Missing runner sparks massive city search

Anchorage Daily NewsNovember 8, 2011 

Wednesday morning update: University of Alaska Anchorage runner Marko Cheseto, missing since Sunday, was located early this morning, alive but "extremely hypothermic," according to a statement issued by UAA. He walked into a hotel near the campus about 3:30 a.m. and was taken to the hospital. Find an update to this story here.

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With no clues emerging during a massive full day's search of every major trail in the city, the hunt for a missing UAA student-athlete will go underwater today.

Lakes around the campus will be searched in the hope divers will find what dogs, snowmachines, an Alaska State Troopers helicopter and dozens of search-and-rescue volunteers didn't find Tuesday -- signs of Marko Cheseto, the All-America runner last seen Sunday night near the UAA library.

With no hint of where Cheseto was headed on a day when two snowstorms buried the city -- and the knowledge that, even on foot, even in snow, the long-distance runner from Kenya could have covered a lot of ground in a brief amount of time -- the air and ground search will halt, UAA police chief Rick Shell said.

"With absolutely nothing to go on and the athleticism of the individual, we're really looking at the entire Anchorage Bowl," Shell said at debriefing late Tuesday afternoon at the on-campus search headquarters.

"Dive teams will hit the water tomorrow," he said, "but barring that, I don't see us having to gather tomorrow without any leads."

UAA's athletes and members of the athletic department are "heartbroken," athletic director Steve Cobb said. Asked if hope remains of finding Cheseto alive, he answered quickly.

"Yes. Yes. We work in the world of sports. We believe in miracles," Cobb said. "But it's looking now like we're gonna need a miracle.

"The time, the distance (Cheseto could have traveled), the conditions -- do the math."

Cheseto, 28, disappeared a day after the UAA cross-country team's triumphant return to Anchorage after the NCAA Division II West Region championships in Spokane, Wash., where the Seawolves won every championship up for grabs. They claimed both the men's and women's team titles to qualify for the Nov. 19 national championships and a pair of their runners from Kenya captured the men's and women's individual titles.

Cheseto, the winner of the West Region the two previous seasons, made the trip to Spokane as team manager. Although he used his final season of cross-country eligibility a year ago, he still has one season of track eligibility left because he took last season off in the aftermath of the suicide of teammate and fellow Kenyan William Ritekwiang.

"It appears that we've lost two kids on one team in eight months," Cobb said.

Cheseto was last seen at UAA's social sciences building shortly after 7 p.m. Sunday. A surveillance photo taken at the nearby Student Union Building at 6:48 p.m. shows him dressed in a tan jacket with navy blue sleeves, blue jeans and white running shoes. It's believed he was headed to the library, which is connected to the social sciences building.

Shell said Cheseto used his debit card Sunday evening. "He bought groceries about an hour before he was seen (near) the library," he said.

University spokeswoman Kristin DeSmith said none of Cheseto's frequent-flyer miles have been used and his name didn't show up on any airline manifests.

"His cellphone's been located, his car keys have been located, the only thing missing is his debit card, credit card and passport," said incident commander Danny Brown, a volunteer with the Anchorage Police Department search team. "We haven't found his jacket or anything indicating hypothermia. There's no clues, and it's hard to search all of Anchorage."

Even so, searchers covered a huge area of town, including the entire Tour of Anchorage trail, the entire university district and down Chester Creek to the Coastal Trail, which they searched from Westchester Lagoon to Kincaid Park.

"There's a lot of foot traffic (on the Coastal Trail), so if he was out there, he should have been found," a Nordic Ski Patrol searcher said during the debriefing.

Two snowmachines on loan from Alaska Pacific University were used, as were three dog teams from Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs. Volunteers from the Nordic Ski Patrol, ROTC, the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group and the APD search team joined the hunt.

"We haven't had a search of this magnitude in a long time," Brown said.

Mel Nading flew Helo 1, an Alaska State Troopers helicopter, for three hours over every major trail in town. On board was Cornelius Sigei, a former UAA runner who is also from Kenya and who pointed out trails frequently used by Cheseto.

Among the searchers on Tuesday was UAA gymnastics coach Paul Stoklos, a longtime volunteer for Alaska Search and Rescue Dogs. He said it doesn't matter who the object of a search is "because we search with the same intensity," but he said looking for a UAA athlete made the search more emotional.

Cobb called Cheseto a model student on track to graduate. His dream "was to get his nursing degree and improve the quality of health care in his hometown," Kapenguria, the same town Ritekwiang was from.

He said the school's 200 or so athletes are continuing their daily routines in what is the busiest time of the school year for the athletic department -- the Carrs/Safeway Great Alaska Shootout starts in two weeks, the volleyball team is two victories away from clinching a conference title and a spot in the playoffs, the women's basketball team opens the season at home this weekend and the hockey team is on its way to a series at Minnesota-Duluth.

For the cross-country team, the routine includes training for the Nov. 19 national championships by running on some of the same trails where searchers hunted for their friend and teammate.

"This doesn't change what they're striving for," Cobb said. "We all have to learn sooner or later that the world goes on. It doesn't stop because you're heartbroken."


Reach Beth Bragg at bbragg@adn.com or 257-4335.

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