Search and Rescue
by Jim Spina
From The Tracker
magazine, Volume 4, Issue #1 - 1985
It was St. Valentine's Day, February 14, 1984, and I had set aside my
early afternoon for a much needed repair on my Land Cruiser. I had put off working on the
ignition system because the morning had been foggy and bleak and there was a threat of
rain. I was in my normal state of frustrated, citified anxiety when the phone rang and my
daughter told me that Tom Brown was on the phone. After exchanging the normal amenities
Tom asked me if I would assist him by attempting to locate a missing 32-year-old woman in
a small New England village.
"I would be able to do it myself, Jim, but I've been asked
by a police department in South Jersey to check on a set Of footprints found at
a homicide scene. Besides this, I've received two other requests. One of
these is in the Mid-West, which I'll have to ask some other students to
work on for me. I just can't possibly get to them all. "
Tom went on to explain how he had chosen me because of my relatively
close proximity to the New England area. Also, that he would have two other instructors,
Mina and Karlis, assist me on the following day.
One does not take such a request from Tom Brown lightly. I felt
honored, but overwhelmed, by the project set before me. I explained to Tom that I was
skeptical about my tracking abilities as I do not get in nearly enough "dirty
time" living in the shadow of New York City, but he expressed his faith in me and
easily dissolved my arguments with reassurance.
It was almost 2:00 p.m. when I walked out of the door and over to my
parked Land Cruiser. A solitary crow, probably a sentinel, perched high in a naked maple
tree behind my home, gave a warning call and I left with a cold chill of foreboding. This
feeling was not lessened when I started my Land Cruiser and set out, only to find that my
ignition was cutting out at speeds over 40 M.P.H. It would be a long trip with plenty of
time to mull over my situation.
Many thoughts raced through my mind as I drove north on I-95. I tried
to remember all I had been taught in the "Man Tracking" segment of Tom's course.
Tom had told me that the girl was missing since about noon on Sunday, which was over two
days before. I knew that the weather was going to be a factor as the forecast was heavy
rains that night and into the next day. The next day was when Tom said Mina and Karlis
would arrive. I would try to locate the girl if I could today but knew that the true
tracking would be done on the next day. Fortunately, the weather since Saturday had been
warm and there had been no freezes to disturb the ground or to prevent tracks from
registering. Fortunately? It would be better for me if there had been snow Sunday morning.
My mind remained a jumble of "Whys?" and "Hows?" as I nursed my way
slowly through the afternoon traffic.
I arrived at about 3:15 p.m. and as pre-arranged, I met the father of
the girl at the interstate exit. He escorted me to the house where I immediately set about
interviewing the family. The mother, a petite, middle-aged lady, explained that her
daughter had been living back home for the past few months, ever since losing most of her
money in a real estate venture in New Mexico. She described her as an intelligent woman,
32 years old, with a Master's degree in Sociology. She had an interest in art and
especially in writing. She had worked as a social case worker, a barmaid and a waitress.
Like her mother, she was a petite woman, 5'3" tall, weighing not
much over 100 pounds, thin and very attractive. She had long, dirty blond hair, and was
right handed. She was probably wearing a green knit sweater, a blue quilted down-type
vest, blue jeans, brown cowboy boots and possibly a bright red jacket with white stripes.
Her mother said she was a loner who used to take walks around their four-and-a-half acre
property and often into the large tract of woods in back, behind the pond. Her father and
brother basically agreed with the mother in the description, adding very little except
that they felt she was impetuous and could very well have gone off with friends on a whim.
The brother showed me to his sister's room where I observed that she
had been living out of suitcases for the past two months, an indication that she did not
plan to stay very long. She did not seem to have very many things of personal value and I
could envision her leaving everything behind and "just taking off" with friends.
She had left two pairs of footwear behind, one, a brand new pair of clogs which showed
little or no wear on the soles or heels; the other was a pair of leather dress boots which
indicated a peculiar and distinctive walk pattern. The sole and heel of her right show
showed heavy wear on the outside and the heel 'was extremely worn in this area. The left
shoe was the complete opposite with all the wear on the inside of both sole and heel. It
seemed that she favored her left side and stepped heavier on her right foot while walking.
After checking the woman's room for notes or anything else that could
indicate her whereabouts, I began a complete search of the house and garage. A search of
this nature has to include every area large enough to contain a person's body. Under
furniture and in boxes and crates in cellars and attics, every room and crawl space in the
house had to be checked thoroughly and systematically. The woman's father told me that he
had personally checked the house and the two outside sheds on the 41/2-acre property but I
had made up my mind to re-check everything again before beginning my tracking attempt. I
felt that this was my strongest suit and my best chance in view of my limited tracking
ability. I was reluctant to attempt tracking the woman unless all else failed. With my
search of the main buildings completed, I asked the woman's brother to show me around the
perimeter of the property so that I could confine my search to the family property first.
