NEW ORLEANS – Searchers using tracking dogs, boats and a helicopter scoured the wetlands of a south Louisiana nature preserve for a third day Monday for a university leader from Colombia who failed to return from a weekend bird-watching and photography jaunt in the swampy preserve teeming with alligators, venomous snakes and other wildlife.
Francisco Piedrahita, head of Universidad Icesi of Cali, Colombia, disappeared Saturday afternoon after being dropped off by a taxi driver near some six miles of nature trails at the Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Reserve near New Orleans. An avid birdwatcher, the 65-year-old university chief was reported missing by his driver who had waited about two hours for him to return, according to authorities.
"We have no reason to suspect foul play," said Col. John Fortunato, a Jefferson Parish sheriff's spokesman.
Piedrahita, 65, had traveled last week to Tulane University in New Orleans. He hired the taxi driver for the day and told him he would return Saturday after about 25 to 45 minutes, according to park superintendent Carol Clark.
"After two hours, the cab driver flagged down one of our National Park Service law enforcement rangers and said he hadn't come back yet," Clark said. "Shortly thereafter, we started searching."
Searchers on Monday continued the manhunt for the missing administrator. Their search lasted Saturday until about midnight and continued Sunday and Monday as search-and-rescue crews used trained dogs, all-terrain vehicles, bicycles and a helicopter.
The area where Piedrahita vanished is on about 1,000 acres of forest and swamp. It is bounded by hurricane levees and a bayou within a larger 23,000-acre tract called the Barataria Unit. That unit — one of six separate areas that make up the park — includes boardwalks through swampy areas
Fortunato said about 25 sheriff's deputies, including the department's Land Air Sea Emergency Rescue team, took part in the search. At least 20 National Park Service employees, including rangers, were also involved, while about 20 trained wilderness searchers and others were called up Monday, authorities said.
Fortunato said Piedrahita had been staying at a New Orleans hotel and a missing persons unit was checking his previous movements.
After a career in business, Piedrahita joined the university in 1996. It is a small but growing private institution that began as a business school. He had received a master's degree in industrial engineering from the University of Pittsburgh, according to the university's website, noting Piedrahita had worked previously with the Carvajal group, a major paper products company.
Piedrahita, as well as the dean of Icesi's business school and a staffer who is writing its accreditation report, had traveled from Cali for informal advice about the report, according to Tulane economics professor John Trapani. He said the two others left Saturday.
Trapani said several of Icesi's faculty members earned doctorates through a Tulane faculty development program, and the two schools have a joint degree program for business executives.
Alligators and deer are the only large wildlife native to the preserve, which also has occasional problems with feral hogs. Venomous snakes are also native to the area but authorities say the last person bitten in the area had put his hand in front of one.
Authorities said one of the man's sons arrived over the weekend and his wife was en route Monday.
Associated Press writer Vivian Sequera contributed from Bogota, Colombia along with John Rice, an editor in Mexico City.