The search for a college football player who presumably drowned last week on a Lake Tahoe paddle board excursion resumed Thursday with help from a sonar specialist known for finding dozens of bodies.
Marc Ma, 20, was among several football players from the University of Nevada, Reno, who went on a paddle boarding trip Friday and ended up 1.7 miles offshore when they fell off their boards as high winds caused 3- to 5-foot swells, according to the Placer County Sheriff’s Office. Ma was considered the most experienced paddle boarder in the group and headed back to shore to get help.
Obexer’s Marina staff saw Ma as they headed out to rescue the group, but he disappeared thereafter and his board was adrift with his life vest attached, according to sheriff’s spokeswoman Dena Erwin. One out of six of the football players were wearing a life vest, she said.
Ma is presumed dead, and a memorial will be held this evening in Reno. He played defensive end and on special teams for the Division I football program and graduated from high school in Hawaii.
Gene Ralston, an Idaho-based expert, was called in Thursday to use high-tech, side-scan sonar that can reach depths of 1,000 feet, said Placer County Dive Team Sgt. Dave Hunt.
“All (county and state) resources are being used elsewhere,” Hunt said. Ralston was available and was asked to help.
“He’s an expert – he trains in how to dive and use the side-scan,” Hunt said.
Ralston is known for finding dozens of bodies underwater at great depths. He worked on the Laci Peterson case in 2003. The pregnant Modesto woman’s husband Scott was convicted of murdering her and their unborn child. In that case, Ralston was instrumental in locating the spot where Peterson’s body was dumped before it washed ashore.
Ralston is scanning the bottom of the lake, up to 300-foot depths, with the ability to see images on his computer screen. The technology also has playback capabilities in video form, Hunt said.
Ralston graduated in 1969 from the University of Nevada, Reno. He plans to use his side-scan equipment for the rest of the week and if Ma’s body is found, Ralston will use his underwater robot to traverse the bottom of the lake and retrieve the body, as the depths are too dangerous for divers.
His company, Ralston and Associates, has trained the Placer County Sheriff’s Office on how to effectively dive and use the side-scan sonar. Ralston said Thursday he reached out to Placer County when he saw the search was called off initially.
Ralston said he knew he had to act immediately because a body can last for years in Tahoe’s temperatures and never surface. “The longest one was 29 years in a lake in British Columbia,” he said.
Ralston and his wife, Sandy, are a team. She drives the boat and he scans, Ralston explained.
Ma’s parents, Michael and Michele, were on shore Thursday as search crews combed the waters looking for their son. They declined to comment.
Though searching for bodies is emotional, he said it can offer a sense of closure to a victim’s family. As a practical matter, he said finding a body also eases legal issues because relatives have an easier time obtaining a death certificate.
“The first person I recovered was in 1983,” Ralston said. He received a thank-you card from the family and realized what it meant to survivors.