Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A peek into Search and Rescue

Last weekend's plans, for what they were worth went out the window. I don't mind it a bit. It was actually better than the boredom that I was enduring starting on Friday afternoon.

On Saturday, my Search and Rescue team got called out to Yolo County to search for a missing 77 year old woman that was discovered missing on Thursday. She was last seen at on CA-16 after leaving Cache Creek Casino. After two full days searching in 100+ degree heat, our team members were burnt out and new crews from other teams were slated to arrive starting at 0600 on Monday. A third call went out to our team requesting members who had not previously responded. Later that night, another call went out cancelling the call, stating that the subject had been found deceased.

While not the outcome that we had hoped and worked so hard for, we had finally found her and brought some closure for the family and for the personnel that had worked so hard for the past couple of days.

One of the harder things that a searcher faces is the lack of closure that we face in some searches. A subject will go missing, either on purpose or accidentally, and we will put many, many man-hours into locating them. Clues may be found, either physical articles that the subject has left behind, such as a jacket, a food wrapper or a cigarette butt. Witnesses may come forward claiming to have seen the person at this or that location. Footprints may be found and confirmed to be matching those of our subject. The dogs may have hit a definite trail and followed it to where it disappears. The subject's profile will have already been compared to statistical information showing what they are most likely to do, what direction they are most likely to travel and the clues we have found will be compared to that to help us decide if the subject is acting "normally."

Even though we have all this information, the subject can still remain missing; their location a mystery, as though they have been plucked from the planet. The search may carry on for days, weeks. It may have to be suspended, but it will not be stopped until the subject has been located. It's these "suspended" searches that can really wear on you. Fortunately the one last weekend did not have to be indefinitely suspended. Though our subject was deceased, she was located.

You will hear about the local Sheriff's department or the coroner continuing the investigation to determine cause and time of death, but what you won't ever hear is that the SAR teams involved are still doing their investigation as well. Regardless of the outcome, maps, travel routes, terrain features, evidence locations, sightings, resource deployment and much more will all be re-evaluated. The entire search will be evaluated to determine what went right, what didn't go so well, what we could have done better. We will learn what we can from the information that we have collected so we can hopefully do a better job the next time.

One thing that many people don't realize is that as a member of a SAR team, while we are out on a search, you may actually have more information about the case as a whole than we do. That is to prevent us from forming theories about where the subject is or where they were most likely going. If we do that, then we may not focus on our particular search assignment. If a searcher's assignment is in a low priority area heading away from the last known direction of travel and they're 14 hours into a search, their mind may not be fully focused on what they're doing if they've been convinced that the subject was last seen three miles behind them heading in the opposite direction. Fatigue, both mental and physical will come in to play. They won't be as inclined to climb up that steep embankment and dig through the poison oak. It would be much easier to circumnavigate the thicket and try to look into it. After all, the subject is miles away from here. The better option is to give the searchers their assignment and the information that pertains to completing that assignment. That way they can focus directly on their job at hand and not have to filter out all the unnecessary and distracting information.

Also, we are generally not privy to any information about the case after our assignments have been completed and we are released from the scene. The information that we get is usually from the same sources as the rest of the world. We watch the news and read the papers. If any of us find anything, we usually email the entire team to share what we find.

One case that has been bothering me and has constantly been in the back of my mind is a high-profile case that made the news several times last year. The subject's name is Nina Reiser. She went missing after dropping her children off at her estranged husband's house and was not heard from since. Several pieces of evidence were found to indicate foul-play and her husband Hans Reiser was convicted of first degree murder even though her body had not been found. We had spent several days at different times searching the Oakland hills for evidence that may show us where she could have been buried, but continued to come up empty handed.

I ran across this news report today while searching for information about last weekend's search:


This helps bring a lot of thoughts to an end, suspicions confirmed and denied. I emailed the link to the team not that long ago. I already have had people respond back to me with a "thank you, I've been thinking about that search for a while now, wondering if they ever found anything more." I know that I'm not alone in these thoughts and concerns.

Now that little part in the back of my mind can rest, knowing that Nina's not lost any more.

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