Nevada Governor to Ask Fossett Widow for Search Money

By: Auburn Hutton Email
By: Auburn Hutton Email

Governor Jim Gibbons is about to make an unusual request. Nearly three months after famed aviator and millionaire Steve Fossett was declared legally dead, the Governor says he'll be asking Fossett's family to pay the cost of the unsuccessful search efforts.

Fossett went missing on September 3rd of last year, after taking off in a small plane from the "Flying M Ranch," near Yerington.

After 17 days and no sign of Fossett or his plane, the search efforts were called off. But the search turned out to be very expensive.

In total, the it cost the state $687,000. A few months back, Barron Hilton, who owns the "Flying M Ranch," donated $200,000 toward the outstanding cost. That leaves the state with a $487,000 bill, at a time when Nevada is already facing a $900 million dollar budget shortfall.

The search for Steve Fossett lasted nearly a month. Local, state, and federal agencies got involved, along with hundreds of private pilot volunteers, all of them desperately hoping to find the world famous aviator.

Cynthia Ryan of the Civil Air Patrol was involved with the search from the very beginning.

"It got really huge, really fast, and I think that was the thing that surprised us the most was how much worldwide media attention was given to that search, almost from the get go," said Ryan.

To many, Steve Fossett was a hero...and the whole world was watching the search. When it was called off after 17 days, the state was left with a bill of nearly 700-thousand dollars. Given the current fiscal situation, Governor Jim Gibbons has decided to ask Steve Fossett's wife, Peggy, to reimburse the state for her husband's search. The governor's press secretary, Ben Kieckhefer, says the request for money is voluntary.

"It's a difficult situation because obviously the governor feels empathy toward the widow and the family, but it's obligation to the people of the state to protect them and make sure the state has the resources to protect its ongoing needs," said Kieckhefer.

Kieckhefer says the request is extremely rare. Usually, search efforts are funded by taxpayers, but usually, missing people aren't millionaires.

"We wouldn't go to someone asking them to expend money we didn't think they could expend. This is a unique situation," said Kieckhefer.

Kieckhefer says it was unique because most searches aren't nearly as expensive, either. Fuel, overtime, and extra resources to support journalists and reporters added thousands of dollars to the total search cost.

Ryan says it was a rare situation, but with familiar circumstances. She says dozens of searches in her career have lasted just as long as the search for Fossett, only then, the world wasn't watching.

"In our eyes, he was just any guy. People thought that just because of who he was, that we were prosecuting this search differently and that's simply not true. We executed this search exactly as we would have for any citizen," said Ryan.

Kieckhefer says Peggy Fossett has every right to decline the request to pay for her husband's search, although he says the governor hopes she'll voluntarily contribute the money.

If she decides not to do that, the burden will fall back on the state. Kieckhefer says there are emergency funds they can dip into if need be, but it will take some fiscal juggling to accomplish that.


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