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No clues so far on missing Fargo woman; search will continue today

Members of Valley Water Rescue and the Fargo Fire Department use cameras attached to poles as they search holes cut in the ice near the downtown dam on the Red River on Thursday morning as they search for Laura Williams-Jaffe, who has been missing since last week. Dave Wallis / The Forum

Water rescue experts will resume searching the Red River today to determine if a missing Fargo woman drowned in the waters.

About 18 to 20 members of Valley Water Rescue suited up in bright red cold weather survival gear and searched for 56-year-old Laura Williams-Jaffe from 8 a.m. until about 5 p.m. Thursday.

Fargo Police Lt. Pat Claus said the river is the strongest lead so far in the case. A bloodhound tracked Williams-Jaffe's scent to the river, and shoe or boot prints roughly matching her footwear were found near open water at the midtown dam.

The group drilled hundreds of holes into the ice, too many for the team members to keep a count.

Five crews dipped video cameras on long poles into the river to examine the area around each hole.

Divers will only enter the water if a body is found.

The bloodhound, named Barnaby, went on the ice several times to see if he could catch any scent carried by the water moving swiftly underneath the ice.

Handler Earle "Bud" Myers gave Barnaby the woman's pajamas to track her scent, but the dog showed no interest in any of the holes.

"We didn't expect him to, but it was worth a try," Myers said.

Pete Fendt, president of Valley Water Rescue, said members pulled some objects out of the river, but nothing relevant to the search.

The items included a toy gun and clothing that appeared to be from a dummy that the team used for training, Fendt said.

Conditions for the ice operation were tricky, he said.

"The first day we were down here we thought we were standing on shore and it turned out we were right on the edge and one of the guys broke through and got his feet wet," Fendt said.

"These are probably going to be some of the worst ice operation conditions that we've had since we've started," Fendt said.

The temperature was about 8 degrees in the morning and warmed up to about 30 by midafternoon.

Family members of Williams-Jaffe watched the crews work from a tent on the shore.

Mike Williams, a brother of Williams-Jaffe and spokesman for the Williams family, thanked everyone for their help.

"It's just really gratifying to have so much support in the community for all of this," Williams said, adding that if his sister has been reading or hearing of the search, "we want to let her to know we're all here to help her and to just get her meds."

Fendt said his group is concentrating on high-probability areas: where the tracks were found heading toward the open water and the dam, and the areas west and north of the open water that it appeared the Red's current would take a body.

Initially, the searchers, wearing "float coats" and tethered to team members on shore, made their way onto the ice to check the depth of the ice and to gauge the speed of the river.

One duo, working closely near the dam's rapids, used what looked like a bleach bottle to determine how a body might act in the river. Throwing it in the water, they watched the bottle to determine whether it was downstream or perhaps diverted by eddies toward the shore or to remain near the dam.

A plus for the searchers is that visibility in the normally muddy Red River was 3 to 4 feet, Fendt said. In the spring and summer, sediments can make visibility less than a foot, he said.

Fendt said the ice in some spots was more than 5 feet thick, and the crew had to call for extensions for their ice augers.

The depth of the river mostly varied between 9 and 15 feet, he said, but some areas were as deep as 27 feet.

Family members said Williams-Jaffe is a vulnerable adult who needs medications for anxiety and pain from a broken back suffered in an automobile crash in October.

She is 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighs 100 pounds, and has long, straight, light brown hair, family members said. She walks slowly and deliberately, and is weak and has poor balance due to her injuries, they said.

Williams, said he and his siblings have also searched the neighborhood and along the river. He encouraged Island Park residents to continue to search their properties and outbuildings for signs of Williams-Jaffe.

Anyone with information is asked to call police at (701) 235-4493.

Members of the Cass and Clay sheriff's departments, and the Fargo fire and police departments were also on the scene, along with the Salvation Army.