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January 16, 2011

Copter pilot found dead

Autopsy ordered on 42-year-old man discovered in cockpit

By Christin Coyne | ccoyne@mineralwellsindex.com

PARKER COUNTY – A Weatherford man was found dead in a helicopter Friday morning in a secluded area at the north end of Lake Mineral Wells State Park, about 15 hours after a search began for the missing aircraft and pilot.  

After a search of the area overnight by Mineral Wells emergency personnel and an Air Evac Lifeteam helicopter and a daylight ground search by law enforcement and Civil Air Patrol, the privately owned helicopter was found sitting on bedrock in a creek bottom around 8:20 a.m. Friday by a pilot with the Parker County Sheriff’s Office.  

“He said the [missing] pilot was slumped over in the seat,” Parker County Sheriff Larry Fowler said.  

The pilot with Parker County landed and reported the man deceased before leading investigators to the area northeast of the National Guard firing range on state park property.

The man was identified by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s office as Dempsey Stice, 42, of Clear Lake Road, in Weatherford.

Stice reportedly owned a Weatherford construction company.

There were no signs of a hard landing, damage to the aircraft or trauma to Stice’s body, according to Fowler.

The ignition key was found in the off position and there did not appear to be anything wrong with the Robinson R44 Raven II helicopter, though the FAA was notified of the incident, Fowler said.  

“What he died from we don’t know yet,” Fowler said.

No cause or manner of death was listed by the medical examiner’s office as of Friday afternoon and Fowler said he did not know how long Stice had been dead when he was found.

“Dempsey was a loving father, son and friend to many. He had a heart for the Lord, and he will be greatly missed by his family and the people that loved him,” said Stice’s mother, Orlano Randall.  

“We just ask for this family to be lifted in prayer. We will survive. We have a great love for Dempsey that will never die,” Randall said. “We pray that those who know him will remember him as a gentle, kind man with a big heart and a great burden.”

“He was also a well-respected businessman in the community,” said Sinda Letson, the mother of Stice’s fiancé, Maci Benet. “I loved Dempsey.”

Lt. Col. Rick Woolfolk, incident commander for the Civil Air Patrol, said he received a call around 5:30 p.m. Thursday about the missing helicopter from the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center.  

The Civil Air Patrol is the U.S. Air Force Auxiliary and helps with locating any missing or downed aircraft, as well as missing persons or other missions given to them by the Air Force.  

A family member of the pilot reportedly expressed concern that the helicopter had taken off around 8 a.m. Thursday about five miles south of the airport in Weatherford and had not returned by 5 p.m.

No flight plan had been filed so a forensic radar specialist looked at radar traffic in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to isolate where the helicopter had taken off and tried to track it, according to Woolfolk.  

“It was actually a little after midnight when I finally had a lead to send a ground team out to look for the overdue aircraft,” Woolfolk said.  

After receiving a call from Parker County shortly after 1:15 a.m., Mineral Wells police reportedly checked aircraft at Mineral Wells Municipal Airport for the missing helicopter.

Mineral Wells Fire & EMS and Air Evac also responded to the state park at the same time to search the area by ground and air for two hours for what was described as a “possible plane crash.”

They had been able to narrow the search area down to about a square mile, according to Woolfolk.  “Even a mile square is pretty tough to cover at night,” Woolfolk said.  

Around 3:30 a.m., they asked law enforcement to meet them, according to Woolfolk.

Fowler said the Civil Air Patrol called the sheriff’s office around 6 a.m. about a possible downed helicopter and they conducted a ground search of the area but couldn’t find the helicopter until they called a pilot to help them by air.  

Even after the daylight search by air quickly located the missing helicopter, those on the ground had a difficult time finding and getting to it due to the rough terrain. 

Weatherford Democrat reporter Sally Sexton contributed to this article. 

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