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Robotic search for missing boater in Lake Mendocino fails to find body

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A search of Lake Mendocino Wednesday using a robot to find the body of a man missing over a month yielded a lead but nothing definitive, according to family members and the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office.

Carlos Soto, 62, of Laytonville was found dead on June 11 on the south end of the lake after a passerby noticed an empty boat. He had been on a fishing trip with his son, Vincent Soto, 40, also of Laytonville.

After weeks of searching the surrounding area, sheriff’s officials presume the younger Soto is dead. Authorities and family members have been searching for his body for over a month.

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office worked with the Army Corps of Engineers, Sonoma Water and the National Marine Fisheries to conduct a rare search of the lake using a robot, but they did not find Vincent’s body. They did, however, spot an object they think may be the body but were unable to confirm it, Mendocino Sheriff’s Lieutenant Shannon Barney said.

“We couldn’t get close enough in a steady manner to see what it was. It’s basically a human shape, but it could be a log,” he said.

The problem was the high current, Barney said. Sonoma Water officials reduced the amount of water released from Lake Mendocino into the Russian River to allow the robot to work, dropping it to the lowest flow levels in the lake’s history, Barney said.

“We took it down to 10 cubic feet a second, which from what I was told, the lowest they had it before was 25 cubic feet a second,” Barney said. “We had that at first, it was our agreed-upon flow rate, but it was too fast for the robot to work.”

The robot was able to navigate the lake at the reduced flow levels, Barney said, but it had to run its propellers at full speed in order to avoid being swept away in the current.

The speed of the water also reduced the robot’s range of vision to about 6 inches, meaning it had to get extremely close to objects in order to identify them.

Spotting a shape that could be a human body, the robot moved in closer, but the propellers kicked up silt from the bottom of the lake, clouding its vision completely, Barney said.

The object was spotted at about 112 feet below the surface of the water, caught against a gate at the bottom of the lake. That’s too deep for human dive teams from the Marin County Sheriff’s Office that have previously worked with the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office on the search, Barney said. Authorities are now working to coordinate a deep-water dive team to examine the object. It will take at least a few days, and possibly longer before authorities can resume the search, Barney said.

Friends and family members of the Sotos have kept a vigil on the south side of the lake since Carlos Soto’s body was discovered, with a constant fire burning in the tradition of the Mishewal Wappo tribe, of which Vincent Soto belonged. Daniel Garcia, his brother, said the family plans to continue the vigil until the body is found.

“That’s why we’re here in the first place,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Beale at 707-521-5205 or andrew.beale@pressdemocrat.com.

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