I didn't want to stray onto a neighbor's property and get shot for my
efforts. If it was necessary to carry the search into the adjoining properties, I would
ask the family to get permission first.
The brother seemed very personable, I could learn to like him. As we
put on our coats to leave, his topographic description of the property was interrupted by
his father. The man was visibly shaken as he approached me, and I could feel that he had
something very heavy to unburden from his mind. It was a secret he had kept from the rest
of the family and, until now, from me. In his right hand he held a brass .22 caliber spent
shell casing. With a quivering voice, on the verge of tears, he explained how he'd found
this shell by the front of an old wood shed on the north side of the property this
morning. He said that another son may have been shooting there back in December. I
couldn't help notice that the shell appeared to be shiny clean and not at all weathered.
The father said that he had checked his guns after finding the shell and thought that a
small .22 caliber rifle may have been missing. It was possible he had mislaid it but he
could not be sure. As he handed me the shell his eyes seemed to be pleading for answers
while his shaking hand betrayed his fear of the potential outcome.
As I walked down the driveway to begin my tour of the property, I could see that the
sky had become heavily overcast. Rain was on the way. It was now about 4:30 p.m. and I
knew there was only about another hour of light left. The unseasonably warm air felt heavy
with humidity and seemed ready to burst. We walked west out the driveway and began to
follow the front property line north. I could see that the grounds were heavily wooded in
areas where there was no cut lawn. The brother explained that long ago the property had
been all cleared but through the years his father had planted many trees and allowed
certain areas to grow dense and wild. The front of the property consisted of softly
rolling hillocks with a steep thirty foot drop behind the house that was not too easily
traversed except on the north side where it seemed to level out, becoming less rocky and
brushy. As we walked north along the front property line I could see that the boundary was
mostly marked by an ancient fieldstone wall. We followed this wall about halfway to the
north perimeter when we were confronted by a thick blackberry patch. There were signs of
deer and rabbits all around and I could understand why the girl liked to walk around the
property. Detouring around the blackberries, we walked out onto the large front lawn of
the house. We were about twenty yards from reentering the woods when I first saw the
missing woman's tracks. The ground was soggy and almost spongy under the lawn and I could
see the deep indentations of her cowboy-type heels in an alternate walk pattern. Feeling
into the tracks with my fingertips, I could discern her unique pressure releases, softened
but not obliterated by the soggy soil. The tracks led in a straight line, through an
opening in the brush and toward the old woodshed where the shell casing had been found by
the father. Underneath the dense brush around the woodshed there were small patches of old
snow and I could make out the tracks where her father had walked when he found the bullet
shell earlier in the day. I checked the entire woodshed inside and out, not only for the
woman, but in an attempt to locate the bullet that was fired. During my search I found
evidence of other guns being fired in the woodshed area but the spent casings and shotgun
wads were old and weathered. I was certain that a careful search of the woodshed area
would have uncovered a bullet hole to account for the .22 caliber shell but I did not have
time as darkness was fast approaching. We continued walking and could not help noticing
that we were paralleling her tracks along the north wall. At about 50 yards east of the
front wall the tracks made an abrupt right turn directly across the property. The terrain
in this area was very brushy underneath the deciduous hardwood trees behind the house. It
was about twenty feet lower than the rear yard and in places it was very muddy. I had
originally set out to get the "lay of the land," now these distinctive tracks
were drawing me like a powerful magnet. The tracks led me across the center of the
As we walked slowly onward I could sense the brother's growing skepticism about my
tracking ability, especially where the tracks grew faint or indiscernible to the eye. I
explained that, even if the tracks were not visible, they were still there under the
leaves if you knew how to look. He gave me an incredulous look and allowed me to continue
"fingering" the ground underneath the leaves. I felt like I needed reassurance
myself as I could feel numerous deer tracks mingled with the similar "cowboy
heel" of the woman's tracks. The woman had followed a well worn deer trail in a
southeasterly direction after her turn away from the north wall. The deer trail was very
obvious through the undergrowth and I could see it ahead, leading toward a marshy area to
the south of a large pond behind the property. Beyond the pond I could see the terrain
rise up into a third or fourth growth hardwood forest that appeared to be endless. I began
to feel the impending darkness and knew that I would not be able to track her as far as
the pond before nightfall.
I tracked the woman along the deer trail to a point about thirty yards before entering
the edge of the marsh. It was here that her tracks made a sharp right turn and headed back
toward the house. She had walked three quarters of a full circle around her property, a
distance of about 150 yards from where I first found her tracks. Her tracks were headed
toward the south property line and, if they continued, would pass about 30 yards south of
the house and garage.
