Judicial Conference honors judge, trooper for heroism during near-fatal summer fishing trip on glacial lake

14 April 2006

Judicial Conference honors judge, trooper for heroism during near-fatal summer fishing trip on glacial lake

LEBANON, Mo. – What was meant to be a relaxing few days of fishing near the Arctic Circle last July nearly turned tragic for a Missouri judge and highway patrolman – and their wilderness guide. But luckily, this "heckuva fishin' story," as one local lawyer and municipal judge described it, ended well.

Judge Greg Kays, acting presiding judge of the 26th Judicial Circuit (Camden, Laclede, Miller, Moniteau and Morgan counties), and Missouri Highway Patrol Trooper Jason Riggs were honored Wednesday afternoon, April 12, 2006, for their heroism with "selfless service" awards presented by Missouri Chief Justice Michael A. Wolff on behalf of the Judicial Conference of Missouri, the organization of the state's judges.

Wolff told the audience that the award to Kays is an innovation in the Judicial branch.

"We have awards for our people who do excellent work in their jobs, but we think it is appropriate as well to recognize members for the extraordinary persons they are,” Wolff said. He added that the award to Riggs was suggested by trial judges on the Judicial Conference executive council as a way of recognizing and appreciating the good people in law enforcement who serve the citizens and courts of this state.

In welcoming nearly 150 guests to the ceremony, held in Courtroom A of the Laclede County Justice Center, Lebanon Municipal Judge Mark Rector asked them to listen to the story that would unfold and ask themselves whether, in the same circumstances, they would be able to make a "quick, well-reasoned decision … [that] may adversely affect someone or an entire family for a lifetime" and, if they believed they could make that decision, whether they would have "the fortitude and courage to see it through to the end, regardless of the consequences" to them.

Overcoming visible emotion that foretold the gravity of the situation they faced last summer, Riggs described the story. He said he and Kays, accompanied by a relatively new wilderness guide, went out to catch some fish on the Great Slave Lake – the world's 10th largest lake – located in a desolate area of the Northwest Territories of Canada. Although it was late July, the weather was cold enough to require them to wear four layers of clothing, coats and boots. All fishing parties were expected to check back in by 5 p.m. If someone did not check back in, then a search party would be launched

Riggs said they decided to take a break and find a nice spot on the shore for an early lunch. While they were preparing to build a fire, the guide noticed that their boat was drifting away from its moorings. He took off his coat and entered the 41-degree water to retrieve the boat. But the more he swam toward the boat, the more the boat drifted out of his reach. When he got about 40 yards from the shoreline, Riggs said the guide turned onto his back and cried for help.

"I've heard people scream for help – people who thought they were dying or who knew they were dying," Riggs said of his experience as a patrolman. "But this was the worst I've heard. I've never heard any scream like that."

Riggs said that, without a word between them, both he and Kays began took off their clothes and boots and swam out after Jonathon, their guide. He said that, about 20 yards out, his body started shaking from the cold. But he said when he looked at Kays, he knew he could keep going.

"I looked over at Greg, and he still swimming, staring straight ahead, focused on Jonathon," Riggs said.

Riggs said that when they reached Jonathon, they looked back, and the "shore looked like it was a mile away." He said they wondered whether they could swim back themselves, let alone pulling Jonathon's dead weight.

But they did. Riggs said it took a while to find their footing, as the lake was carved by a glacier and drops off "200 feet or 2,000 feet." Once back on shore, Riggs said Kays got the guide out of his wet clothes, and they put their dry clothes on him.

"We figured he'd been in the water longer than we had," Riggs explained.

Within a few hours, fishers in another boat came across their boat, still drifting in the lake. They saw the three men stranded on the shore and came to help. Not long after, more boats came.

"It turned out that the shore Jonathon had picked for our lunch is the third-most popular place to have lunch on the entire lake," Riggs said.

Back on dry land, all three men counted their blessings. Riggs said the guide later sent them a letter thanking them for saving his life, even though he was a total stranger.

In accepting his award, Kays emphasized that he could not have saved the guide's life alone – that it only was possible with the help of Riggs and of "our Heavenly Father, who answered our prayers."

Kays said he was "humbled" by the recognition.

"This day became even more special with the presence of Chief Justice Wolff of the Supreme Court, Chief Judge Jeffrey Bates and Judge Gary Lynch of the Southern District Court of Appeals, as well as my colleagues from the 26th Circuit," he said. "Being around these judges reminds me of how thankful I am to be part of the special group of men and women who serve in our state Judiciary. I was also thankful for the presence of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, clerks, lawyers, family and friends. Together, they made this day one of great meaning to me and my family."

Wolff then called Riggs back up, telling him that when the executive council of the Judicial Conference heard the story, its members wanted to give Riggs a "selfless service" award as well.

That seemed to have been a common sentiment among many who have heard the story. Captain Randy Becker of Missouri Highway Patrol Troop I in Rolla, Mo., presented Kays with an honorary trooper certificate, the highest award the patrol can bestow upon a non-member. He said the patrol would give Riggs its medal of valor, the highest award for a patrol member, at a ceremony later this month.

In addition, Lebanon Mayor Bud Allen and his brother, Sam Allen, the city's community services director, presented to Kays and Riggs a resolution proposed by Sen. Chuck Purgason, R-Caulfield, and adopted by the full Missouri Senate on April 3. Senate Resolution No. 2557, signed by Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, recognizes Kays and Riggs for bringing "glory and honor to themselves and to this great state through the excellence of their achievements in life during times of extreme emotional stress and physical danger" and their "heroic acts so selflessly performed … in saving the life of a young Canadian guide during a fishing trip."

When asked after the ceremony whether he planned to go fishing again this year, Kays said, "Yes. In Utah."