When he's diving in black water — almost every body of water around Nebraska is at best murky — Kevin Young doesn't even bother to look through his goggles.
He simply closes his eyes and visualizes what he's looking for.
Only in this case, Young, 48, didn't want to visualize what he and his fellow divers would miraculously find that day.
Among the three bodies they sought were the remains of little Christopher Szczepanik, age 7.
So Young clung to the other bit of information police gave the divers: The body was wrapped in some sort of dry-cleaning plastic.
“I kept thinking plastic,” he said.
He soon would have to fight other thoughts.
In early October 2011, Young and about a dozen members of the Yutan Volunteer Fire Department dive team were told to meet at the Missouri River side of Lake Manawa State Park at 4 p.m. the next day.
It wasn't until they arrived that they learned what they would be searching for: the remains of Brazilian missionaries Vanderlei and Jaqueline Szczepanik and their son.
An Omaha police detective gave them a basic set of information. The all-volunteer divers filled in the blanks: In the 22 months since the bodies had been dumped, the Missouri River experienced record flooding.
Historic river levels. Record currents. Hundreds of millions of gallons of water had churned past that point.
“We never imagined in a million years we would find anything,” Young said. “But I'll tell you — the last-seen point is the most important detail in any (underwater) search.
“If you have that, you have a chance.”
The chances seemed slim. A co-defendant of the man on trial this week — Jose “Carlos” Oliveira-Coutinho — had taken Omaha police detectives to the point of the river where he said they dumped the bodies.
The co-defendant, Valdeir Goncalves-Santos, provided police with a couple of other key details about the Dec. 17, 2009, dumping of the family. Two of the three bodies had not sunk with the grates the men had tethered to them. So Goncalves cut the ropes to the bodies — and they seemed to float away.
The one body that had disappeared under the water was Christopher's.
Nearly two years later, the dive team members set up a staging area near the bank of the Missouri River. The lead diver that day was Kevin Marking. Starting at what was believed to be the last-seen point, Marking performed several sweeps to no avail.
Up next was Young.
“Diver” may not be the first thing people think when they see the 48-year-old Omahan. He's barrel-chested and about 6-foot-1, the kind of guy who typically sinks and, he notes, sucks up a lot of air. He wears cowboy boots and runs a brick-laying company.
But Young said he took to deep-water diving while on a 2001 cruise with his eventual wife, Susie. At first it was recreational. But when he and Susie returned home, they decided to take scuba lessons.
They were hooked. Dozens of classes — and endless hours of training later — the Youngs became volunteer divers, eventually for Yutan.
Along with 15 other volunteer divers — “the most dedicated people you'll ever meet,” Kevin Young said — they had been on hundreds of recreational dives and dozens of volunteer dives.
“It's amazing the things you find underwater,” Young said.
Cars. Weapons. Once, a parking meter.
Young and the Yutan dive team helped save a worker near Wahoo a few years back.
“That's why you do this,” he said.
And then there are the ones he tries to forget. Several years ago, a teenager drowned at Linoma Beach. Young failed to heed his trainers' advice: Don't look at the victim's face. Don't personalize the search.
Tough advice to follow in the October 2011 search.
Dressed in a dry suit, the water was cold, though not as cold as it could have been.
Methodically, he ventured out past the riprap — the large rocks used to stabilize the Missouri River banks.
Moving his hand as if he were clawing in the dark, Young showed the jurors in court how he would sweep the river. In essence, he was “seeing” by “feeling” along the riverbed.
One hand on the river bottom. The other hanging onto the rope — a rope that serves as a lifeline, a measuring stick, and a communication wire all in one.
Picking up where the first diver left off, Young felt nothing but rocks and branches.
In his third sweep — 15 minutes into the search — he got to the edge where the bank drops off and the current picks up. He felt something different, perhaps in plastic, half buried in the silt.
“I found something,” he radioed to a diver on shore.
He tried to pull it up. It didn't budge. Young clawed the silt from around the object.
“It felt like a round object, like a ball,” he testified. “I was pretty sure of what I had found.”
He kept telling himself it was just a ball, though he knew otherwise. The plastic felt like it was bound by a fishing line of some sort.
He brought the bag to shore. A bone fell out. Young said it looked like a rib.
This time, Young didn't let himself go there. He focused on what remained to be recovered, something attached to the fishing line.
With Young's air tank almost depleted, another diver, Justin Hancock, tried to resume the search in the sweeping current. He couldn't find where Young had left off.
Armed with a replenished air tank, Young returned to the water. After several tries, he found the hole he had just dug. Then he found what he thought was a fishing line.
It was a rope. On the other end — a 3-foot-long, 10- to 20-pound grate.
It would be the last of the team's discoveries.
After bringing the grate to shore, Young never went up the bank to see what was inside the plastic bag: the skeletal remains, including the skull, of Christopher.
DNA tests proved it. Prosecutors recently asked Young if he wanted to see the pictures. He declined.
“That's not what I signed up for,” he said. “I kept telling myself it was a ball. It was just a ball.”
He now knows it was the most morbid miracle anyone can imagine.
“For that little boy to still be there two years later with all that went on with that river,” Young said, his voice trailing off.
The discovery “was simply meant to be.”
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