It has been over a year and a half of speculating for the family of missing Penticton man Al Chretien.
On Saturday their questions were answered. Two hunters in Elko County, Nev. found his remains about 12 kilometres from where the vehicle Albert and his wife Rita had been travelling in got stuck on a back country road.
“We had long concluded Albert was in heaven already. We know we have more insight into his last day here. We now have comfort and closure to this chapter in our lives,” said Henry Chretien, Albert’s brother.
The older brother said finding the remains will hopefully bring closure to many of the friends, family and complete strangers who volunteered their time to search for Albert.
“Our understanding is that Albert’s remains were found resting under a tree. He had placed his backpack where it could be seen and he laid down under the protection of the tree for a much-needed rest and died peacefully in his sleep,” said Henry. “After leaving the van he had walked 10 miles, climbed 2,300 feet in altitude and in adverse conditions.”
A memorial service for Albert was held in April, but the family said his remains will come home to Penticton to be buried as he wished.
Less than two weeks ago, Rita made a public appearance in Baker City, Ore. to thank all those who have helped in the search for her husband. She told the audience that after they got stuck, Albert had tried to make a 9-1-1 call from a cellphone and had gotten through.
According to the story in the Baker City Herald, the call was cutoff before he could tell the dispatcher everything first responders would need to know to get to them. The couple then tried to walk out of the area together on the second day of being stranded, but had to return to the van because of the adverse March weather conditions and Rita had injured her knee. The next day Albert decided he would go alone to seek help, leaving his wife Rita in the safety of the van to wait.
“As they parted that day, they believed that whether they saw each other in a few days or not, they would eventually see each other in heaven,” said the couple’s pastor Neil Allenbrand at a press conference held by the family on Tuesday.
Rita survived 49 days on nothing but a small spoonful of trail mix a day, hard candy, fish oil tablets, water and her Christian faith. Running out of food and energy, Rita previously said she believed she was going to die the day she was found by a group of hunters on ATVs.
The Chretien family have had closure on Albert’s death for quite some time. Rita said the discovery of his body was just “tangible evidence” of how he passed away.
On Tuesday, the quiet and demure woman — who has proven to be an inspiration to many — thanked everyone for their assistance and her loving husband for valiantly trying to find them help.
“I thought you did good Al, thank you for your effort,” said Rita of what ran through her head when she heard her husband had made it halfway to the nearest town of Mountain City before he could go no further. “I know he did it for me. I was so grateful.”
Hunters discover body
Detective Dennis Journigan of the Elko County Sheriff’s Office said the missing man’s remains were found by elk hunters Rodney Thompson and Jay Doak.
“They actually found a backpack and looked through it, and there was a logo on it and they recognized it was from British Columbia, so they put two and two together,” said Journigan. “They didn’t have cell service there so they had to come out to where they could get it to call us.”
The Chretiens were reported missing on March 19, 2011 after having not been heard from since they left Penticton for a business convention in Las Vegas. The couple followed the suggested route that they thought was taking them to their destination that evening of Jackpot, Nev. Instead, they wound up on a remote forestry service road near the Idaho and Nevada border. They had thought it was a shortcut that would lead them back to the main road, but then the sun went down and before they knew it, they were lost. The muddy, snowy terrain caused their van to slide off the road.
Three days later, 59-year-old Albert packed up a bag with some of the trail mix they were eating and the GPS and left his wife with their van, attempting to walk back to State Route 225 in search of help.
It was seven weeks later that Rita was miraculously found alive by a group of hunters. The search for her husband continued for months by authorities, search and rescue parties and volunteers.
With no trace of the man found, in April 2012 a memorial service was held at a Penticton church where more than 500 people gathered to celebrate Albert’s life.
“Al rarely missed a day without saying to me I love you,” said Rita during her tribute to her dearest friend and husband. “I have many good memories to cherish for the rest of my life. We were married 38 years. He truly was a gift of God to me. I miss him very much and I will see him again some day.”
Det. Journigan said Albert had headed in the right direction on his trek to find help, and was about halfway to the nearest town.
“It’s steep, wooded terrain and where he was found was in a grove of trees,” said Journigan, who added he did not know if an autopsy would take place.
“It looks like he died of natural causes. He tried to probably get out of a snowstorm because there was a lot of snow in that country at that time of year. It looked like he tried to find some shelter and perhaps froze, we don’t know. It was a pretty tough winter and usually that country is pretty inaccessible until the snow starts to melt and the spring comes.”
Search parties, airplanes and other efforts were previously made to scour the area where Albert’s remains were found, but Journigan estimates the body was buried underneath about 10 feet of snow.