Indiana conservation officers endured long hours underground in hazardous conditions this week to return the body of missing caver Kevin Eve to his family, marking the end of a four-month search effort.
Crawford County Coroner Chris Brown announced Tuesday that Eve, 25, Georgetown, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound while he was in Breathing Hole Cave in Harrison-Crawford State Forest.
“Obviously our concern is with the family,” Lt. Phil Schuetter of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division said. “Our officers put a tremendous amount of time and effort into helping out a fellow human being and trying to provide closure to his family.”
Eve, an avid caver, had been missing since Oct. 1.
Four college-age cavers from Terre Haute discovered Eve’s body Sunday morning about one-third mile into Breathing Hole Cave.
Breathing Hole and all other caves on state property have been closed to the public since 2009 out of concern that humans might be contributing to the spread of white-nose syndrome in bat populations. The cavers hesitated to notify authorities until that afternoon, when they returned to Terre Haute, Schuetter said.
Because of the complexity of the cave and the treacherous underground terrain, Eve’s body did not reach the surface until around 6:18 p.m. Monday, almost 24 hours after the DNR Cave Rescue Team arrived on scene.
“We had some officers underground for 18 of those hours,” Schuetter said.
The Cave Rescue Team, a task force of eight conservation officers, conducted an underground death investigation Sunday evening into early Monday morning, collecting evidence inside the cave and taking photographs.
The officers surfaced to rest for a few hours and then returned Monday afternoon with members of the DNR Division of Forestry, the Leavenworth Volunteer Fire Department, Crawford County Emergency Management, American Red Cross, and volunteers from the National Cave Rescue Commission to recover the body.
Recovering Eve’s body required negotiating 154 feet of staggered climbs near the cave’s exit. Groups of six to eight people at a time relayed Eve’s body up and over wet and muddy obstacles before handing the body off to another group of people, continuing the process until they finally surfaced.
“The cooperation between everybody involved was phenomenal,” Schuetter said.
Eve’s body was found about a half-mile from where he left his car along a county road.
After his disappearance, conservation officers organized a search effort that canvassed around 25 square miles of some of the most rugged hills in Indiana and examined 85 caves.
The search involved more than 200 people, including members of the Indiana DNR Forestry Division, the Indiana State Police, the Crawford County Sheriff’s Office, and volunteers from the caving community from as far away as Iowa, according to Cave Rescue Team leader and conservation officer Jim Hash.
Breathing Hole Cave is one of about 350 caves in Harrison-Crawford State Forest. It had been searched twice before, but Eve’s body was found in a relatively unknown passage that is not even listed on some cave maps.
Indiana is home to around 3,100 caves.
Indiana DNR has had a Cave Rescue Team since the mid-1990s. Before that, underground search and rescue efforts were coordinated by volunteers. The Cave Rescue Team is usually called upon about twice a year, though incidents have been reduced since caves on state property closed to the public in 2009.
Conservation officers have not determined whether to pursue misdemeanor charges against the Terre Haute cavers for violating the cave closure.
“We want to protect our bats,” Schuetter said. “Our caves are closed.”
Hash said he hoped the recovery of Eve’s body helps his family heal.
“If we search for someone, we want to find him,” he said. “We don’t want to have an open case sitting on our shelf.”