September 12, 2016 04:18PM
By Nancy Burns-Fusaro
Sun staff writer
WESTERLY — Ellen and Michael Stefanski had their share of losses last month, but following a visit from Keith Wille and his XP Deus, a little something meaningful was found.
The Stefanskis, who grew up in the Westerly-Stonington area and now live in San Diego, had come back home for the funeral of Michael’s brother, Louis, a Stonington High School hall of famer and popular athlete who died unexpectedly in August at the age of 55. On their somber visit, they also lost a symbol of their love in the waters off the Westerly Town Beach.
That was after the funeral, and after the Stefanskis — who have been married for nearly 30 years — drove down Liberty Street in Pawcatuck to see an empty space instead of the church where they were married in November 1986.
They remembered that St. Michael’s was slated for a renovation, but seeing the empty lot, they said, added to their grief.
Then, days later, despite Ellen’s reservations, Michael hopped on an old 10-speed bike and pedaled to Westerly Town Beach to meet his niece Kaitlyn. He was registered for a charity swim back in San Diego and was determined to keep up with his training.
He wasn’t 50 yards out, he recalled, when he had a “sinking feeling.”
His wedding ring had slipped off his finger and disappeared in the ocean below.
No ordinary ring, Michael’s wedding ring once belonged to his father, the late John Stefanski, and had been in the family for generations, Michael said.
When they were married, they used the same ring, inscribing their initials and wedding date, said Ellen, a 1969 Westerly High School graduate who changed her last name from Barton to Stefanski when she married Michael.
Initially, Michael, a 1976 Stonington graduate, thought he could dive down and find the ring.
For the next 45 minutes, he swam back and forth, “hoping and praying I might spot the ring or a reflection off the ring from the sun,” without success.
He got back on his bike and began the long ride back to town, dreading having to share the news with his wife.
“I couldn’t stop thinking about how the ring had now been in the family for a couple generations and that I was the one to lose it,” Michael recalled, “not to mention how my wife would react ... the ring was not only the representation of our love for one another but also part of our family history.”
“We were both heartbroken at the loss,” said Ellen. “There was a huge amount of sentimental value attached to the ring — something so very special that could never be replaced.”
But when Michael sat down at the computer and Googled “waterproof metal detector rentals,” he came across a web site called theringfinders.com and a man named Keith Wille, and his hope came alive.
The Ring Finders Directory, a group of metal-detection enthusiasts with members in most of the United States, and more than 20 countries, is dedicated to finding lost items at little or no cost. Wille, a Groton resident and a member since he first found out about the organization, has had excellent luck finding lost items and returning them to their owners. He works on a reward basis and accepts what his clients believe his services are worth. Occasionally he has to charge for extraordinary travel or equipment expenses, like the rental of scuba equipment or ferry or plane tickets.
“I’d never heard of anybody doing this type of work,” said Michael, pleased to see that Wille was “fairly local.”
“I read his blog and suddenly got the feeling that there might be some hope,” said Michael, who contacted Wille immediately via email.
“Keith responded very quickly and also conveyed his sympathy for our losses ... of my brother Lou and the wedding ring,” said Michael, “and he assured me that he has had success retrieving rings in water.”
Because Michael had to return to San Diego, Wille agreed to meet the Stefanskis at the beach on the morning before Michael’s flight.
“We didn’t hold out much hope,” added Ellen, “but couldn’t pass up a chance to at least try.”
Once the Stefanskis met Wille in person, their confidence grew.
Wille, said Michael, was “clean-cut, professional, in good shape, and military looking.”
A survival training instructor and leadership development expert, Wille, 29, trains military personnel and pilots in New London. He has been interested in finding lost items since he was a young teenager and heard stories about the 19th-century silver dollars lost behind the walls of his grandparents’ house. He eventually found that roll of coins using a 10-foot curtain rod with a large spoon taped to the end. His detective work led him to metal detectors which eventually led him to connect with the Ring Finders.
Today he owns an XP Deus wireless metal detector and when people find him, he does his best to recover whatever the lost item may be, which means, mostly rings.
He says he searches for lost items mostly for the satisfaction of the reunion.
“Sometimes all people have is a token to remind them of the best parts of their lives,” he said, “those memories do not belong lost in the ocean.”
The stories attached to these rings mean the world to the bearer and if spending a couple of cold and tired hours in the ocean is what I have to do to return that token to them, then sign me up,” he said.
Back at Westerly Town Beach, the Stefanskis met Wille and Michael showed him where he lost the ring before Ellen drove him to Warwick for his flight to San Diego. On the drive, Michael and Ellen, who had planned to stay behind for a few more days, talked about their meeting with Wille and agreed they had faith in him.
Not long after Michael checked his bags and made his way through security, he heard his phone ping with a text message alert. It was from Wille. He looked down to see a picture of his lost ring. Wille also sent the text to Ellen who was driving back to Westerly.
After seeing the text she drove straight to the beach to meet Wille and get the ring.
“Needless to say we were thrilled beyond words,” said Ellen.
“Keith took our loss to heart,” said Michael.
“Returning a ring to someone who thought they would never see it again is priceless,” said Wille, who married his wife, Allie, last Christmas Day. “Especially seeing the happy tears in their eyes or hearing the crack in their voice upon returning it to their finger. It hurts me to know that a person was in pain while their ring was lost, but after it’s returned the emotional celebration is overwhelming to watch.”