The terrain now became slightly graded upward toward the house. She had left the deer
trail and her tracks were clear enough to see in the soft ground. As I approached the rear
of the house I could see that it had been built upon a large landfill. The garage which
was to the south and rear of the house was at the head of a steep, rocky incline about 20
feet above my level. just before I reached the base of this incline the tracks made a
sharp left to head due south. I could see the impressions of her boot soles where she had
to put her weight on the balls of her feet to negotiate under some low hanging hemlock
Beyond the tree limbs I could see the front of a faded green plywood storage shed about
40 yards away. Her tracks seemed to lead straight to the shed. I asked the brother if the
shed had been checked. He told me his father had checked it. Then he added, "This
shed was one of her favorite places on the property. She was thinking of cleaning it out
and making it into a summer house." I approached the shed, ignoring Tom's teaching;
in my haste I forgot about the tracks and walked straight to the front door. It was
secured by a strong wooden bar on the outside which was impossible to manipulate except
from the outside of the structure. The woman could not possibly have entered the shed and
secured the door behind her. Yet, as I approached, I could see her tracks here and there
in the soft soil. They seemed to lead straight to the front of the shed. The thick
undergrowth along the sides of the path leading to the front of the shed seemed to funnel
me straight to the front door. It did not seem likely the woman would have diverted to the
left or right through the thick brush on either side of the path.
As I neared the front door my curiosity would not allow me to turn back. I reached out,
almost reluctantly, and lifted the wooden doorlatch. Her brother, possibly anticipating
the worst, stood back and waited, silent and unmoving. I could feel his breathing, in the
heavy air, hushed and expectant. With the bar removed, the door swung open, almost on its
own, and I was able to see inside the shed's dark interior.
She was laying, atop a woodpile, on her left side with her head toward the door. Her
face was smooth and serene, any age or worry lines relaxed away in death. She was wearing
the same clothing described by her mother and was cradling a small toy-like rifle in her
arms. There were no signs of violence or foul play. Except for the ashen gray color of her
face, she could have been sleeping. She looked so young - too young. My mind was jolted
back to reality by the brother's presence behind me. He knew that I had found his sister
and seemed afraid to look closer. I expressed by sympathy and asked him to go back to the
house to call the police. He seemed to be in a daze as he walked back toward the house
along the trail we had just followed. I, too, would have liked to have left but there was
a mystery that seemed to cry out for a solution.
I remembered Tom Brown's words during the tracking lecture: "The answer can be
found in the last track." With these words repeating over and over in my head, I
retraced the last 40 yards of the woman's trail as she approached the shed. In following
track by track I was able to see where she had turned off the path to the shed about three
yards before reaching the front door. She had turned left, off the path, by ducking under
the lowhanging brush lining the side of the path. She then turned to the right and
approached the side of the shed. Crawling beneath the underbrush I could see a small open
window, completely hidden from the front of the shed. She had apparently climbed through
the window and shot herself while laying upon the woodpile. There were no physical signs
of a wound or any spent shell casings. I did not attempt to move the girl as the police
would do the investigation. An autopsy would determine the cause of death.
Darkness was just setting in as the first police car arrived on the scene. The officer,
a youthful patrol officer, stepped gingerly down the steep, rocky incline above the green
plywood shed. He took one look at the woman's body and asked assertively, "How did
you find her?". My statement, "I tracked her here," brought an incredulous
look on his face. "Where are your dogs?' he said, trying to re-establish control over
the interview. "I don't have any - I tracked her by myself." He courteously
passed over this statement by changing the subject. "This place was checked on
Sunday," he added. "I know," and then I quickly added, "They must have
passed over the inside of this shed because it was locked from the outside."
"Yeah, it's a shame, isn't it?" "It's always a shame," I added, then
went on to explain the circumstances leading up to my finding her body, and what I had
determined to be her route of travel. It was to be the first of many times I
answered these questions and told my story to a disbelieving police officer that night.
Much later, as I drove home, I could not help but wonder what forces caused this
beautiful, intelligent woman to kill herself. I became sure that she felt there was no one
she could turn to. I knew that there are too many people who feel alone in our crowded,
modern world. They have lost their "connection" to the Earth and the Creator.
My mind flashed back to a photograph of the woman her mother had given me.
It showed her in an outdoor setting. The worried lines on her face told me that she was
unaware of all of the wonderful things around her. The spirits in the trees, the rocks and
the Earth. The stories they could tell her. The wonders she could have explored. It is the
"Spirit That Moves Within All Things" that connects us all together. One who
understands that connection can never be alone.