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Body of missing female snowmachiner found in Big Lake, husband still unaccounted for

  • Author: Zaz Hollander
  • Updated: December 21, 2018
  • Published December 21, 2018

PALMER — The days-long search for a missing Anchorage couple ended Friday when rescue crews recovered the body of LaVerne Pettigen from the icy waters of Big Lake.

Vanton Pettigen, her husband, remained missing as of Friday afternoon after the two went snowmachining on the lake amid warnings about thin ice and open water. His snowmachine was found late Friday afternoon, troopers said.

The couple was last seen Sunday.

Alaska State Troopers flying over the lake in a helicopter found LaVerne Pettigen, 64, near Burston Island around 11 a.m. Friday, according to an update posted Friday afternoon. Crews were using sonar to assist the search for 66-year-old Van Pettigen, who remained missing.

Searchers walk toward an Alaska State Troopers helicopter Friday, Dec. 21 2018 on Big Lake as crews recover the body of missing snowmachiner LaVerne Pettigen. The search continues for Pettigen's husband. (Alaska State Troopers photo)

Family members asked troopers to check on the Pettigens Tuesday after not hearing from them since the previous Friday afternoon. Big Lake resident Cathy Mayfield spotted the couple near the lake’s north shore on Sunday: that was the last time anyone saw them.

Alaska State Troopers found vehicles parked at the couple’s Big Lake condo but their snowmachines were gone.

Mayfield on Thursday directed troopers to an area of open water on the western part of the lake that had been the subject of warnings for a week.

A troopers helicopter flew over the area Thursday afternoon, “blowing slush around” until they saw what turned out to be a snowmachine helmet and a body in an area of open water, slush and new snow, Peters said. That part of the lake is covered with “nine inches of rotten ice” and still has leads, overflow and holes.

The helicopter returned Friday morning to start the recovery. Members of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough water rescue team, all wearing life jackets, were ferried to the site.

Sonar could help crews find the snowmachines the couple was riding, Peters said. The lake’s depth in the area was estimated at 70 feet.

Authorities say ice around Mat-Su was likely weakened by the Nov. 30 magnitude 7.0 quake and thousands of aftershocks that followed, with reports of new cracks and springs -- even holes linked to possible methane releases -- creating open water in places normally frozen over.

Big Lake Trails Inc. president Dan Mayfield said the group has been warning the community to stay away from a “very large” area of thin ice on the west side of the lake.

Cathy Mayfield said she spotted a couple she’s sure was the Pettigens on Sunday snowmachining between the northwest shoreline and Burston and Saddleback islands but didn’t realize it until she started seeing photographs of LaVerne’s distinctive pink riding coat once the search began.

LaVerne and Van Pettigen went snowmachining in Big Lake on Sunday, Dec 16, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Pettigen family)

Mayfield said the couple was “going back and forth on snowmachines between the Call and the other end of the lake,” she said, referring to the Call of the Wild, a bar on the lake’s northwest end. “Nice pink coat, white helmet.”

LaVerne Pettigen’s cousin Gary Nielsen described the couple as “two of the best people around,” in a message Friday. “Nothing but (n)ice at any time you saw them. Hard HARD working people. They will be terribly missed by us and a lot of other people.”

The couple operated a real-estate company that served Anchorage, Mat-Su and the Bristol Bay area.

LaVerne was born in King Salmon, where she graduated and then worked for her father’s trucking company, according to a biography on the business website. Van was born in Baltimore and joined the U.S. Air Force after graduation. The two met while he was stationed in King Salmon.

They have two adult daughters.

More than 100 people, many volunteers, helped search on Wednesday. A smaller group resumed air and ground searches over a more targeted area Thursday.

LaVerne Pettigen (in photo) and her husband Van Pettigen, went missing Sunday Dec. 16, 2018 in Big Lake. (Photo courtesty of LaTisha Wilkinson)

By Friday, the Big Lake trails group warned search volunteers of dangerous conditions.

“If you see the operation, please do not go anywhere near the area,” the group posted on Facebook Friday morning. “Thin ice is pervasive and widespread."

Matanuska-Susitna Borough emergency managers issued a notice Thursday asking people to stay off river and lake ice: “The Department of Emergency Services continues to receive reports of open water in areas that are historically not open. These multiple areas of concern may be in conjunction to the recent earthquake.”

Two teenaged snowmachiners prompted a rescue on Mud Lake near Big Lake last weekend after their machines broke through the ice.

Check back for updates on this developing story.

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