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HomeSearch and Rescue

Tracking Assignment

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 property.

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 boughs.

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.