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Search for missing California hiker suspended after experienced rescue volunteer dies

Timothy Staples, 32, was a 9-year veteran of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department's search and rescue team.

The search for a missing Southern California hiker has been suspended after a rescue volunteer died Saturday, authorities say.

Timothy Staples, 32, was a nine-year veteran of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s search-and-rescue team and part of the 126 people looking for hiker Sreenivas “Sree” Mokkapati near Mount Baldy in the San Gabriel Mountains.

The department said in a statement that Staples was separated from his partner Saturday afternoon when a helicopter spotted him unresponsive in an area with ice and snow.

A medic lowered to Staples found the volunteer dead, and his body was transported from the wilderness, the sheriff’s department said.

Investigators were still determining what exactly happened, but the sheriff’s department said all remaining search teams were called back as they reevaluate the larger rescue effort.

“Tim is a hero and unfortunately paid the ultimate sacrifice so others may live,” Mike Leum, also a volunteer with the search-and-rescue team, told KNBC-TV.

Staples was a newly married social science and English teacher at nearby Damien High School in La Verne. He also coached cross country and track and field and “was a favorite teacher among his students,” the school said.

Mokkapati, 52, of Irvine, was separated from a group of hikers Dec. 8 and has not been seen since.

This undated photo shows Sreenivas "Sree" Mokkapati, who went missing while hiking Mt. Baldy with a group of people on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019.

The area is popular for hiking but can be dangerous in the winter with snow and ice.

Mokkapati is an experienced hiker, his family said, and he continued on alone after his group decided to turn around more than a week ago.

“We hope to find him soon, and we’re praying that he comes back home safely and sound,” son Shravan Mokkapati told CBS News.

Shravan Mokkapati also said his family is grieving the loss of Staples.

“I am personally so sorry for this family that has to go through this,” he told KNBC-TV. “I didn’t expect it to pan out a tragic ending for one of the volunteers we do dearly respect.”

Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller

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