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Las Vegas cab driver Keith Goldbergâ??s remains were found in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada. / National Park Service

RENO -- Las Vegas cab driver Keith Goldberg's siblings say they knew almost immediately that something terrible had happened to their brother when he went missing in January 2012.

Goldberg's brother Jeffrey was flying into Las Vegas to watch the Super Bowl with Keith. When Keith stopped returning his brother's calls, and his ex-girlfriend called him in sick to work, Jeffrey Goldberg went to the police. Eleven weeks later, police arrested Keith Goldberg's former girlfriend, Georgene Ross, and her estranged husband, Christopher Ross, on charges of murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

The two have pleaded not guilty to both charges. Their trial is scheduled for January 2015. Police said they believe the couple killed Goldberg during a fight in his Henderson, Nev., apartment on Jan. 31, 2012.

Police had enough evidence to make an arrest, but they didn't have Keith Goldberg's body. Keith's family wanted the closure of finding his remains, and so the 54-year-old cab driver's family began what became a year-long odyssey to find them.

Because Goldberg's assailants had left him within the boundaries of a national park property - Lake Mead National Recreation Area - getting permission to search became an issue. That was just the start of the bureaucratic tangle.

"The police, once they've made the arrest, they're not in the business of recovery," said Keith Goldberg's sister Jodi Goldberg, a vice president of a national accounting association in Alexandria, Va. "They had made their case. They did their job. So it's not like the movies or TV. Once an arrest is made, they're not going to spend time on a recovery."

Unable to convince the police department to continue the search of the vast Southern Nevada desert, the Goldbergs reached out to the newly formed Red Rock Search and Rescue Group. The all-volunteer force was trained, maintained strong ties with local law enforcement agencies, and became dedicated to finding Keith Goldberg's body.

"Early on, we wanted to search Lake Mead," said Vice Commander Dana Richardson, noting that police had some cell tower evidence that the suspects were in the vicinity at the time of Goldberg's disappearance.

But the group couldn't just walk into the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and begin a search. A special use permit was needed. The group applied for the permit on May 16, 2012. Six days later, the park service told them they would need a $1 million liability insurance policy - the cost of which the fledgling volunteer organization couldn't afford.

It took 10 months and a fundraiser organized by the Goldberg family for the group to obtain the insurance. The permit was granted April 12, 2013. Within three hours of beginning the search on April 14, volunteers found Goldberg's partial remains.

"I never would've guessed in a million years that searching for remains on public land would be an issue," Jodi Goldberg said. "The thought never would've occurred to me. Having gone through it, it's just horrible. I don't want anyone else to go through it."

About the same time, another volunteer operation was trying to obtain access to Lake Mead to search for the body of a drowned Air Force sergeant. Antonio Tucker had drowned in the lake on June 23, 2012. An intensive but fruitless search organized by the park service was called off. Steve Schaffer of Las Vegas-based Earth Resource Group wanted to help, offering to search the lake with a high-tech side-scan sonar and team of diving experts. It took him six months to obtain a permit and another four months to organize the search. They found Tucker's body within two days of launching the search on April 16. "It was just a real red tape issue to get out there and help," Schaffer said.

Christie Vanover, public affairs officer at Lake Mead, said it was never the park service's intent to delay the searches. "Liability insurance is required to protect the individuals involved in case there is an incident, as well as to protect the (natural) resources," Vanover said. "With a large amount of people combing through the desert, there could be damage."

The two incidents prompted U.S. Rep. Joe Heck to author the Good Samaritan Search and Recovery Act, which would allow qualified and trained search and rescue groups expedited access to park service land if they sign a liability waiver. The bill passed the House in January and is now pending in the U.S. Senate.

The delay in access doesn't seem to be a widespread problem within the park service. Neither Heck's office, nor search and rescue volunteers with national experience said they've encountered permitting requirements or bureaucratic impediments at other parks.

"When I was first contacted by the congressman's office, it was the very first time I had ever heard of anything like that," said Howard Paul, public affairs manager for the National Association for Search and Rescue.

Heck's spokesman Greg Lemon said his office had a difficult time ascertaining why the liability insurance was required in the first place. Lemon said Lake Mead's personnel was saying it was a national policy, but the national office was saying it was local discretion.

"We were getting conflicting stories from all the parties involved, so at that point we decided, let's go ahead and do this bill and get this straight for everybody," Lemon said.

Mike Litterst, a Washington D.C.-based spokesman for the park service, said there is no national policy that "spells out specifically how parks are to undertake search and recovery."

Outside groups who use the parks as a location for an event - a picnic, a fireworks show, a commemoration event or a search - generally need to get liability insurance to protect the government from liability, Litterst added The trigger for the insurance is the need for a special use permit.

Individual park visitors injured during a visit due to park negligence can file administrative tort claims, which is essentially the way around the federal government's sovereign immunity, according to Litterst. The claim is ruled on by the U.S. Solicitor's Office and can be appealed in federal court.

In the Goldberg case, searchers had to access steep and rocky terrain, Lake Mead's Vanover said, necessitating the $1 million in insurance.

The park service isn't supportive of Heck's bill, although park officials have expressed willingness to work with Heck to resolve his concerns, associate director Cam Sholly said in testimony before a House committee.

"My hopes are that my brother's legacy will help other people in this type of situation," Jeffrey Goldberg said.

The Goldbergs were finally able to take custody of their brother's remains in February. The court case against the suspects in his death is still pending. The family is planning a memorial in the spring.

Damon also reports for the Reno Gazette-Journal



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

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