PANGUITCH — Searchers have retrieved the bodies of an LDS Church bishop and his two young children from a plane crash in southern Utah, leaving family and ward members in Sandy mourning the tragedy and investigators searching for answers.
The wrecked, single-engine craft piloted by Randall "Randy" Wells, missing since late Saturday, was spotted just after 11 a.m. by searchers flying over the rugged terrain near Panguitch, Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower reported. The helicopter landed nearby and searchers soon confirmed that Wells had perished in the crash, along with his children, 8-year-old Asher and 3-year-old Sara.
Wells was the bishop of the Mount Jordan 3rd Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The father and children were returning from a wedding in Phoenix and were due home about 10 p.m. Saturday, according to relatives and friends. Wells' wife, Kristin, is pregnant with the couple's third child and did not make the trip, they said.
The plane disappeared roughly 17 miles northwest of Panguitch near Sandy Peak and Little Creek Peak, according to police. Searchers from six counties had been looking for the plane since Sunday.
Investigators believe Wells may have been flying low in treacherous conditions, crashing quickly and severely, Gower said. They are still working to determine exactly what caused the plane to go down.
"The conditions the pilot was experiencing — dark, no moon that night, some squalls moving through the area," Gower said. "He got in up there and realized that his elevation was too low and he was trying to bank back around to come back out the way he came in. The terrain was just a little, he didn't have the elevation he needed to come back out."
Spencer Wright, Wells' second counselor in the LDS bishopric, traveled with about two dozen ward members to Panguitch early Monday to assist in the search. The congregation's focus will now shift to caring for Kristin Wells and others who are mourning, he said.
"They need that support. That's our job is to help. It's impossible to fill a Randy-sized hole in our lives, but you know we're going to do the best we can," Wright said.
Wright described Randy Wells as a selfless friend who always put others first.
Back in the Wells' neighborhood in Sandy, grieving members of the LDS ward met Monday night to support one another. Among them was Lori Scow, who grew up in the ward and returned just over a year ago, welcomed by Bishop Wells.
"We're going to get together and just talk and be together as a ward and support each other," Scow said. "(Wells) just kept us together as a unit. He was always there to support us, he was always there with advice. With being such a young bishop, he just always relied on experiences from his childhood and he was just the neatest man you'd ever want to meet."
Scow's daughter, Heather Caldwell, also attended the ward with her parents. When she married last summer, her mother asked Wells to perform the ceremony.
"It was the first time he'd ever conducted a wedding, so that was really special for both him and us," Scow said.
Caldwell described Wells as kind and empathetic, often turning to his own personal experiences to offer counsel. Before her wedding ceremony, Wells came into the room where she was getting ready to ask how she was doing. In response to her jitters, Wells offered her advice from his own marriage, Caldwell recalled.
"I laughed, started laughing nervously and he just laughed with me. He was just so sweet and so sincere," Caldwell said, describing the tip Wells gave to always communicate her feelings to her soon-to-be husband.
Caldwell said Wells was a common fixture in the neighborhood, riding his ATV around during the winter to check on members and help clear snow from driveways, or dropping by in his pickup truck in the summer to offer fresh vegetables.
The family was beloved in the ward, Caldwell said, where Asher would rush to embrace her mother, who taught in the Primary. His little sister Sara was sometimes shy, but revelled in singing time, Caldwell said.
Scow described Wells as an experienced pilot who talked often of his love for flying.
"In my wildest dreams, I never, ever, ever thought that this would be the outcome," Scow said.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to help with funeral costs.
Contributing: Nicole Vowell, Ladd Egan