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One soul yet to be found: Family friend organizes volunteer search for missing fisherman

OREGON – Matt Wileman wasn’t good friends with Kent Dearborn Jr., one of two Oregon fishermen who went missing near the dam there on Nov. 20. 

He’d see him around Polo, and Kent spent some time working on some of Wileman’s construction equipment. But he is a good friend of Dearborn’s brother Mike. 

The body of James Swift, 64, of Forreston, was found Jan. 3 near the Dixon dam, and after speaking with Mike about the effort to find his brother, Wileman took to Facebook last week and organized a volunteer search for the body of the 33-year-old.

“I’d always see the fish he’d catch on Facebook,” Wileman said. “I just felt like the search effort wasn’t enough. There’s no closure for the family. I lost a family member recently, so I understand how it feels. I spend a lot of time on the river.”

Wileman, of Polo, owns Equality Contracting; he grew up in the area and says he “knows everybody.”

He got 800 shares in 24 hours, which resulted in a 3-day search last week, and another Thursday, both launching from Castle Rock State Park. 

Last week’s search covered the river from Oregon to Sterling, with as many seven boats on the water at one time, with at least two people in each. Those without boats walked the shorelines where it was safe. 

“I think it was Wednesday, it was 12 degrees,” Wileman said. “I froze my butt off. We dressed as warm as we could. It was frostbite weather for sure.”

Thursday morning’s search went on despite temperatures barely in double digits. Ice was beginning to form on some parts of the river as well as on a propeller of one of the boats, and the cold made starting the boat motors difficult.

Wileman also brought a plane for an aerial search.

Ogle County Sheriff Brian VanVickle, who is heading up the official search, applauded Wileman and the volunteers’ efforts.

“I think it’s a great thing to do for the family,” VanVickle said. “But I have to tell them to be careful. Frostbite sets in quick. It’s dangerous out there. Safety has been a priority all along with the first responders when they’ve gone out. I hope it was the same in their search.”

A flyover from Oregon to Dixon also was done last week, VanVickle said, and his office will try to do one a week. The cold weather has been an issue, and Oregon to Dixon is “just too much real estate to cover with a boat.”

Swift was found when a power plant worker spotted his body in the water and called authorities. Dixon is 16 miles from Oregon.

“Obviously with the amount of current, we knew that could be a possibility,” VanVickle said. 

The Lee County Sheriff’s Office will handle the official duties if a recovery is made in its jurisdiction, although it will not be conducting any searches itself. 

Wileman plans to continue searching until it gets too cold. He and others are making maps and plan to look closer to the Oregon dam.

Assisting in last week’s search was the Ottawa River Rescue Squad, which operates off donations and might come back if it has enough funding and volunteers.

“I had someone on Facebook reach out to me about Ottawa,” Wileman said. “I called everybody and asked for help. They came out and it was great. They were able to get into shallow waters. But we didn’t have a point of interest.”

Some members had sonar equipment, but it was hard to get a clear image, Wileman said.

Tampico-based Rapid Response Search and Rescue Unit 19, which has top-level sonar equipment and helped earlier in the search, also may come back if it can find volunteers, Wileman said.

Without good sonar, Wileman and his team were forced to focus their search on shallower waters, like those near Grand Detour. Those areas seemed promising to Wileman after the river receded. 

“I wanted to know he wasn’t visible and sitting there,” Wileman said. “I wanted to let the family know that we did what we could.”

To help

A benefit dart tournament for the families of Kent Dearborn Jr. and James Swift will be held March 7 at the Polo Room, 712 N. Division Ave. in Polo. The buy-in is $15, and there will be a 50-50 raffle and a silent auction. Donations will be accepted.

To help with the search effort, donations can be made payable to the Ottawa River Rescue and sent to P.O. Box 234; Ottawa, IL 61350.

Others who want to help, especially those who own a boat, are asked to contact Matt Wileman on his Facebook page. 

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