springs, a 21-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service and a Bankhead district ranger.

"We made our resources available to him," Denson said. "We probably had about 20 of our people out there. We had people in the office Tuesday morning producing GIS maps of the area that showed the caves."

Denson said two members of his staff, Craig Moore and John Garcia, had "a lot of experience working in the wilderness." They located LaPietra, and members of the Back Country Horsemen of Alabama brought him out on horseback at the Gum Spring Cemetery.

"One of our guys walked in front, holding the reins," Denson said. "There in that particular spot, there were probably at least a half-dozen horses."

Denson said LaPietra "seemed to be in good spirits for a three-day ordeal. He said he was eating beef jerky. My guys took a meal ready to eat, and that's what LaPietra had Tuesday morning."

But Denson said, "All the credit goes out to Sheriff Mitchell and all of his folks, all of those volunteers, and their good cohesive effort to use all of the available resources.

"As we were coming out of the woods after the search had concluded, we met people coming in to help. We gave them good news."

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Information from: The Decatur Daily, http://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml



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