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‘He’s still out there.’ Family of missing Lake Elmo hunter hopes for answers

Searchers spent the week of Nov. 5, 2018, searching for missing Lake Elmo hunter Lee Peltier who went missing last month in the Nemadji State Forest along the Gandy Dancer Trail while hunting with three friends. Courtesy of Katie Nelson1 / 2
Lake Elmo resident Lee Peltier went missing while on a hunting trip in the Nemadji State Forest along the Gandy Dancer Trail. Friends called police on Nov. 4, 2018, to report that he hadn't returned to their cabin the previous evening. Courtesy of Katie Nelson2 / 2

PINE COUNTY, Minn. — Lee Peltier wasn’t dressed for nasty weather last month when he went deer hunting east of Hinckley, Minn.

Wearing camouflage pants, a red sweatshirt, a blaze-orange vest and an orange stocking hat, Peltier planned to be in the Nemadji State Forest for just a short time on Saturday, Nov. 3. It was shortly before lunchtime when he and three friends went out to hunt. Peltier and John Warner, one of the owners of the cabin where they were staying, headed toward a nearby pond.

“They separated on purpose,” said Peltier’s daughter Megan DeCorsey of Stillwater. “My dad was going to walk along the edge of the pond; John was going to walk up higher on the bluff. If there were any deer drinking in the pond, my dad would flush the deer out, and they would run toward John, and he would shoot the deer. That was the plan.”

Hundreds of people gathered to search the area after Peltier’s friends reported him missing the next day. No trace has been found.

“It’s just like this big feeling of emptiness,” said daughter Katie Nelson, also of Stillwater. “We have no idea what happened. We have no idea where he ended up. Every time we walked out of that forest, I just felt like we were leaving him behind. It was awful. It’s really important that we recover him because he’s just out there. He’s still out there.”

Peltier, 59, is an experienced outdoorsman. He loves to hunt ducks and deer. He often went hunting on the 100-acre family farm where he lived in Lake Elmo.

When Peltier didn’t show up for lunch that Saturday, his friends assumed he had spotted a deer and was trailing it, DeCorsey said. “They didn’t think much of it until it had been a couple of hours. Then it was dusk, and then dark, and then they really started to worry.”

There is no cellphone service in the area, so the men stood outside, built a huge bonfire and listened for gunshots.

“If a hunter is in distress, they’ll shoot three shots into the air,” DeCorsey said. “They were waiting to hear anything like that, which they did not. They stayed up all night waiting for him.”

The weather didn’t help. Rain turned into snow, and the temperature dropped to 21 degrees.

The men went out to search the next morning, then headed toward town — about a half-hour drive away — to call 911. The call came in at 11:24 a.m.

Five officers from the Pine County sheriff’s office and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources arrived and searched on foot and by ATV until dark.

The next morning, friends and family members from the metro area came to help search the Nemadji forest, which encompasses nearly 93,000 acres in Pine and Carlton counties.

Son David Peltier, who lives in Woodbury, said the wet and treacherous terrain — bogs, trees, swamps — made the search extremely difficult.

“You have to see it to believe it,” he said. “It’s just one giant bog. There’s some high ground in there, but not very much. It’s so thick. It’s so easy to get turned around. We had a group of 12 of us in a search party, and we thought we were walking west and then we stopped and looked at the compass, and we were going southeast.”

He believes his father — who had visited the cabin the previous winter — got so wet and cold that he became hypothermic.

“They typically find lost people within a half-mile of their last known location, but I think he’s a lot further away than they think,” David Peltier said. “He was physically fit, and I think he covered a lot of ground.”

Lee Peltier, who owns a sign and crane company, didn’t have a backpack or water “or even a lighter,” DeCorsey said. “He may have fallen into the pond, or he could have just gotten turned around.”

Cellphone records from AT&T show Peltier made three phone calls at 1:40 p.m. Nov. 3 to his three fellow hunters, but his phone didn’t die until 5:30 a.m. the next day, she said.

“If he had gone into the water on Saturday, his phone would have died well before then because the phone would have been damaged,” she said. “It’s so hard and confusing because you think one thing makes sense, and then it doesn’t.”

The Pine County sheriff’s office headed a multi-agency search that included more than 100 volunteers. On the morning of Nov. 9, Sheriff Jeff Nelson announced that his office was halting the search, but said they would continue to follow up on any new leads.

The terrain of the area makes it difficult to search. “We’ve got bogs, open water, marshland, scrub brush,” he said. “It’s been logged in some areas, so the regrowth is thick. It’s tough walking. I can’t say enough about the volunteers who are walking in it.”

In September 2017, a 61-year-old hunter from Lakeville, Robert Kniefel, spent three nights lost in Nemadji, drinking bog water to stay hydrated, before being rescued by helicopter.

“To have seen no trace of him whatsoever, to have no sign of him, is so bizarre,” DeCorsey said. “He’s been hunting all his life. He grew up on a farm. He loved the outdoors. He would have known to fire his gun. If he were going to take cover, if he found a cave or something, he would have put a clue outside, left some sign.”

DeCorsey said her heart is especially heavy as Christmas approaches.

“The holidays just bring more sadness,” she said. “We don’t have the option to get together.”

Peltier has nine grandchildren, 6 months to 11 years old, she said.

“They know he’s missing, and that he was lost hunting, but they don’t know the severity of it,” said DeCorsey, a mother of three. “We haven’t mentioned that we think he’s dead. They know that we’re looking for him.”

Sheriff Nelson said his heart goes out to Peltier’s family and friends.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like not to know,” he said.

Said Katie Nelson: “We know he’s there; we just can’t find him. He’s just there by himself. Nobody would ever want that for somebody they love.”