Utah County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue recovered the bodies of two teenage girls Thursday afternoon, who had vanished after swimming at Utah Lake on May 6.
According to multiple sources, the bodies of 18-year-old Priscilla Bienkowski and 17-year-old Sophia Hernandez were discovered by search and rescue crews early Thursday afternoon.
Bienkowski and Hernandez were initially reported missing the afternoon of May 6, after a fisherman answered one of the girl’s phones sitting on the shore. The mother of one of the girls was calling her daughter after not hearing from her for some time.
Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith held a press conference at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Lincoln Beach Marina to discuss further details about the case.
During the press conference, Smith said that a fisherman discovered the body of one of the girls “nearly” on the shore of Lincoln Beach at 1:45 p.m. Almost three hours later, the second body was discovered by a search and rescue plane flying over the lake near Goshen Bay.
The second body was discovered a half of a mile north of where the first tube was discovered, about 8.5 miles from where the girls got into the water.
“One of the most important things that I want to say tonight is, on behalf of the Sheriff’s Office and all of the volunteers and everybody that has helped through this, is express our sincerest condolences to the families of these girls,” Smith said. “This has been hard on everybody involved. I want to thank the families for their patience with us. I can’t imagine and never want to imagine what they’re going through.”
Utah County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Sergeant Justin Gordon said the hardest part of the search was battling the weather; however, the outcome of the search has left many of the individuals who searched the lake scratching their heads.
Gordon said crews were working the areas where the girls’ bodies should have been, but the pair were discovered 6 miles east of the area officials were focusing on.
Utah Lake is a dynamic lake with a significant influence when hit with wind, Utah State Parks Clean Vessel Act Grant Coordinator Ty Hunter said. The lake is about 96,000 surface acres but very shallow compared to others like it. The shallow nature of the lake can indirectly cause it to be more dangerous, he said.
“There is a large amount of complacency with the depth of this lake with those that may visit here,” Hunter said. “Even with the shallowness, this lake can turn from flat glass to extreme conditions that are out there in just a moment’s notice.”
The two girls were confirmed to have not been wearing life jackets at the time of their disappearance. Hunter said if the girls had been wearing a life jacket, the outcome of their trip to the lake could have been different.
When Utah County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrived on scene the day the girls went missing, they discovered the girls’ personal belongings and one of the girl’s abandoned vehicle, Sgt. Spencer Cannon said.
The girls were suspected to have gotten into the water near the Knolls before 3 p.m. on May 6.
During the initial search, deputies discovered two pool tubes the girls were suspected to have been using 3.3 miles from each other in the reeds that line the shore of Utah Lake. The two tubes were found 5.2 and 8.5 miles south of where the girls were suspected to have been found.
After the girls’ disappearance, a heavy windstorm hit the area, creating large waves that trapped kayakers on the lake, he said. That night, wind speeds reached upward of 40 mph from north to south.
When authorities continued the search the next morning, water temperatures had reached 57 degrees, and the water remained choppy.
Since their disappearance, around 60 individuals from several law enforcement agencies have worked 60-80 hours each to locate the missing teens, including search and rescue volunteers, Utah County deputies, Department of Public Safety staff, Utah State Parks staff, and deputies from Wasatch, Weber, Summit and Sanpete counties.
Four helicopters and two airplanes were used to search the area from the air, while authorities also used 10 boats, side-scan sonar, and 12 wave runners to search from the water, Cannon said.
Authorities reduced their search efforts on Utah Lake on Sunday to pursue other avenues.
“If the girls are in the water, this is a recovery operation, not a rescue operation,” Cannon said in a previous interview. “If they’re in water, there is no chance that they’re alive.”
During their investigation, officials were able to obtain surveillance footage of Hernandez purchasing items from a Saratoga Springs Walmart before 3 p.m. the day she disappeared. Additionally, deputies had video of Hernandez parking her car to get into Bienkowski’s vehicle.
The girls had also been traveling to the Knolls at Utah Lake on several occasions prior their disappearance, according to social media posts, Cannon said.