09/26/04 — Missing student's body found

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Missing student's body found

By Bonnie Edwards
Published in News on September 26, 2004 2:06 AM

SYLVA -- The search for a former Wayne County resident missing in the mountains of North Carolina has ended. His drowned body was found Friday near a lake where he had been hiking.

Aaron Joel Esteppe, 19, a graduate of Rosewood High School, had been missing since Sept. 9 from a hiking trip.

The body of his hiking companion, Misty Dawn France, 19, of Jacksonville had been discovered by a waterfall a few days after the pair were reported missing. They became missing during a storm caused by the remnants of Hurricane Frances. Ms. France and Esteppe were students at Western Carolina University.

A lengthy search had continued for Esteppe. The rescue effort had been pared back over the last week due to flooding from Hurricane Ivan. Esteppe's family were told that the operation had moved from being a rescue effort to a recovery one.

Jackson County Sheriff Jimmy Ashe said the body was found Friday near Bear Creek Lake. "We were afraid last week that we may never find Esteppe because of the flooding that occurred in the area from Tropical Depression Ivan," Ashe told the Associated Press.

Esteppe's parents, Jeff and Claresa Esteppe, recently moved from Wayne County to Lenoir City, Tenn. Esteppe's sister, Erin, died two years ago at age 18. She was also a Rosewood High School graduate.

Mrs. Esteppe said Saturday by phone with the News-Argus that the family was relieved that the body was found.

"We're relieved but sad," she said. "We already knew he was gone."

The Jackson County Sheriff's Office found the body Friday afternoon in Bear Creek Lake.

Mrs. Esteppe and her husband, Jeff, lost their daughter two and a half years ago. They don't have any other children.

She said she misses the community of Goldsboro, where the family lived all of their military life, except when they were in Alaska. They were in Goldsboro 16 years.

"It's like home to us," said Mrs. Esteppe.

The family moved to a suburb of Knoxville, Tenn., to be closer to family. They were also closer to Joel when he was in college.

At one point, the Jackson County Rescue Squad reported that between 60 and 125 people were involved in the search. Divers, underwater cameras, boat crews, helicopters, drag teams and swift-water rescue teams were used.

Esteppe and Ms. France left campus Thursday, Sept. 9, at 7 p.m. to go hiking at Paradise Falls, a spillway that flows into Bear Creek Lake.

A search for them began Sept. 10, and the body of Ms. France was found Sept. 11 near the waterfall.

Esteppe, a freshman at Western Carolina University, was described by teachers at Rosewood High School as a good student, artistic, well-behaved and well-liked.

A service to celebrate his life will be held Saturday at 2 p.m. at Whitley Pentecostal Holiness Church, 188 Whitley Church Road, Princeton.