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Attempt to pull stolen pickup from Missouri River falls short

FNS Photo by Mike Nowatzki Divers and towing crews work to retrieve a submerged pickup from the Missouri River on Thursday in Bismarck.

BISMARCK — Divers and a towing crew tried unsuccessfully Thursday to retrieve a stolen pickup that broke through the ice on the Missouri River here in January.

The pickup has been submerged in the river since Jan. 26. A 15-year-old girl told police she was driving on River Road near the Interstate 94 bridge that night when she noticed truck lights on the ice and then saw a pickup go into the water.

The girl said she saw a car speeding away from the scene and didn’t see anyone inside the pickup. Sgt. Mark Buschena said Thursday that police presume that whoever stole the pickup put it in gear and sent it out onto the ice before fleeing.

An orange toolbox that had been attached to the pickup was seen three days later frozen in the river. Tools retrieved from the box and a license plate found found out on the river the next day led police to identify the vehicle as a red 1998 Chevy S-10 pickup reported stolen from a 55-year-old Bismarck woman.

Authorities decided to wait until river and weather conditions improved to try to retrieve the pickup.

On Thursday, the Burleigh County Sheriff’s Department’s Dive Rescue and Recovery Team located the pickup underwater and hooked it up to cables from two tow trucks, but one of the cables snapped on something sharp during the first attempt to pull it from the water, said Maj. Kelly Leben, the dive team’s commander.

Plans to make a second attempt using a heavier strap and different anchor point were scrapped because the river current was too strong to get the equipment down to the diver, Leben said.

“There’s too much drag from the river,” he said, noting divers also had basically no visibility.

The pickup is lying on its passenger side and mostly covered in sand on the river bottom, Leben said. Divers hadn’t been inside the pickup to see if anyone was inside, but officials don’t believe anyone is, he said.

The dive team will confer with Bismarck police next week about how to proceed, Leben said. He added that while evidence recovery “is a vital part of our job,” they may have to hire a private salvage company to retrieve the pickup.

The pickup’s owner was paying for the towing service, while the nine-member dive team was acting on behalf of the police department, he said.

Authorities controlled traffic on River Road, and several boaters were turned away as the retrieval effort tied up a popular public boat launch for most of the day.

No arrests have been made in the stolen vehicle case, and it remains under investigation, Buschena said. 

Mike Nowatzki
Mike Nowatzki reports for Forum News Service. He can be reached at (701) 255-5607.