Horsetooth Reservoir, CO – Larimer County Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Ranger Brendan Unitt died in the line of duty on Aug. 20 while responding to a report of a boater in distress.
The 27-year-old ranger had been out on foot patrol in the campground area on the reservoir’s west shore when a strong-wind event occurred, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
He went back to the shore to retrieve his boat after being dispatched to help a distressed boater near Soldier Canyon Dam at approximately 9:30 p.m., but discovered the wind had blown the vessel away from the shoreline.
Investigators said they believe Ranger Unitt removed his flotation device in order to swim to the boat, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
But Ranger Unitt never showed up to help the boater, and failed to respond to dispatchers when they radioed him.
The Larimer County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO) launched a massive search after receiving a report about the missing ranger, the Coloradoan reported.
Drones, boats, divers, and a helicopter responded to the area during the multiagency search, which included officers from the LCSO, DNR, Poudre Fire Authority, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, Colorado State Patrol, Denver Police Department, Larimer County Dive Rescue Team, and Larimer County Search and Rescue.
Investigators located Ranger Unitt’s patrol boat on the water, but did not find him aboard, KCNC reported.
The overnight search ended at approximately 3:30 a.m., when officers located and recovered the deceased ranger’s body from the water, according to the Coloradoan.
The Larimer County Coroner’s Office determined Ranger Unitt died as the result of accidental drowning.
“It is with very heavy hearts that we acknowledge the death of a Larimer County Department of Natural Resources Ranger at Horsetooth Reservoir last evening,” Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith said in a Facebook post on Friday night. “He died while on boat patrol.”
“Our County Park Rangers dedicate themselves to creating a safe environment for visitors,” Sheriff Smith wrote. “That dedication comes with risk and last night, the community was reminded of the dangers that Rangers face in fulfilling their duties.”
“Our hearts and prayers go out to the Ranger’s family and fellow DNR employees who are experiencing great loss,” the sheriff concluded.
Gerald Boese, a civilian who witnessed the search, said he was “devastated” to learn that Ranger Unitt did not survive, KCNC reported.
“I did see quite a few officers talking and hugging,” Boese told the news outlet. “Seems like it is hitting them pretty hard.”
He said that it must be difficult for Ranger Unitt’s fellow officers to continue working after suffering such an immense loss.
“He is a hero,” Boese said of the fallen ranger. “It is sad. I feel for his family…and [for] all the other rangers out here today. It must be tough for them to be out here working again after all of that. I can only imagine.”
Ranger Unitt served in the U.S. Marine Corps before joining the DNR six month ago, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
“If I had to pick one word to describe Brendan, I would say ‘selfless,’” DNR Corporal Trevor Knight told the Coloradoan. “He had a great sense of humor. He had a contagious laugh. I know that for myself, our ranger corps, his family and this community, we lost an asset.”
Ranger Unitt’s friend, Garth Nordstrom, said that the young ranger was always trying to help others.
“He had the biggest heart I’ve ever met,” Nordstrom told the Coloradoan while wiping away tears. “I’m lost for words. It’s surreal. It’s still not real to me. I’m sad for his family and his girlfriend and all the lives that he touched and made better.”
Brendan Unitt, a man from my unit who helped look out for me has passed away. When you lose someone you served with, it’s like a piece of you dies. Rest in Peace to one of the best Corporals a Lance Cooley Delgado could’ve ever known. Til Valhalla brother!! 💔 pic.twitter.com/W3zp0sNMSK
— I’m not like a regular dad (@Kewlest_Dad) August 22, 2020
*On Duty Death* CO – Rest In Peace Larimer County Department Of Natural Resources Ranger Brendan Unitt, 28, died from drowning while on boat patrol. End Of Watch: August 20, 2020 (body recovered August 21).
full details here: https://t.co/xmLr2wsLlI pic.twitter.com/0BKmyZEXPZ
— True Blue Warriors (@TruBluWarriors) August 22, 2020
GLFOP: Blessed Are The Peacemakers
Ranger Brendan Unitt
Larimer County Department of Natural Resources, Colorado
— SCFOP Lodge #31 (@scfop_31) August 22, 2020
Our thoughts and prayers are with the family of Larimer County Department of Natural Resources Ranger Brendan Unitt, both blood and blue. Thank you for your service.
Rest easy, hero. We’ll hold the line from here.