About Coconino County

About Coconino County

Encompassing 18,661 square miles, Coconino County, Arizona, is the second largest county in the U.S. but one of the least populated. Our county includes Grand Canyon National Park, the Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai and Hopi Indian Reservations, and the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world. Elevations range from 2,000 feet above sea level along the Colorado River to 12,633 feet at the summit of Mt. Humphreys in Flagstaff.

April 21, 2008

The Boy Who Ran

I returned from the SAR conference on Sunday, April 20th at 4pm, tired but excited about all that I'd learned, both the new skills and others that were reinforced. And now, less than twelve hours later, I have a chance to put some of those skills to use.

At 3am this morning, my pager sang its little song. As usual, I went from sleeping to vertical in a split second, pulling on my fleece-lined tights, hiking shoes, thermal top, fleece jacket and winter coat. Minutes later, I was driving across town to the SAR building. It may be spring, and the days are often in the sixties now, but nights are still sub-freezing. In this arid climate, the difference between night and daytime temperatures can often be as much as sixty degrees. So what you might wear mid-afternoon would be very inadequate at night and in the early morning hours.

The 17 year-old boy we're now looking for was certainly under dressed for the conditions when he and a friend took off running at 10pm last night, as a Sheriff's deputy approached to check out their vehicle. The boys were parked along a Forest Service road in an unusual spot, the deputy said, and he drove up to investigate without flashing lights. Before he'd stopped his patrol car, however, the two teenagers emerged from the vehicle and ran into the forest. The deputy did not pursue them.

Soon, the young driver returned to the car and was found to be the registered owner. But his friend, for whom he gave a false name to the deputy, did not come back. Instead, he disappeared into the cold night wearing just shorts, a sweatshirt and tennis shoes. Jay (name changed) is not from or familiar with this area, where he's visiting his aunt and uncle who live south of Flagstaff in Mountainaire. The deputy told us he found a bong and marijuana grinder on the ground not far from the car, and the one boy who returned admitted they'd been smoking pot and doing some other drug as well. Jay is currently on probation, which certainly has a lot to do with why he ran when he saw the deputy's car. The friend apparently was released and went to the house of Jay's aunt and uncle and, at about 2am, he decided to wake them and tell them what had happened. As I understand it, they then called the Sheriff, and that's how the deputy found out who it is that's missing, since the friend had given him the false name earlier. The original deputy and others who were called to assist have been searching for the boy since soon after he disappeared, patrolling roads and walking in the immediate area near where the teenagers had been parked. It is now 4:30am, and three of us SAR volunteers and Cassie, our K-9 assistant, have arrived at the scene.

Cassie smells the scent article, a pair of Jay's jeans provided by the uncle, and is off like a shot with her handler, Al, in tow at the end of her 30-foot lead, and myself and Scott B. close behind. At first, Cassie is definitely on the scent as we depart from where the boys ran off. Cassie heads towards a concrete tunnel under the highway, filled with a foot of standing water, then north along the barbed wire fence just below I-17. We hear the occasional semi pass by above as we follow Cassie, searching for clues and prints as we go while keeping up with the dog. Soon, Cassie begins casting side-to-side;she's unsure of the track now and is easily distracted, not to mention clearly frustrated. The strong winds have dispersed the scent and made it difficult for her pick up. Eventually, she's lost the track altogether, and we return to the beginning to give it another try.

Now Cassie goes right back to the tunnel. Instead of passing it by this time, however, she gets very excited and wants to actually go into the water and under the highway. But Al holds her back and we look through as we did before. We still don't see anything. It's daylight now, but we shine our lights in just to be sure. From above the tunnel, I look down at the standing water at the entrance and see no disturbance in the mud or rocks. We decide to climb the steep bank, cross the divided highway and check the other side.

We know the deputy had called for backups when the boys ran, and some had arrived up on I-17, above the tunnel, just minutes later. As we reach the highway, we see the deputies' footprints along the side of the road. None were made by sneakers, of that we're certain. But there's not much chance that Jay went up and over with the flashing blue lights visible from below, and Cassie appears to confirm that as we climb the embankment and she doesn't pick up on anything.

On the other side of the highway, there is no disturbance in the algae on the standing water as it emerges from the tunnel, and Cassie is not detecting anything with her nose. Al takes her in a big circle to be sure. Nothing. As the DPS helicopter also circles, we decide that Jay did not cross the highway, at least not here, and we return to the other side. There's much more traffic now, so crossing is trickier.

Jay's mother and step-father have arrived, as well as the aunt and uncle, so there are quite a few people standing around. Another SAR call-out eventually produces four more volunteers, and we give them a run-down of what we know and what we've done. Cassie is now in the truck--a ground-scent dog is not going to be effective on this search, since the wind has made it impossible for her to follow the track--and we'll continue the search without her. She did the best she could.

Now we split up. Scott drives one of the SAR vehicles, while Dave and Howard go up to the highway and soon are following some prints along the edge of the road, heading south. We don't know what type of sneakers Jay was wearing, so we can't be sure if we're seeing his tracks. Val, Oly and myself walk north, paralleling the Forest Service road as we search the woods and open areas between it and I-17. I show them where Cassie had stopped earlier on her first attempt, having definitely lost any scent at that point, and we continue in that direction.

And, as it turns out, the three of us were going the right way. We hear on our radios that a deputy or police officer has located Jay near Flagstaff's airport, not all that far from our current location. He doesn't say "Code 4," but I'm assuming the boy is okay for lack of any other information. All SAR volunteers start heading back to base.

As we slowly drive away to return to the SAR building, we see Jay get out of a patrol car and approach his waiting family members, which now includes his father. We know the father works for the Department of Corrections in a different city, because he'd offered to have more dogs brought in from his department--the kind that air-scent, which is what we would have needed to have any chance in this wind. We also know that Jay lives with his mother and step-father. And as we drive past them, we see a tall, red-faced boy who looks like he's angry and on the verge of tears, jump back as his father lunges at him. A deputy grabs the father before he can strike Jay, and we drive off, leaving the family drama behind. The boy may have gotten himself into trouble again, but at this moment, I can't help but feel badly for him. At least Dad could have started off with a hug.

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