Brothers added to toll of deadly winter

Mar 18, 2017

Unstable ice has been a factor in the deaths of more than 30 people across the northeast and Great Lakes region this winter. One of those tragedies took place last month on Conesus Lake, New York. 

A sign on Conesus Lake directs sportsmen to an access point.
Credit Veronica Volk / Great Lakes Today

Conesus Lake is the westernmost of the Finger Lakes and one of the smallest -- it’s about a mile across and eight miles long.

On a recent day, Cameron Copeland looked out over its waters and reminisced about his brother, Chris.

“He was always outside," said Cameron. "Between scuba diving, skiing, wakeboarding, snow skiing, snowboarding, riding dirt bikes, riding four-wheelers.”

Chris was 40 years old. He had shaggy brown hair and a wide smile, and lived in a house near the lake's shoreline.

One of his favorite winter activities was snowmobiling across the flat, frozen surface.

On February 11, Chris and his friend Jason Fluet got a ride home from a local bar around 3 a.m. The next day, Chris didn’t show up to his job as a taxi driver. His brother wasn’t too worried at first.

Left: Chris Copeland. Right: Cameron Copeland shows off a tattoo he got in memory of his brother.
Credit Veronica Volk / Great Lakes Today

“Knowing Chris, he could have been off in Florida or could have been off on vacation somewhere. Chris would randomly go somewhere," Cameron said.

But 24 hours after he was last seen, Cameron still hadn’t heard from his brother, and his friend Jason was missing, too. Cameron contacted the police.

Livingston County Sheriff Tom Dougherty says a missing person report was filed immediately. He says when they checked the house, they did not find Chris, but they did find a clue to where he had gone. One of Chris' snowmobiles was missing.

By morning, a police drone had picked up snowmobile tracks going out on to the lake. A few hours later, they recovered two helmets from the ice. A neighbor told police he heard a snowmobile engine start up around 3 a.m., take off, and never return.

"All the pieces were lining up, really putting them in the lake," said Dougherty. 

Sheriff Tom Dougherty retraces the likely snowmobile route on a map of Conesus Lake.
Credit Veronica Volk / Great Lakes Today

That night would have been a dangerous one to snowmobile on the lake. The north end was frozen, but the ice started to break up near mid-lake. It was dark, and there was a light snow falling, making it harder to see soft spots and thin ice.

“We figured that their plan was to do a quick loop and come right back, but they got off course and went too far south," said Dougherty, which would have put them on thin, mushy ice or even open water.

The sheriff’s office launched a search with dozens of people – police officers and firefighters on the ice and in boats, divers combing the frigid lake.

Copeland’s family hunkered down in a house nearby, with a big window looking out over the water. Cameron said the waiting was hard. “We just kind of kept each other’s minds busy, kind of hoping that he wasn’t in there."

Jason’s family was in Phoenix, Arizona, when they heard what was happening. His mother, Sandy, said she heard the news from a member of their church.

“After I got off the phone with him, I just kept screaming and screaming and screaming,” she said.

Like Chris, Sandy’s son was 40, had a daughter, and loved being outdoors.

Jason Fluet and his daughter, Ajiah.
Credit Provided

Both men were recovered from the lake on February 22 -- 11 days after they went missing.

The families and the sheriff’s office said the biggest contributor to this tragedy was likely an incredibly warm winter.

There have been more than 40 ice-related accidents this winter involving snowmobilers and ice fishermen.