Community honors deputy who died 30 years ago today in helicopte - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Community honors deputy who died 30 years ago today in helicopter crash during Barneveld tornado

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SAUK COUNTY (WKOW)-- People often say that time heals all wounds, but for friends and family members of Sauk County deputy Sgt. Stuart Searles, his death is still something they think about 30 years later. The wounds from his tragic accident are still felt by many who knew him as a father, friend and loyal community servant.

Thirty years ago Tuesday, Sgt. Searles died while responding to the F-5 tornado that devastated the village of Barneveld. He had recently dropped of then governor Anthony Earl in Barneveld so he could assess the damage after the storm. Searles was on his way to Merrimac to pick up the sheriff when his helicopter caught fire.

Friends say a mechanical malfunction caused the fire and Searles worked frantically to put out the flames. He decided to crash the helicopter into the Wisconsin River to avoid hurting any nearby civilians. His helicopter never made it that far and crashed in a field near Merrimac.

"He was such a great guy and was loved by many in this department," Sauk County Lt. Terry Spencer says. "We were good friends and our families enjoyed each other. We spent a lot of time together."

Almost the entire sheriff's department was playing in a law enforcement softball tournament when they heard the news of his crash. They say it was one of the darkest times in the department's history.

"You can never really heal from it. We never forgot about it. We just went on, because we knew that's what Stuart wanted us to do," Spencer says.

Thirty years after the crash, friends and family members decided to hold an open house celebration in his honor. Searles' widow and two children drove all the way from Arizona to be at the event in Baraboo.

"The way I've always described my pain is I put my pain in a box, put a lid on it, take that box and put it on the top shelf in the closet. Every once in a while that box falls on the floor. It opens up and all comes out. I just cry, and it's there. The pain is still there," Searles' widow Rosann Searles-Murphy says.

Searles' daughter remembers riding her bicycle when she was 12-years-old and seeing deputies walk up to her house. Moments later she got the terrible news that her father had died.

"To see the deputies that worked with my dad, to see the faces I have not seen in 28 or 30 years, it's amazing," daughter Connie Searles says.

Searles' daughter Connie has since pursued a career in law enforcement, following in his footsteps. She works in Arizona and recently rode in a 250 mile memorial bike ride in Washington D.C. in honor of her father. She was one of a few hundred bikers who raised nearly $130,000 for children of fallen officers. It's an emotional situation that this family understands all too well.

"I've always found comfort in knowing that last five years were the best five years of his life," Searles-Murphy says. "He was doing what he truly loved and truly enjoyed and that's what we hang on to."

  

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SAUK COUNTY (WKOW)-- People often say that time heals all wounds, but for friends and family members of Sauk County deputy Sgt. Stuart Searles, his death is still something they think about 30 years later. The wounds from his tragic accident are still felt by many who knew him as a father, friend and loyal community servant.

Sgt. Searles died on June 10th 1984 while responding to the F-5 tornado that hit the village of Barnaveld on June 8th. He had recently dropped off the governor in Barneveld so he could see the aftermath of the devastating tornado. Moments later Searles' got back into his helicopter and headed for Merrimac to pick up the county sheriff.

The two men had plans to fly over and assess the damage, but the helicopter experienced mechanical problems before Searles could reach his destination. Friends say Searles' helicopter started on fire and forced him down into a nearby field. Searles later died from his injuries.

Today his family and friends have organized an open house to honor his memory. Many deputies with the Sauk County Sheriff's office still remember working with Searles' those 30 years ago. They're inviting anyone from the community to come to the Sauk County Law Enforcement Center from 1-4 p.m.

Tonight on 27 News at 5:00 and 6:00 p.m. we'll hear from family members and friends who paid tribute to a valued deputy and friend who died helping the community he loved.
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