After six days of searching, the body of 16-year-old Cameron Sanders of Villa Park was recovered from the Des Plaines River May 18 about 150 yards from where he and two other teens jumped off a railway trestle into the water.
But Cameron’s mother and family members were frustrated by first responders’ dwindling recovery efforts in the days following the boy’s evening disappearance May 13.
A teen’s phone video showed Sanders entering the water and being pulled under by the current. The boys jumped in the river in the 8300 block of West North Avenue, behind Lincoln Technical College in Melrose Park. Canadian National Railway’s so-called ‘Rainbow Bridge’ trestle is a popular teen hangout spot in the Cook County Forest Preserves.
Search teams from the Forest Preserve Police and Melrose Park Police Department initially converged on the site. Strong currents in the river made diving dangerous, police said later.
The official recovery action was called off Sunday, frustrating Cameron’s mother, Liza Perry-Sanders, and other family members. Not wanting to give up, they tracked through the mud themselves searching for clues of Cameron, who had been wearing a white shirt, gray shorts and athletic shoes.
A community call to help with the search was posted on social media May 15 by Oak Park activist and high school teacher Anthony Clark.
“It is so important that this young man’s body be found, so that he can be properly laid to rest. Please share this post. The mother is heartbroken a search party was called off.”
Around 30 people arrived to search Monday evening. Joining the party was independent search and rescue expert Rob Larson, of Westchester, who brought a boat and his scent-trained recovery dog.
In 2013, Larson searched the river for 31 days and finally found the body of 1-year-old Maywood boy Bryeon Hunter. Breyon’s mother and her boyfriend were convicted of killing the toddler and dumping his body into the Des Plaines, then lying that the child had been kidnapped by three Hispanic men.
“We are just going to keep searching for my brother, and we’re not going to stop,” said Cameron’s sister, Jerika Sanders, 19. “We’re going to be out here basically every day until we find him.”
Cameron did not know how to swim, his sister said, and may have been misled by online videos posted by other teens who had jumped off the bridge when the river was low.
High School students, parents and other volunteers lit candles and held a prayer vigil on the bridge with Cameron’s mother, sister and other family and friends.
“They need to take this whole bridge out,” Larson said. “Kids climb all the way to the top and hang off it.”
Volunteers and family members held hands as prayers were said for Cameron and his family.
“We hope, Father God, that you will reveal the truth around every circumstance of this situation,” said a woman leading the prayer.
Cameron’s family members set adrift a five-gallon plastic bottle filled with flowers, clothing, mementos and notes to Cameron.
“If it was my son, I know I’d want help,” said Teri Svehla, who helped search with her son Talmage. “This is something that you wouldn’t want to happen to anyone. I’m surprised nothing like this has happened at this bridge before.”
Volunteers walked along the east and west sides of the river, but had no luck.
State Rep. Chris Welch got involved with a Facebook post saying he was “deeply disappointed that the search for this young man has been called off.
“I have reached out to the Illinois State Police to get more information about this decision,” Welch wrote.
By Monday evening, the Cook County Sheriff’s office announced it would take over the investigation. Sonar-equipped boats were deployed Tuesday morning as well as canines. Officers were posted on bridges over the Des Plaines south to Riverside. More than 200 police personnel, including officers from neighboring villages and Chicago police divers were on the search, Sheriff Tom Dart told the Chicago Tribune.
Cameron’s body was found Thursday around 10 a.m. along the east side of the river about “150 yards from the bridge” said Cara Smith of the Cook Co. Sheriff’s Office. An autopsy performed by the Cook County Medical Examiner showed drowning as the cause of death, Smith said.
“This is just so tragic,” Dart said after the body’s recovery. Dart said he had contacted Canadian National to ask them to tear down the trestle, or at least fence it off.
— Cook Co. team recovers Villa Park teen from Des Plaines River —